Botanical artist Carol Malone-Brown is seated, bent forward, intently concentrating on a painting she is working on of a green apple with leaves.

She carefully puts a small amount of paint on one leaf using the “dry brush” method — mixing tiny drops of water with watercolors and then using a paintbrush to draw short, fine lines. She will sit at her desk, painting this leaf for many days to get the shades of light and dark just right.

While many people might find this tedious, for Malone-Brown, creating botanical art is “very soothing and meditative.” She draws inspiration from her beautiful garden, filled with a variety of plants at her home in Alexandria, Virginia. This allows her to combine her love of plants with botanical art, painting only what she grows.

Botanical art combines art with science because each piece must have botanically accurate details. 

“The garden is like your laboratory,” Malone-Brown explained. “I mean you can run in and out, and maybe you’re in there drawing and painting, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘How does that leaf connect to the stem exactly?’”

Her images, which are mostly watercolors, show the delicate beauty of plant species.

A garden of botanical art

Malone-Brown’s art is being showcased, along with 45 other pieces, at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington. It’s part of a series of botanical art exhibits worldwide, featuring native plants in 25 countries, including China, South Africa, Indonesia, Russia and Colombia. The idea is not only to highlight botanical art but the great diversity of plants.

Malone-Brown’s painting of a Virginia strawberry plant is on display at the U.S. show, white flowers and red strawberries that look good enough to eat.

“To be authentic,” she said, “I had to make sure that the plant actually flowered and produced fruit at the same time.”

It took her four hours each day for five months to complete the image. She painted it on vellum, a parchment made from calfskin, which gives the image a lovely luminescence.

The Botanic Garden art exhibit also features other flora, like the saguaro cactus of the U.S. Southwest, the bigleaf maple tree from the West Coast, and a variety of flowers, including violets and sunflowers. A sunny orchid, called a yellow lady slipper, was painted by well-known botanical artist Carol Woodin, who also serves as exhibitions director for the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Distinctive styles

Woodin says every artist has a distinctive style. 

“Some tell a story, others capture a moment in time, or study a plant and focus on each stage of its growth,” she said.

Besides watercolor, oil, colored pencil and etching were used to create the pieces on display.

Botanical artist Alice Tangerini used pen and ink. She is the only botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s botany department in Washington. For more than four decades, Tangerini has been drawing meticulous botanical images that scientists use for research.

She said photos cannot capture details the same way botanical drawings do.

“Every time I’m making a line it’s a little bit exciting,” she said. “You see a leaf or flower that is different from any other, or a small portion of a seed.”

Like other botanical artists, Malone-Brown said there is pleasure in the process of painting the plants.

“They are our best friends,” she joked. “You truly have to love a plant that you paint because you’re going to spend a lot of time with it!”


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