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Botanical illustration is becoming endangered (washingtonpost.com)
132 points by vo2maxer on Jan 31, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

I think there is something important that we lose when we increase the accuracy of a representation at the expense of the elegance of the representation. Illustrations to photographs is a great example here, but another one is in maps.

I don't know if anyone here ever used this, but there used to be a system called LineDrive [1] that would give you "napkin" directions instead of overlaying the directions on a map. It used to be on Microsoft's MapPoint but apparently decomissioned [2].

This was most useful in the time when you would print out directions instead of getting them dynamically, but I feel like there's still a place for it -- I don't need to necessarily know the details of every twist and turn in the road so much as a schematic overview, even when getting turn-by-turn directions. It would be great to see this revived in some way, because I think the representative maps are much more clear for most use cases.

[1] http://vis.berkeley.edu/papers/rtmaps/

[2] https://somethingaboutmaps.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/remember...

> I think there is something important that we lose when we increase the accuracy of a representation at the expense of the elegance of the representation.

But that's not what's happening.

Botanical art is still highly valued in the botany field because field conditions often do not allow a completely accurate replication of a specimen via a camera lens. In many cases, the only way to properly represent the plant in question, to a colour-accurate, detail-accurate degree, is by a drawing. Source: My mother is a highly qualified botanical artist and a member of the SBA.

Yes, still valued, but isn't the shift what the linked article is about? "Botanical illustrators like Tangerini are rare and becoming as endangered as some of the plants they draw."

It's not about being valued, they're literally indispensible for the documentation of plants, there are no alternatives that match the quality of the documentation that they produce.

As for them being rare, part of that is due to education and the infrastructure around it. When my mother was growing up botanical illustration or scientific illustration was not listed as even a potential career choice, and she wasn't allowed to take art and science at the same time as "that wouldn't be realistic". Obviously things have changed since then but given that so few artists even recognise it as a career choice has an impact on the number of people who decide to go down that path.

It's like how the UK is running out of high quality vellum, used for legal paper and archiving, because nobody realises it's a viable career choice for them to do. There's literally a free, funded apprenticeship to do it, because they need people to do this job.

My local university had these old books that contained maps of the area, going back to the 1800s. One of my favorite parts of them wasn't even the maps, but the intricate calligraphy and lettering, big brazen impact hand lettered fonts. That kind of thing doesn't exist in the modern flat and minimalist design style.

You might appreciate the work of this artist / mapmaker:


I'm sure there are (a few) others like him, but I listened to an interview recently where he talked about completing his map of north america.

What illustrations do is focus on the highest information details (e.g. the shape of the leaves) and de-focus the lowest information details (the leaf is probably green, you don’t need to color that in). That way if you’re trying to see what’s unique about the leaf, the illustration is much better.

How far away are car windows with baked-in AR? Highlighting the mapped route ahead of the driver by inserting a sequence of semitransparent arrows will render any non-AR map style obsolete for in-car use by drivers.

Oh I used to like that one where it looked like a pencil sketch will the main arteries and intersections and roads you had to turn in to.

One thing it was missing was landmarks i think.

> I don't need to necessarily know the details of every twist and turn in the road so much as a schematic overview, even when getting turn-by-turn directions

Some cities' street layout aren't so neat that turn-by-turn directions suffice. I often need to zoom-in to distinguish different turns by looking at such details like the curvatures of the streets and their relative placement. Even with the detailed map, I can make a mistake between similar-looking turns.

Abstractions and Generalizations are useful. Principal Components analysis is useful. Dimensionality reduction is useful. Models are useful. In the last, we had to do these things because our imaging technology storage media couldn't hold full reproductions. Now we have better imaging tech and storage media, so we need to consciously remember to do the dimensionality reduction modelling that we took for granted in the past.

I understand that illustrations can be powerful and valuable.

I also understand from this article that nobody is willing to pay for this person's replacement, and the current freelancer quoted cannot even find it in themselves to motivate others to do this kind of work.

Are these folks becoming endangered, or are there many people available but nobody to pay a living wage? Maybe this article does something to encourage funding these positions?


> "The prospect of being among the last of her kind is one of the reasons that Tangerini, who could have retired some time ago, is still here."

