Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Botanical art in the 21st century. Part One: Niki Simpson

Any of you who have used Poland & Clement's Vegetative Key to the British Flora will have seen Niki Simpson's digital artwork. In fact you have probably used her images to help you identify wild plants in the field. So when I noticed that Niki was launching a new website, I asked her to tell us a bit more about her work. And of course to send us a few of her gorgeous images for us to drool over! Click on the images to enlarge them.


Portion of Viola illustration to give an idea of 
enlarging the hidden detail contained in the image
© Niki Simpson
Niki says "Not only is digital technology enabling new botanical research, but it is also changing the way our plants can be described and illustrated - for guides, keys and educational material as well as for botanical research work. I am a botanical illustrator, specifically one that enjoys looking at new ways to depict plants. My botanical images may look similar to conventional illustrations, and indeed much about them is the same, but I have changed the tool I use to create them. By using digital imagery, a whole array of benefits become available, to both the artist and the viewer. Perhaps the main one arises from the use of photographic parts, because not only can photographs bring full realism and instant impact to an illustration, they also contain considerable detail (that would otherwise remain hidden) which, by using digital technology and onscreen viewing, can be easily revealed on enlargement - just as you would take a magnifying glass to a plant or to a voucher specimen.

Illustrations of the corn poppy and field bindweed
viewed on a smart phone and tablet
© Niki Simpson
I created this image (above right) with a virtual magnifying glass, to hint at the hidden depths to these illustrations. But if you look at one of these images on a smart phone or tablet, it is already possible to see this detail without a virtual magnifying glass - a simple pinch and reverse pinch with your fingers will reduce and enlarge such images, and then you can pan around the illustration to explore the detail. On one level, as a botanist or keen plantsperson, you can observe and study the diagnostic features of interest to you, while at another you can just simply have fun moving around the illustration as the fancy takes you, exploring to see what you can find, what parts look like enlarged and perhaps see parts you have never seen before. This and other features of my illustrations will be the subjects of future posts on my website blog.

A selection of digitally created illustrations of the British flora 
© Niki Simpson
My favourite plants are those of our wonderful British flora and I am keen to show anyone who is interested that our supposedly familiar plants may not be as familiar as you think, when you look closely. I have gradually been building up a collection of digital composite illustrations of the British flora and have now illustrated very nearly 50 taxa, and so have tried out this illustrative technique on a wide range of plants - from herbaceous perennials to trees, non-flowering plants to an orchid, monots and dicots, sweet smelling to some not-so-sweet-smelling and even a parasite and an aquatic plant. Many of these can be seen on my website 'British flora - native or naturalised' gallery.

Cover & inside cover page from the Vegetative Key
© Niki Simpson
Some BSBI members may have seen other ways of using digital images. In the Vegetative Key I depicted single plant parts, mostly leaves, rather than a whole comprehensive composite plate of a plant. It was a privilege to contribute to this groundbreaking botanical key, and for me, it was also a wonderful opportunity to see my new approach to botanical illustration paired with John's new approach to naming British vascular plants based on vegetative characters. 

 A highlight for me that year was to design a distinctive front cover for the book, by putting together some of the plant parts in an entirely different way.

My underlying interest is in using the power of images to raise awareness of plants - my way of trying to address 'plant blindness'. Images are great for attracting an audience and being largely without text they can be accessible to viewers from all countries, of all ages, and provide interest at many levels, from beginner to botanist. I'm interested in ways to engage a younger audience and I'm also particularly keen to use interactive programming to develop the potential of these images, so that they can engage and inform viewers much further. I feel we are going to need colourful, easily accessible informative images - with parts that move and buttons to press, as well as those that can be taken into the field. 

By this I don't mean 'dumbed down' images, but ones that are fully informative, yet which at the same time are accessible, engaging and even fun to use, for all levels of interest and knowledge. So my goal is to develop these images interactively - which is how I have always envisaged and designed them. An interactive visual British flora would be quite something, but of course that would be a big long term project. But one has to start somewhere, and so for me it will be a starter set. In the meantime, on my list to illustrate this year are Geranium robertianum, Solanum dulcamara, Calluna vulgaris, Euphorbia amygdaloides, Trifolium pratense, Lychnis flos-cuculi and Myrrhis odorata ...."

You can find Niki at: Visual Botany www.visualbotany.co.uk and on Facebook