Posts Tagged ‘Niki Simpson’

Each year The Linnean Society of London issues the Jill Smythies Award to a botanical artist for outstanding illustrations.

The Jill Smythies Award is awarded to “a botanical artist in recognition of excellence in published illustrations, such as drawings or paintings, in aid of plant identification, with the emphasis on botanical accuracy and the accurate portrayal of diagnostic characteristics.” The work submitted for consideration must be “excellent botanical art (drawing or painting) that is ‘an aid to identification and a portrayal of diagnostic characteristics.’”

I am thrilled to announce that
Niki Simpson is one of two recipients of the 2018 Jill Smythies Award and that she received this award for her digital botanical illustrations.

If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you may remember Niki’s story. Already an award-winning botanical artist, Niki began developing a technique combining digital photography and traditional botanical art back in 2003. Aware of the argument that traditional illustrations are thought to be more informative than photographs, she investigated ways to increase the amount of information presented in digital illustrations. Her dedication and outside-the-box thinking resulted in digital illustrations that have introduced new audiences to botanical art and have changed the way people view and think about plants.

Niki and botanist Peter G. Barnes first wrote about this new approach to botanical illustration in Photography and contemporary botanical illustration, an article published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 2008. In this article, they discuss photography’s “evolving role in botanical illustration” and present digital composite illustrations as “a natural development of the composite watercolour or line illustrations that are familiar to all botanists” (Simpson & Barnes, 2008).

It has been fascinating to watch photography’s role in botanical art evolve, and it is exciting to see Niki Simpson’s contributions recognized by the world’s oldest active biological society.

Over the past 15 years, Niki’s digital botanical illustrations have been on view in numerous exhibitions and have appeared in four books, including the magnificent Nuphar lutea: Botanical images for the digital documentation of a taxon published in May 2016.

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has also recognized Niki’s work. Between 1989 and 2008, the RHS awarded Niki medals for both her traditional watercolor paintings and digital botanical illustrations.

Learn more about Niki Simpson’s award-winning digital composite illustrations on her website Visual Botany.

View all 2018 medal winners on The Linnean Society’s blog, including
Juliet Williamson, illustrator of The Kew Plant Glossary: An Illustrated Dictionary of Plant Identification Terms who also received the 2018 Jill Smythies Award for her contributions to botany and botanical art.

Congratulations to Niki and Juliet and thank you for teaching us all so much.

Literature Cited

Simpson, Niki and Peter G. Barnes. (2008). Photography and contemporary botanical illustration. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 25(3): 258-280

Also See

Botany and botanical art enter the digital workspace

Botany and botanical art enter the digital workspace

Niki Simpson
is an award-winning artist who has earned medals in photography and watercolor from the Royal Horticultural Society. In 2003 she began developing a technique combining digital photography and traditional botanical art. She has spent the past 12 years perfecting the art of digital botanical illustration and the creation of information-rich botanical plates she calls composite botanical illustrations.

Since 2007, Niki’s digital botanical illustrations have appeared in four books. The most recent publication, Nuphar lutea: Botanical images for the digital documentation of a taxon was published this past May.

In her beautiful new book, Niki explores different ways of observing plants and demonstrates how composite botanical illustrations can be used to describe a specific plant species–in this case Nuphar lutea (Yellow Water Lily). Twelve botanical plates are featured in her new book, each highlighting some aspect of the morphology or life cycle of the yellow water lily. Botanists, gardeners, educators and artists will find Niki’s presentations exciting and informative. Because the illustrations were inspired by the engravings found in herbals, readers will find the format of these contemporary botanical illustrations very familiar, with the exception of two modern elements. In her signature style, Niki adds a 21st-century twist to her botanical plate by adding Nuphar lutea‘s DNA sequence and barcode to what would otherwise be a very traditional format.

While my images are inspired by, and draw heavily from, the accuracy and detail found in traditional botanical art, for me, the future of botanical illustration lies in exploring the potential of the dynamic digital workspace, so that botanical illustration can fully support botanists in the future.

— Niki Simpson

Keeping with her goal to blend botany, botanical art and digital technology, Niki also discusses design, smartphones, tablets, virtual books and other digital techniques. Here is look at the topics addressed in her new book:

  • Foreward
  • Artist’s statement
  • Introduction
  • Composite illustration or image voucher of Nuphar lutea
  • Nuphar–rearranging, resizing and recombining parts
  • Nuphar–from flower to seed
  • Nuphar–taking a closer look at the flower
  • Nuphar–evolution of my floral diagram
  • Nuphar–from fruit to seed dispersal
  • Nuphar–from seed to adult
  • Nuphar–foliage
  • Nuphar–for design
  • Nuphar–poster style
  • Nuphar–herbarium specimens
  • Composite illustration of Nuphar lutea including DNA sequence data
  • Composite illustration of Nuphar lutea including DNA barcode visualization
  • Nuphar–developing interactivity by starting with a virtual book
  • Nuphar–on smartphones and tablets
  • Nuphar–digital black and white line drawing
  • Nuphar–digital hybrid images
  • Nuphar–my virtual sketchpad
  • Final Thoughts
  • Acknowledgements
  • Bibliography

If you have an interest in botanical illustration or botany education, you will appreciate this book and the path Niki is forging in botany and botanical art education.