If the Smithsonian was willing to replace her, I'd imagine that she's actually blocking the future of the career field, rather than helping it. My supposition is that they are not planning on hiring another full-timer.

> are there many people available but nobody to pay

This. I personally would not have any problem doing a job like that.

Placing this on employers though is silly. The real problem is that there’s not enough people willing to pay for the product, not enough demand for it. I own a lot of cook books, I’ve seen plenty with wonderful illustrations. They are beautiful, but I’d never buy one, because they’re simply much less useful. A cook book with good pictures will help me with what I’m actually trying to do, which is learn how to cook new things.

Well, all I can say to that is that taxonomy is a little more complicated than cooking

You’re saying it requires an even greater level of photographic detail? If there was demand for this product in the market, then the profession wouldn’t be “endangered” (which is also a silly way of describing it, you can train a person to be a botanical illustrator. You can’t train a dog to be a panda).

No you’re completely missing the point. In cooking photos may be more useful than illustrations, but in botany it’s illustrations that are more useful. Therefore it’s on people that want illustrations to find talent not talent’s job to somehow know exactly what skills are required.

To use a related example, Walt Disney created a collage specifically to teach the skills he wanted animators to have. We don’t think in those terms, but complaining about a lack of qualified people just means you’re unwilling to train people.

I think you seem to be missing the point. Disney needed more artists than the market had in supply. Institutions dealing with botany have more illustrators than they need.

> Bobbi Angell, a botanical artist in Brattleboro, Vt., explains the shift: Floras are not commissioned as they once were; they are laborious and expensive undertakings, botanists retire and are not replaced, and much of plant taxonomy has shifted to the molecular level.

> “I get calls from young, aspiring artists, and it’s kind of hard to encourage them,” said Angell

The market clearly has a greatly diminished demand for these skills. It has nothing to do with unscrupulous employers, or lack of training. People just stopped buying what they were selling.

I am not saying they currently need more artists.

I am saying people don’t currently think in terms of a training pipeline. We have the idea that it’s up to employees to train themselves before getting the job. Thus potential illustrators contacting her and the expectation she should encourage them.

PS: As to the school, students need to pay to attend cal arts. It’s a clever cost saving means not an internal training program. They saved money even if none of the graduates worked for Disney it still increases supply.

I’m really not at all sure about what your point is supposed to be. The reason the profession is dying has nothing to do with training. It is entirely down to the fact that people stopped buying these products.

> We have the idea that it’s up to employees to train themselves before getting the job

Regardless of who does the training, it is most certainly up to the individual to acquire their own marketable skills if they wish to go out and market them. As long as there’s demand for those skills, there’ll be people willing to train in them. Employers may wish to initiate their own training programs, but they’ll only ever do that if they have a demand for labor that’s met with a shortage of supply. This is already commonplace in industries commonly that have apprenticeships or internships. But what are you expecting? Museums to start hiring apprentice botanical illustrators, so that when they’re properly trained they can look forward to having to transition into a different field because nobody has any demand for their newly learnt skills?

If you like botanical illustrations you’ll love the work of Ernst Häckel, a Professor of botany from Germany who was also a great artist (in my opinion) and who produced an incredible amount of astonishingly beautiful illustrations. I recently gave a book with a collection of them to my wife as a gift and we spent hours just marveling at the drawings as well as copying some of them. Here’s the (non-affiliate) link if you’re interested:


Many (all?) of Häckel's illustrations are on Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Ernst_Haeckel

This is one of the problems. There is an extensive collection of copyright free and really fine work, available and dated in thousands of years ago. Spain had some of the finest botanical illustrators in the planet, their drawings are still around. Often very outdated taxonomically but flawless in artistic terms.

For an editor trying to sell a coffe table book is just a matter of choose among this drawings and print them for free. No need to pay anybody for that. Outdated classification does not matter when the goal is just to create a beautiful and appealing book.

If anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area is interested in learning botanical illustration, Filoli Gardens offers courses in it: https://filoli.org/classes/botanical-art-classes/

The article mentions that illustration is a lot better than photography but doesn't mention any specifics. Does anyone have insight as to why this is?

It’s the same reason there are $100 million paintings but not $100 million photographs.

Painting is not copying. Painting is seeing and then making marks on the page that will make others see.

It is editorial in a way photography isn’t.

I don't think that this is the reason.

