Botany for the Artist


A Conversation with Sarah Simblet Illustrator and Author of Botany for the Artist

Sarah Simblet
In the introduction to Botany for the Artist you wrote, “There is something in the physical act of drawing, the coordination of the hand and eye, and the translation of sensory experience into marks and lines that reveals an entirely new way of seeing.” Can you elaborate on what you meant by this?

The act of drawing teaches us how to see something. A casual glance takes a snapshot, but a careful examination tells us so much more. With a pencil in our hand to trace this act, it stays in our memory.

What was the inspiration for Botany for the Artist? Do you have a passion for gardening?

I have loved gardening since I was little and used to follow my mother’s gardener around, plaguing him with questions. Cyril was a tall, gentle and very thin man, who’d stoop down to peer at me over a long warty nose. The sort of thing you try ever so hard not to ask about when you’re six. He did curious things, and didn’t seem to mind me flitting along behind, so long as I kept a good look out for weeds. I have a vivid memory of him staggering up and down the vegetable garden with a rope slung round his shoulders, having tied both ends to an oak beam. He was leveling the soil before we planted it out with seed.

I now garden on a city roof, which you reach by climbing through a window. I’ve built a wild flower meadow that I suppose is full of Cyril’s ‘weeds’. Fritillaries, and Snowdrops are my favorites, nodding their heads in Spring under the hammock that is slung from wall to wall. A colony of small bees have recently moved in under a sward of moss, and the whole den is surrounded by increasingly knotted reams of white Wisteria, Passionflowers, and a yellow Banksia rose, that all help to shield the view, and corral my much loved—if unruly—treasury of plants. xamination tells us so much more. With a pencil in our hand to trace this act, it stays in our memory.

Where did you find your plant subjects? In the wild? In your own backyard?

Most of the plants in Botany for the Artist were generously given by the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Oxford University Herbaria, which I can walk to from my studio. I visited the Garden five times a week for a year, to clip leaves and flowers, and was always cheered on by the staff who’d ask “How many more drawings to go?”, or “Have you got any use for one of these?” It was fun collecting things like the Monkey Cups (Nepenthes species) from the glass house. They were all so full of foul smelling, half digested insect soup, and felt like delightfully objectionable little animals, all wet, rigid and hairy, as we tied them up in labels and dropped them into the bag. (See p. 147 bottom right.)

I also collected from the wild, trawling for miles through English and Spanish lanes scouring hedgerows and mountainsides for honey suckle or milk thistles, woody nightshade and perfectly branched sprigs of Campion. Autumn days were spent trying not to look like a lunatic progressing on my hands and knees through woods searching for fungi and moss. The designer of the book, Silke Spingies, heroically brought back seaweed from her holiday in a bucket on the train. And we both spent several happy summer mornings rising at 2am, to get to London’s Covent Garden Flower Market by 3, so we could pick out the very best tropical flowers. Then make our way back through Knightsbridge at a about half past five, wait for a favorite café to open and serve hot breakfast, before driving East to Sam’s studio, the car loaded with plants for the long day’s shoot.

Why is understanding the structure of plants important for artists wishing to draw them?

If you understand the inner structure of things, you can draw them more convincingly. Expressive drawings are about action and purpose as well as form and shape—even if your subject is very still. If you understand what every part of a plant is, what it will do, when and why—you can really ‘climb inside’ and draw the essence of the species from within.

You always draw from real plants, never photographs. Why is that?

I like to engage all of my senses when drawing a plant – it’s half the fun. When drawing living plants you have a real time relationship with their form, weight, scent and texture. They move, too—they open and close and turn to find the light. Superficially this can be a nuisance when making a careful study, but it teaches you something about their graceful movement, delicacy or toughness, and essential ‘life force’ that ought to be part of your drawing. That is how drawing from life differs from the frozen clarity of photography. Those brilliant captured moments have a different purpose and show another visible understanding that is unlike my three-dimensional relationship with plants.

What is your preferred medium for drawing plant-life?

I love to work with a traditional steel dip pen and very dilute Chinese ink, which can be built up in soft layers, faintly erased, and used to conjure the infinite textures of plants. Many people are intimidated by pen and ink, but it is actually delicious to use, and well worth a little extra bravery to start with. It is important to buy the right kit (see my advice in the book) then after some practice it will—I promise—prove beautifully expressive, malleable—and surprisingly forgiving of error. Mistakes in pen and ink can be corrected by erasing diluted ink when dry, or by setting up a pictorial diversion, that is, another detail to distract the eye from ever noticing the problem.

Do you have a favorite plant or flower species to illustrate?

No, I am fascinated by the limitless variety of plants. There are just too many to draw. Then there is the whole world to be found under a microscope or magnifying lens too.

What was your biggest challenge in creating Botany for the Artist?

The biggest challenge in creating Botany for the Artist was endeavoring to cover every possible aspect of plant morphology (the structure and form of plants), and represent every type of habitat on earth, with the broadest and most interesting choice of species, that I could also find and draw or have photographed—in ten months. Only the racing speed of the seasons, unexpected bouts of heavy rain, a couple of heat waves, outbreaks of insects, rusts, and mildew - and an editorial schedule—complicated the task. But I remain alive and well. Just.

You are also the author of DK Publishing’s Anatomy for the Artist. How does drawing plantlike differ from drawing the human form? Conversely, are there any similarities in these two artistic subjects?

Botany is a vast subject compared to human anatomy. With anatomy you only have one creature - the human being, whereas there are thousands of plants! On a large scale, the human body is usually depicted in action, nude or clothed, taking part in a story, while botanical subjects are more likely to be still. Yet in close detail, there are enormous similarities to be found, whether you are looking at a human or a mollusk, a flower or fish, nature has repeated very many forms and strategies that function well. Taking a more superficial view, plants also have a kind of skin, usually covered in hair, and apparent joints in their stems, visible networks of veins, and sinuous wet ‘flesh’; while inside the human body, sheets of interfolding muscles can look like leaves, and glossy organs like seeds packed inside the ‘fruit’ of the abdomen or chest. It is no wonder some of the earliest European anatomical illustrators drew their ideas about the human body as if they were maps of gardens, with paths leading here and there to some very strange and distinctly plant like things.

What is next on your plate? Any plans for another book in the “…for the Artist” series in your near future?

Next I will draw a lot of very tiny things on a very large scale, using a microscope. I’ll be looking at plants, animals and insects, alive in the wild and collected in museums. I am also studying the architecture of trees, and drawing trees while traveling around the UK and South Eastern Australia. There are indeed future plans for another DK title ‘for the artist’—but I’ve some serious exploration to do first!