Learn more about Niki in this interview and learn how she is expanding the future of botanical illustration through her website Visual Botany.

Nuphar - from fruit to seed dispersal, ©2016 Niki Simpson, all rights reserved

Nuphar – from fruit to seed dispersal, ©2016 Niki Simpson, all rights reserved

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“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).”

This is how I introduced Niki Simpson as the Feature Artist in July 2011. Since then Niki has continued to develop her digital botanical illustration technique and has successfully made significant contributions to the future of botanical illustration. You can read about her progress and how she creates digital illustrations on her new website Visual Botany.

Supporting Botanical Science

I felt that the possibilities of digital plant illustration for scientific work needed to be explored if botanical illustration was going to support botanical science in the future. And so, my digitally created composite botanical images are very much based on my watercolour paintings and my botanical pencil and watercolour studies.

— Niki Simpson

Launched in December 2014, Visual Botany is an exciting place to visit and a resource you will want to bookmark whether you are a botanical artist, a teacher or a dedicated gardener.

When first arriving at Visual Botany, you will discover a slideshow of images introducing you to Niki’s educational illustrations. Explore a little deeper and you will learn how Niki’s digital botanical illustrations are based on her traditional (and award-winning) botanical art. You will learn how to read the digital illustrations in her gallery and learn how Niki has used technology to introduce new audiences to plants. In the online gallery, you will find botanical plates similar in appearance to traditional botanical plates. You will also find an exciting habitat illustration of Lathraea clandestina (Purple toothwort). This single image demonstrates the palpable connection between plants, Earth and people Niki’s digital illustration technique is capable of creating.

I encourage you to visit Visual Botany and to share it with students and colleagues.

Literature Cited

    Simpson, Niki and Peter G. Barnes. 2008. Photography and contemporary botanical illustration. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. 25(3): 258-280.
    (View or buy online)

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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 three 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

: 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.

Literature Cited

  • 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)

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An interest in botanical illustration and the future of this art form prompted
Niki Simpson to explore the digital arena to determine if botanical illustration had a place in this new medium. Aware of the argument that traditional illustrations are thought to be more informative than photographs, she investigated ways to increase the amount of information presented in digital illustrations. Her investigation resulted in the composite digital botanical illustrations seen in her online gallery.

Simpson’s digital illustrations give users clear information about leaves, flowers, reproductive parts, venation, leaf arrangement, inflorescence types, fruit, buds, and the underground features of a plant. Her botanical plates also include a color chart and botanical symbols identifying the sex of a plant’s reproductive organs, whether its species is monoecious or dioecious, plus many other characteristics. The symbols used by Simpson are unique to her work because she created many of them from scratch. The process by which Simpson created her symbols is the focus of Botanical Symbols: A New Symbol Set for New Images.

Botanical symbols have been used for centuries because they offer a way to abbreviate repeat words and conserve space on a page (Simpson, 2010). To make her botanical plates as informative as possible, Simpson knew she needed to use symbols in her illustrations. So she researched botanical symbols and how they had been used in the past.

During her research, Simpson (2010) discovered symbols with multiple meanings, symbols no longer in use and symbols not easy to think about, much less easy to write by hand. Her search made her realize that a universal set of botanical symbols about plants did not exist, so she decided to create her own set for her own use.

This lead to additional discoveries, namely that traditional typefaces and fonts lacked symbols suitable for the scientific documentation of botanical specimens (Simpson, 2010). Simpson realized whatever her symbols were to look like, they needed to be easy to write, needed to blend with modern fonts, needed to have a contemporary look, as well as a scientific feel. With these issues in mind, Simpson created the design criteria for her new symbols.

Simpson’s design criteria includes specific information such as, “symbols must be botanically appropriate”, “symbols must be easily readable; clear on reduction and enlargement”, and “symbols must be visually understandable by an international audience” (Simpson, 2010). Simpson’s detailed design criteria can be viewed in Appendix I of her paper.

In 2007, Simpson showed the new botanical symbol set in use in 40 digital composite illustrations in her solo exhibition, Digital Diversity: A New Approach to Botanical Illustration, held in the Botanisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, Germany.

Since then, she has fine-tuned her symbols and created a new botanical symbols font based on her symbol set. The Simpson Botanical Symbols OpenType font was completed in January 2009.

Simpson’s fonts are available for free and she invites readers to download the font from her website to use in floras, plant surveys and on plant labels. She also invites readers to use her symbols as shorthand while taking notes in class.

To obtain a copy of Simpson’s article, search the stacks at your local college library. This article can also be purchased online for $35.

Literature Cited

Simpson, Niki. 2010. Botanical symbols: a new symbol set for new images. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 162: 117-129.

Other Items of Interest

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Simpson, Niki and Peter G. Barnes. 2008. Photography and contemporary botanical illustration. Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. 25(3): 258-280.

Niki Simpson and Peter G. Barnes provide an overview of how photography has been used in plant documentation and then present a new digital approach to botanical illustration. They explain how composite botanical illustrations created through digital means can supplement traditional line drawings and herbarium specimens. Technique is discussed in detail and color illustrations support each point made. The authors provide step-by-step instruction on how to create digital composite illustrations. Examples of the authors’ work can be viewed at Niki Simpson – Digital Botanical Illustration.

The abstract to this article can be viewed here. Access to this article can be purchased online. Access is for 24-hours only.

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