Photographs are inherently multiple; a single print might be all that exists, but the artist is at least able to make more.

Comparing photographs and prints, Picasso's "La Femme Qui Pleure I" sold for $5.1M[0], while the most paid for a photograph appears to be $4.3M, for Rhein II by Andreas Gursky[1].

I conclude from this that it's the singularity of paintings, rather than their editorial and subjective quality, that is responsible for the difference in price.

[0]: https://www.christies.com/features/saleroom-picasso-la-femme...

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_expensive_photogr...

Paintings can be reproduced, both manually and automatically. Prints used to be easy to spot because of color quality and because they were perfectly flat, but that has become a lot harder with the advent of 3D printers that can layer ink and even craquelure (visually). See for example https://shop.ariustechnology.com/collections/all-products.

I think it’s more a matter of ‘snobbiness’ that determines prices that get paid.

You speak-write with such certainty that I'm sure you have an argument in your mind, but it didn't come across. I feel like some sentences were erased from your comment.

Supply and Demand. A valuable photo has higher supply so each copy is worth less. A valuable concrete illustration has supply of 1, even if the artist has cranked out many similar works.

I agree with the 'editorial' aspect of this comment.

The illustrator is able to draw the defining characteristics of the plant/subject and leave out what is not important. Things like veins or leaf structure to define the genus are incredibly important.

The editorial nature can bring that forward. With a picture, it is hard for a lay person to tell what details are classifying/important.

The fundamental reason is that photography is based on a single individual specimen, whereas illustration can be based on hundreds or thousands of specimens. Thus, the illustrator can draw attention to the defining characteristics and ignore the "noise".

> The article mentions that illustration is a lot better than photography

Photography is just not enough. Botanical illustration puts all required details, and only those, together in the same place.

1-Can show all the plants in the same family in the same figure.

2-Can link features that never appear at the same time (like winter buds, fall fruits, summer flowers and associated fauna and funghia),

3-Can play with the scale showing features of much different sizes at similar scale (i.e tricolpate pollen, the shape of the aperture in anthers, and silhouette of the whole tree).

4-Will show the required details, but not more. A photo will show five plants mixed in the same picture so is often very confuse for an untrained eye to understand "what" is from "who". Photos lead often to "frankenplants" and it takes a lot of experience to disclose it, and this is a problem [1].

5-Will be uniform in design. Not distracting light or cropped leaves in photos. Not backgrounds that vary among figures.

6-Will take care of correct hues and color variations. Cheap caperas distroy red hues for example. Subtle variations are notoriously difficult to reproduce. Colors will be oversaturated and will change a lot when taken in different hours of the day. Similar species will appear darker and its mimic will appear lighter. In the end you have a very confuse picture.

[1] This can seem just pedantry until you realize that your children are looking at a photo showing the fruits of an edible species, tagged as "delicious as raw berries and green parts can be used in salads" but mixed with leaves of a second species growing in the background that is poisonous (and there is not a single warn about it at sight). Internet is full of those mistakes.

Wikipedia blurb that has no citation but makes sense:

"The development of photographic plates has not made illustration obsolete, despite the improvements in reproducing photographs in printed materials. A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens, and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included around the margins around the image."

> A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens

This is a real advantage of illustration, assuming the illustrator has put in their research.

> and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included around the margins around the image.

This is spurious; photos of the face and reverse of a leaf are no different from illustrations of the face and reverse of a leaf in terms of what it's possible to include in an image, and obviously the same goes for marginalia. You can composite multiple photos on one page just as easily as you can draw multiple things on one page.

Illustration, by its nature, has the ability to schematize and make diagrammatic our experience of the world on multiple, concurrent levels, in an image or set of images. Using it, you can essentially overlay information about what we understand about a given object not present in a photograph of a said object.

The most obvious example that comes to mind for botanical illustration is the use of cross sections to display the various structures and mechanisms of a plant in a way that is readily interpretable.

I sometimes want to find out what species a spider or plant is when I am hiking. Generally I find it easier to identify from an illustration than photos. It seems the illustration emphasizes the main points whereas photos aren’t as clear.

You have to understand how something works to be able to depict it properly in an illustration. Understanding is the key to explain anything to other people. An illustrated cross section can teach the complexity of natural or engineered objects in a way that photography just can't.

