Is anyone going to stand up for traditional botanical art?

Posted by Michael Best on October 20, 2014 0 Comments


                                                                          Not botanical art.

If you believe in the preservation of traditional botanical art true to its historical roots, i.e., the rendering of a scientifically-accurate, two-dimensional painting from a three-dimensional specimen, by an artist skilled in every aspect of the art from drawing to painting, you may have reason for concern.

One would expect the various botanical art associations around the world exist for that purpose but, alarmingly, it is not necessarily so. For instance, as discussed on this blog before, there is a disquieting trend whereby some 'botanical artists' lacking the skill to capture the essence of a three-dimensional specimen, are overcoming that shortcoming by copying or tracing photographs. Perhaps more disquieting is the fact botanical art associations will deny they condone such a practice yet count among their membership people who openly advocate tracing or drawing from photographs. In one case an association has as a member a person who teaches workshops and has written a book about how to 'bypass' a lack of drawing skills by copying photographs. 

Furthermore, these associations allow such paintings to be entered in their exhibitions and to win awards. A prominent British horticultural society recently awarded a gold medal to a botanical artist who has admitted to working exclusively off photographs. As a collector of traditional botanical art in awe of the skill it takes to produce such a piece, I would consider to have been hoodwinked if I discovered that I had unknowingly bought an award-winning piece produced from a photograph. If I wanted to own a botanical photograph, I would expect to see a photographer about it, not a botanical artist.

If botanical art associations are to be credible promoters of botanical art and botanical artists then they have to be cautious about how they go about their purpose. For instance, the perception of rampant nepotism has to be addressed - a perception that these associations favour a small clique of insiders over the broader membership body. Also, a current perception of conflict of interest could be dispelled by not allowing exhibition organizers to participate in the exhibitions they are organizing.

The focus of all effort should be on botanical art, period. Recently BAC (Botanical Artists of Canada) circulated to its membership an article titled, Using Photo Reference in Botanical Art. Not only is it an odious title given the current concerns about the misuse of photography in overcoming shortcomings in drawing skills, but the article was more about promoting a book on the preservation of the peregrine falcon than botanical art. The fact that the book about preserving a bird species, though a laudable cause, was written by an accomplished botanical artist, does not make it appropriate to the purpose of a botanical art society. 

By publishing this peregrine falcon article BAC might have set a precedent whereby any member with something other than botanical art to promote, can do so under BAC's auspices in an article that obliquely references botanical art but includes whatever else it is they are trying to promote or sell. Perhaps a medical practice, an insurance brokerage, a spy novel, a used car . . .   

What botanical art traditionalists (artists and collectors) need is a botanical art society with the courage to define 'traditional botanical art' and then set about preserving it. A distinction needs to be drawn between those artists with the admirable, rounded, hard-won skills required to produce a traditional botanical art piece from a specimen, and those 'artist' who overcome a lack of skill by mechanical, digital or photographic means. It will take courage and determination, but it is sorely needed. 



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