Botanical Drawing Technique: Composition and Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium

This post references the article: “Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Forgotten Treasure at the Intersection of Science and Poetry” by Maria Popova.  Read the original article here.

The recent digitization of Emily Dickinson’s herbarium pages by Harvard University feels like the Internet is being used for Good (which is refreshing). All of us now have access to a young Dickinson’s artful arrangements of flower specimens (see the entire herbarium here). Her compositions can inspire whimsy and narrative in our application of botanical drawing technique. These pages are eerily familiar–a trip back in time, but simultaneously, for this Hudson Valley resident, a present-day wander in a nearby New England garden. The flowers and leaves are incredibly preserved, and they retain their structure, color, and character, despite being plucked nearly 170 years ago.

Dickinson saw flowers as manifestations of the Muse, and I think we can relate to that, as botanical illustrators. Plants “speak” to us while we study and honor them with our botanical drawings. Emily’s “forbidden” Victorian studies in the field of botany present parallels with her poetry in many ways (and are the subject of a book mentioned in this article, “The Gardens of Emily Dickinson,” which looks like an excellent read). Each flower is a character, representing moods and emotions; an entry in the Victorian dictionary of emotional symbols.

As I scrolled through the digitized pages, I felt a connection to Emily, as if we had friends in common. I saw the trillium from the trail yesterday; the daisy from the roadside, and the foxglove from the nursery. Had she and I walked the same path a century apart? Her pressed plants are a visceral link to a time (season) and a place (region), and they present botanical details with an artful flair. Without being stuffy, these specimens are arranged in careful compositions–a lesson for us in storytelling through composition, where drama is achieved by placing the leaf and petal just so. Can the arrangement of our botanical subjects on a page tell a story? Evoke emotion? By pairing some plants with others, can we create tension? Attraction? Show an intimate love? A forbidden one?

The act of collecting and arranging botanicals, for Emily, was one of self-expression and dedicated passion, that is clear. Her careful placement and categorization push the boundaries between art and science, which is something that we can all strive for as we collect, arrange, and illustrate plants. We can attempt to present true, accurate information about our plant friends, and also give them personalities and relationships to their surroundings using our botanical drawing technique. Try arranging your next botanical drawing composition to tell a story: whether it is the biography of one plant over time, the connection between two, or the tale of your journey to the place where you discovered a flower.

Here, I must shamelessly plug BrainPickings and Maria Popova, publisher of the referenced article. I have been a BrainPickings subscriber since 2009, and her newsletters never disappoint. They are smart, clever, poignant, and she is a master of connecting ideas. I myself got lost in her recommendations in this article, joyfully clicking through other pages about historic illustrations of the natural world, and ending on an uplifting audio clip of a poetry reading. I highly recommend subscribing to the BrainPickings newsletter, and be a donor if you can!

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