Monday, 2 June 2014

Botanical Illustration, painting plant species the scientific way- a dialogue with Hemlata Pradhan.

Ms Hemlata Pradhan
As a student of botany we often need to depict the form, colour, and details of plant species. Although botanical illustration is an art, its main concern is scientific accuracy. The illustration is taken as reference and thus it requires keen observation of the species which makes the subject plant different from other plant species. Taking career as Botanical Illustrator is not just meant for aesthetic purpose but also serves to bridge the gap between art and science. Also, it helps in conservation by raising public awareness of the flora and fauna.  Team Indian Botanists speaks to Ms. Hemlata Pradhan, a renowned botanical illustrator, to understand more about the subject, her experiences and the scope of botanical illustration.

Botanical illustration of Arisaema grifithii
1. Our team members have continuously noticed your excellent art work which just looks awesome. Coming first to your art, what attracted you to this botanical art?

I was born on 3rd December 1974, in Kalimpong, Darjeeling District, West Bengal into a family already renowned in the horticultural circles nationally and internationally. Ever since I began saying my first alphabets I remember my father trying to teach us the names of plants, trees, insects and birds that surrounded us and taking us out on field trips to nearby forests so we could observe nature at its best.

When I was about 11 years old, I happened to see my father’s field drawings of orchids and Rhododendrons which served to inspire and motivate me. And so my zest for painting began. In the beginning it was more of a hobby but that slowly changed into serious passion and now a career. I began my journey by painting single flowers of Cymbidium orchids in all their gorgeous hues- apple greens, shades of pinks, yellows, whites and maroons.........and each one I painted made me crave for more.

Dendrobium jenkinsii
2. Is it just a hobby or have you taken any formal training on botanical art? If yes, where? How was the learning experience?

When I was 13 years old, I was enrolled at Dr. Graham’s Homes, (a school started by a Scottish missionary) in Kalimpong, Darjeeling Himalayas, where I received my first basic lessons in the basics of drawing. After completing 12th standard (equivalent to A levels) I joined Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan, West Bengal for a bachelor’s degree in Graphics (Printmaking) since there wasn’t any course in Natural History Illustrations in India which is indeed sad because India, once upon a time, had a rich legacy of many wonderful and proficient plant and animal illustrators. (Many of their works are now in the archival collection of Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museums in India and around the globe).

Meantime, I desperately began to hunt for institutes that could offer me a short course in botanical illustrations. And that is when I learnt about the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England. The institute was offering Diploma courses in botanical illustrations to Margaret Mee scholars from Brazil but when they saw my keenness they agreed to offer me a place! So, as soon as I completed my bachelor’s degree, I applied and received a scholarship from the Elizabeth Greenshield’s Foundation, Canada to complete a Diploma in Botanical Illustrations under two eminent plant illustrators, Cristabel King and Dr. Judy stones.

Whilst at Kew, I learnt that the Royal College of Art, London; was offering two years' Master’s Degree in Natural History Illustration and Ecological Studies! So my dream finally came true when I applied for it and received a place there with a DFID (Department for International Development, UK) scholarships funded by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, London to support my studies and stay in the UK for two years.

3. Did you ever work for any organization as a botanical illustrator? How was the experience?

I have illustrated for numerous botanists, including cover illustrations for books like the ‘Orchids of Bhutan’ by Dr. Phillip J. Cribb and Dr. Nicholas Pearce, Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, UK, cover Illustration for the book ‘Biodiversity of Sikkim’ by the Govt. Of Sikkim and line illustrations for “Hundred Beautiful Himalayan Orchids and How to grow them” by Mr. Udai C. Pradhan, Kalimpong, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, West Bengal, India.

Most of my paintings are held in a number of private and public collections all around the world (including the Ambani family, Mumbai and the Sainsbury family, London). Majority of them are now in the collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, UK. My paintings have also been selected for a set of 6 postage stamps for the country of Bhutan to celebrate the ‘International Year of the Mountains’ and the Third Meeting of the Orchid Specialist Group, IUCN/SSC.

I have also had the opportunity of exhibiting my works in various countries and have been honored with several awards for my paintings of India’s Wild Orchids and other plants including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal in 1999 and the 18th World Orchid Conference Gold Medal in 2005. In 2008 I was invited by the British Museum, London to exhibit as well as hold workshops in Botanical illustration at the Museum.

Renanthera imschootiana
4. You love teaching botanical illustration especially to kids. Could you tell us a little bit about the art classes that you are running?

In order to further my dream of combining art, education and conservation, I initiated a charitable trust called the Himalayan Trust for Natural History Art in 2003 with seed funds gifted to her by Lady Lisa Sainsbury. The trust is presently setting up the Himalayan Institute of Natural History Art in Kalimpong which has been running various hands-on workshops and classes in the field of Natural History Art. The Trust now sponsors and looks after the art education of 14 talented underprivileged children between the age of 7 to 14 years from the local villages around Kalimpong. While they attend regular village schools during the day, they visit the art school in the evenings, weekends and every major holidays.

The children are taught how to make close observations of nature and document them in the form of sketches, paintings, doodles, words and maps using traditional techniques, methods and materials. This process has helped them not only to build their artistic skills but also to develop their confidence and generate an awareness about the biodiversity that abounds the Himalayas.

5. In the age of digitization of herbarium and digital repositories, how important do you find the conventional illustration?

Conventional illustration helps to clearly differentiate elements that cannot easily be deciphered using reflected light alone and portray those parts of plants that may not be easily or clearly visible in a photograph. One can also manipulate the composition of the images in an illustration bringing together characters which usually may not be seen simultaneously in nature.

6. Any message which you would like to convey the aspiring botanical illustrators?

As a botanical illustrator one needs to always be very conscious about the fact that taking up 'botanical illustration' as a career means you also have manifold responsibility to fulfill. For, your artworks are not just meant for aesthetic purpose but also serve to bridge the gap between art and science, help in conservation by raising public awareness of the flora and fauna and also largely contribute towards preservation of traditional art forms and the natural world. Also, in botanical illustration, patience and persistence are virtues which will take you far.


  1. Nice to see your work Hemlata. Would love to see more of hat you are doing recently.
    Check site of my cultural centre. We can plan something together.
    Kirti di

  2. Nice piece of work on Botanical paintings It is helpful in making students and others acquainted with plants

  3. Thank you Kriti di and Dr. Iccha Purak! I am sorry for this delayed reply! Just saw the comments now! :)


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