The opposite is true; understanding how something works usually interferes with your ability to draw it accurately. People want to draw the truth they know rather than the image they see.

And contrast idiot savants who are able to draw images perfectly, while no one believes they need to understand how whatever they're drawing works.

That started as a good counterpoint. But you need to understand how something works to be able to draw a cross-section from scratch. It represents a truth that is not otherwise visible. Even to draw a basic diagram, you must understand what is at stake. What an idiot savant draws or paints, no matter how realistic, is a very different job.

A good botanical illustrations shows all the key features of the plant needed for identification, without the visual noise of a photo.

A photo will accurately show a specific plant. A botanical illustration can show the archetypical plant.

My favorite elective in college was Botanical Illustration. I was quite terrible at it, but it was calming while still being incredibly technical.

Been following this account for a few years and do love it very much https://mobile.twitter.com/pomological

This is a beautiful book we had bought to give as a present when my nephews (or maybe an eventual son/daughter) are older, but ended up keeping for ourselves.


"The map is not the territory" is a well-worn metaphor that's not really about maps anymore -- but in that book some features (cultural, architectural, physical, etc.) are given such prominence at the expense of realism that you understand much more than you would by looking at methodical cartography.

Minneapolis has a school of botanical art, http://www.minnesotaschoolofbotanicalart.com, here are some nice examples: http://www.minnesotaschoolofbotanicalart.com/photos/photos-3... It’s hard to tell if it’s trending/thriving here (my wife’s been taking classes so I hear a lot about it) but at least it doesn’t seem too endangered here.

If you would like a beautifully illustrated and generally fantastic guide to the wild flowers of the UK (and northern Europe I guess) then get this, illustrated by the late Marjorie Blamey: https://www.amazon.com/Cassells-Flowers-Britain-Northern-Eur...

Back in the day the ability to render an insect or plant in an elegant and expressive manner was a real skill people with an initial were taught, or self taught these skills - llok at the old bird and plant books from those days. Now we have photoshopped digital pix, we have gained as well as lost...

There's an edX course about scientific illustration that looks interesting: https://www.edx.org/course/drawing-nature-science-and-cultur...

You need to follow "old fruit pictures" (@pomological): https://twitter.com/pomological?s=09

Omg, this is so ripe for hacking with a combination of opencv plus some knowledge in topology.

E.g. make a video of a plant, then make a model out of it and then unwrap the model depicting the most interesting features.

> and then unwrap the model depicting the most interesting features.

That part will be hard.

Photography and microscopy have sure taken off though

How is this better than photography? Surely it's easier to zoom in on a picture to see it's characteristics.

This is concerning: "her gaze is on plants, dried specimens of dead plants, up close, and closer, under a microscope. Sometimes she hydrates stems and flower parts, coaxing zombie life into them."

How does she know which parts of the plant to hydrate? What if it doesn't actually look like that in real life?

>How is this better than photography?

I can think of some ways:

- a photo can have too many details

- a drawing does not have a focal point so it can be sharper

- a drawing can accentuate some important features, like caricatures are easy to recognize then pictures

My conclusion is you can have both pictures and illustrations , use them in combination or the best tool for the job

You can edit a photograph to serve these purposes. You don't have to use a photo exactly as it is returned from the camera.


You would be hard pressed to find a single photograph that captures this much individual information about what the various parts and stages of a dandelion look like. Even to find the leaf shape captured correctly is hard for a photograph. I think in this case there's a difference between what is photorealistic and what is useful information for identification.

Very good answer. The botanical illustrator is taught how to demonstrate specific features of different taxonomies in a way that's natural and visually pleasing but conveys three dimensions of information, tactility, color, and biological characteristics (for example, do branches grow opposite one another or in a spiral up the stem, what is the texture under the leaf as well as above it, what does a bud look like, what does a live flower look like, what animals use this as a host plant and how, etc) that would be extremely difficult to photograph well.

It is often the case that the details that are important to human perception are different than physical properties alone. An illustration abstracts away superfluous details and exaggerates others in subtle ways. Think of them like a diagram.

You could edit the photographs to highlight the features you want to showcase.

Is possible, but take in mind that you would need 20 photographs for each species.

> How does she know which parts of the plant to hydrate

Because she is a professional trained in botany

Plants that are alive are generally hydrated...

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