Niki Simpson is an artist who has been awarded many medals from the Royal Horticultural Society (four for photography and four for watercolor). In 2003, she developed a technique to create composite botanical illustrations. Simpson’s digital composite images challenge the current thinking about botanical painting’s superiority over photography. Her objective is to present “new possibilities for the future of botanical illustration” (Simpson & Barnes, 2008).
Niki studied botany for 3 years at university as part of her BSc degree in environmental science. She lives in the south-east of England, near the RHS Garden at Wisley. She has worked, in collaboration with botanist Peter Barnes, as a freelance botanical illustrator since leaving the RHS in 2008.
Posts about Niki’s botanical plates (Simpson and Barnes, 2008) and her use of botanical symbols (Simpson, 2010) have been featured here before. Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Niki Simpson, our Feature Artist for July.
ArtPlantae: What is a “digitally created composite illustration”?
Niki Simpson: A digitally created composite illustration is much the same as a traditional one, in being a scientific plant portrait showing the diagnostic and characteristic features of the taxon on a white background and composed in a botanically logical, yet attractive, composition with all parts shown to an appropriate scale. Only the tools required to create it have changed. My digital illustrations are largely, but not necessarily solely, based on digital photography. Since digital versions of other illustrative material can easily be included, a digital composite illustration can be of mixed media – incorporating any combination of photographs, manipulated photographs, photomicrographs, scanning electron micrographs, digital line drawings and artwork created using a digital pen and tablet, line work created digitally from photographs, direct flatbed scans of plant material, as well as scanned versions of traditional line or watercolour work.
Working digitally means that I have control over any text component required, such as the title block, lettering of parts, scale bars, and other information relating to the taxon. In my illustrations further information includes botanical symbols, a time bar and a colour key. Of immense benefit is the flexibility that working digitally allows – I can almost endlessly re-arrange and refine my compositions until I am completely happy and, perhaps best of all, if I find a mistake, I don’t have to start the entire illustration all over again.
AP: In 1998, you received a RHS Gold Medal for botanical watercolor. In 2003, you began to develop your composite photographic techniques. What motivated you to focus on photography?
NS: In the 1990’s I was working in the Botany Department of the Royal Horticultural Society, managing the RHS horticultural database but at the same time doing some freelance botanical painting for The New Plantsman. Working on a PC, using word processing software, databases and spreadsheets, and then turning round to pick up a paintbrush, began to seem a little incongruous and it became obvious that digital botanical illustration was a logical development. Although it seemed somewhat futuristic at the time, I thought it must be possible, although no-one seemed to be talking about it, let alone trying it. So I thought I’d have a go, though I have to say that at that point I was imagining myself drawing and painting onscreen using a digital pen and tablet. The funding I received from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust in 2003 for my experimental project, specifically included a morning’s basic photographic tuition. I had included this, because for a long time, I had wanted to be able to take better plant photographs for reference purposes. It was only when someone kindly offered to digitize a few of the resulting photographs for me and I was then able to view them onscreen, that it dawned on me that in trying to “paint” on screen I was simply trying to create what a camera could do in an instant and far better. At the time I didn’t even have a digital camera, or indeed any thoughts of getting one, and so developing my own digital photographic techniques for botanical illustration purposes since then has been a steep learning curve.
AP: You have received many medals from the RHS for your photography. Have all your photographic entries been composite illustrations? Do you do landscapes or nature photography?
NS: Yes, the medals have all been for my digital composite images based largely on photographs. However, I do take photographs of landscapes and nature in general, but only for pleasure. I also enjoy architectural photography.
AP: The complementary nature of digital images and traditional botanical illustrations is obvious. Yet in Simpson & Barnes (2008), you mention that some people are not comfortable combining digital media and botanical illustration in the same category. What do these individuals object to specifically?
NS: Well it’s difficult for me to say, as I am not told explicitly why, other than in general terms that digital work is “unacceptable” to them – though over the years there have been hints of digital work being inferior in some way, that using photography is cheating and taking the quick way out, and even that by working digitally I am a threat to traditional painting, at which many people have worked hard at to promote in recent years.
Whatever the reason or reasons, the fact remains that my digitally created images have not been, and are still not, generally welcome within botanical painting circles, and my work has been rejected from exhibitions of botanical art in the UK, the only reason being given being its digital nature. It was noticeable that after my first attempts to exhibit, places such as the Society of Botanical Artists, the American Society of Botanical Artists and the Hunt Botanical Institute of Botanical Documentation, began to change the wording of their submission guidelines in a way to specifically exclude digital and photographic work. In the UK, the RHS continues to keep photography and traditional botanical art separated into different shows.
Exhibiting a new genre of artwork is bound to raise some issues and obviously I have been disappointed, but perhaps things will change in the future. I look forward, as I did back in 2005, to the day when digital botanical illustrations of this kind can be at least displayed, if not judged, alongside the traditional botanical artwork to which it is the most closely allied.
I would like to point out that photographic-based work really isn’t the quick and easy option that some painters seem to think it is – each of these illustrations takes me weeks, or even months, to create. Perhaps it is simply resistance to change. To me, there seems little difference, as my images are inspired by, and are heavily based on, the values of accuracy and detail found in traditional botanical art. To me, it is the information conveyed by the image that is important, rather than the medium in which it is created.
On the other hand, I must say that I have also received some wonderfully appreciative and supportive comments from a few eminent botanical artists, and I have had requests from botanical painters asking me if I would send them my photos for reference use. One artist commented that my work is proving valuable to other botanical artists by showing them what plant parts to paint, which is flattering.
AP: In Simpson & Barnes (2008), you discuss combining field sketches and color photographs of plant parts on one botanical plate as in Iris ‘Prophetic Message’. You also discuss adding hypertext links to botanical plates that take viewers to related data and images. Your digital techniques lay the foundation for a truly interactive, information-rich online herbarium. Do you have plans to create such an herbarium? It would be a fantastic resource if you did.
NS: Yes, my composite images lend themselves to, and indeed were originally designed for, onscreen viewing and interactive use. When magnification tools in the software are used, otherwise hidden features within the image can be revealed to the viewer – in a way that is simply not possible with a watercolour painting. If a painting is enlarged, it is simply the brushstrokes of the artist that are exposed to the viewer, while enlarging a photographic detail of a plant part can reveal all sorts of botanical detail such as hairs and other microcharacters, which may or may not be diagnostic.
I have been very interested in developing my work this way since 2006, when my first attempt was a virtual book which I produced as part of my exhibition in Berlin. This was a touch-and-turn book in which the viewer could turn the pages, pick up a virtual magnifying glass and enlarge the images, check for foreign common names, etc. However I am currently working on making my information-rich images truly interactive in another way – though I don’t want to say any more just at the moment. But I will let you know when it is ready!
My sort of images can be used as “image specimens” to supplement the dried herbarium specimen of the same plant and any photographs of habitat. Given I have pressed a voucher specimen for each of the plants I have illustrated – yes, I have frequently considered creating an interactive online herbarium of my work. However, the problem is simply a lack of funding.
AP: Your online gallery lists 62 completed plates and 21 plates-in-progress. I assume you have to wait out entire field seasons to collect and photograph all of the elements you need for any given plate. Do botanists bring specimens to you or do you spend a lot of time in the field?
NS: My online gallery now lists 64 completed plates, which have been created over the last five years. I have 3 more now ready to be added to this list- and I am in the process of finalizing a further 2 images.
Sometimes it takes me 2 years to source, obtain written permissions, and collect all the parts I require throughout the year. Mostly I collect all the specimens myself, though sometimes others help in providing material – especially Peter Barnes and some of my old colleagues at the RHS Wisley. Peter has contributed in many ways – botanical advice, help with photomicrographs, image and caption checking, technical input, and in the creation of my website.
AP: Many years ago, I purchased the 2001 RHS Colour Chart because I was looking for a way to categorize colors without hassling with water and paint. I read with great interest, your article, Colour and Contemporary Digital Botanical Illustration (Simpson, 2011) in which you discuss color and how digital botanical illustrations can include more color information than traditional methods of color documentation. In this article you discuss traditional ways color has been described, as well as the RHS Colour Chart and your own digital color code system.
You propose that color is as important an identifying feature in plants as are other structural characteristics — especially the inclusion of all color changes a plant experiences over the course of one year. How are you progressing with your efforts to convince those in the scientific community that your composite illustrations are valuable additions to dried, pressed (and colorless) herbarium specimens?
NS: I don’t propose it – colour has always been an important identifying feature in cultivated plants and field guides for identifying wild flowers have been arranged by colour for many years. What I have proposed is the inclusion of a colour key within this sort of composite image, in which the notable colours are referenced to a standard colour chart.
As for convincing the scientific community, I have received numerous complimentary and supportive emails about my work from botanists around the world and my images have been published in scientific/serious books and journals. Some images have been commissioned by botanists and examples of my work are now held in scientific public collections, such as the Royal Botanic Garden Kew’s picture archive, the RHS Lindley Library, and the Linnean Society of London’s image collection. However, I haven’t started a major campaign – I hope that the images speak for themselves.
AP: You are no doubt aware of the issue of “plant blindness”. Do you introduce your work to public audiences (i.e., to audiences beyond art galleries and academia)? If you do, where do you present your work? How does the public respond to seeing the world of plants laid out for them in such a comprehensive, yet digestible format?
NS: I am aware of the issue, but I had not heard of the term, so thank you for making me aware of it – and sending the link to your ArtPlantae post, which I read with interest.
As I have said in several of my exhibitions over the years, my underlying interest is in using the power of images to attract and inform and so raise awareness of, and communicate information about, plants. So really my digital images are my way to address this issue of “plant blindness”. Highly informative scientific images are able to convey complex botanical information to the viewer, and, being largely independent of language, they can be understood by readers around the world as well as being accessible to viewers of a wide range of interest and age.
Judging from comments written by visitors to my exhibitions, the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. And I do have a new website already designed and planned…
I would like to thank Niki for discussing her award-winning digital technique with us today and for sharing an example of her beautiful and informative digital work in the header above.
In closing, Niki stated:
Digital illustration is now well-established in all other fields of scientific illustration and so for me, the future of botanical illustration lies in continuing to explore the potential of interactivity and the digital workspace. My interest is in developing botanical images for the future, to work alongside and supplement current botanical research, and especially for educational purposes.
What do you think of this new dimension to botanical illustration?
Post your comments below.
- Simpson, Niki and Peter G. Barnes. 2008. Photography and contemporary botanical illustration. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. 25(3): 258-280.
- Simpson, Niki. 2010. Botanical symbols: a new symbol set for new images. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 162: 117-129.
- Simpson, Niki. 2011. Colour and contemporary digital botanical illustration. Optics & Laser Technology. 42: 330-336.
UPDATE: Also see Niki at Visual Botany. (March 3, 2015)