Botanical Art - Between the Aesthetic and the Functional

The Peony Girl Botanical Art

As you know, this year we have launched the “Peony of the Month” series. You may have noticed that it’s slightly different from the usual painting style - Chinese Gongbi style - that The Peony Girl uses. This painting style is considered “botanical art”. Gongbi paintings could be included in the category called “floral painting” or “flower painting”. There’s also “botanical illustration” and “botanical art”, and “Peony of the Month” was created in the latter. Today, we want to tell you a bit more about botanical art and why we chose it for our latest project! 

The Flawless Beauty of Botanical Illustration

We cannot talk about botanical art without mentioning botanical illustration. While it has aesthetic value, its emphasis is on “the scientific record and botanical accuracy to enable identification of a plant” instead. Before we had cameras, botanical illustration was the only way to document the details of plants for research purposes. Nowadays, it continues to be an essential element in botanist’s work.

That is why this depiction of a plant or flower needs to be very precise and contain all of its elements - leaves, stems, petals, show the whole cycle of life - all to allow someone to identify an actual living plant based on the image.

Peony of the Month - March - Early Windflower detail

As you can imagine, although this type of illustration requires a lot of skill and attention and it certainly can look stunning, it doesn’t leave as much room for creativity or an innovative approach as floral art does. 

Botanical illustrations are all around us, and you’ve probably seen them in many places: in encyclopaedias, biology textbooks, articles, flower identification books, and so on. There are many examples of artwork created by talented botanical artists available to see online. For example, the Royal Botanic Gardens feature an impressive online collection of botanical art, including Highlights of Modern Masterpieces. Another place rich with stunning botanical art is The Royal Horticultural Society’s exhibition page, featuring displays of apple art, dahlias, medicinal plants, and more. 

Botanical Art - the Bridge

Botanical art allows more freedom than botanical illustration; it’s an artistic yet scientifically-accurate representation of a plant. It needs to be a true and precise depiction, but it doesn’t require showing all elements and details like botanical illustrations do.

This type of art also allows for more creativity and freedom of artistic expression. An artist painting botanical art can focus more on aesthetics and the beauty they want to portray or the feelings they want to evoke with their creation. 


In addition, certain trends can emerge in botanical art: for example, an artist can choose to focus on one element of the plant, a detail that you’d otherwise miss, enlarge it and make the focus of their botanical painting. There are also plant illustrations showing flowers wilting, drying, disintegrating - plants past their ‘prime time’ can be revered, too, and such creations acknowledge the cycle of life to which we are all subject.

The “Peony of the Month" introduces a peony to our audience every month and explains how to decorate your garden and home with them, as well as how to look after them. Therefore, we think the botanical art is the right style to depict the peonies - tree peonies, herbaceous peonies, and intersectional peonies - to show the plants’ characteristic features whilst adding artistic expressions of their 'personalities'. 

How Siyuan Creates the Botanical Art

As we mentioned, botanical art is when science meets with art and design. You need to be accurate without neglecting the aesthetic aspect. To achieve this, every month, Siyuan usually goes through the following process:

  1. If possible, it’s best to paint botanical art in season. It allows easier access to the subject which can be found in abundance. In her art, Siyuan tries to focus on peonies that are in season so that she can go back to a particular flower and check necessary details.

  2. Of course, that is not always possible - therefore, for the current “Peony of the Month” paintings, Siyuan uses photos as references. As you probably have guessed, as a peony enthusiast, Siyuan has taken thousands of peony photos.

    She often cross-references them to study the peonies to get an accurate representation. They are good references for when the plants are dry, wilting or changing colour. 

  3. Preparing well before starting the painting is a must. Across different references, there are many things to consider and decide what she will include on paper. There are many choices:

    1. plant’s life cycle
    2. cross-sections
    3. enlarged details
    4. the plant’s growing habits
  4. distinctive features of a plant.
    1. She then decides which parts of the plant she will be drawing or painting: leaves, roots, petals, and so on. What’s especially important is the plants' growing habits in their natural setting; it helps to collect them and their parts, inspect and measure. Create sketches to capture all the details.

      Of course, flowers and leaves are the obvious choices in the “Peony of the Month”. But when the peonies are sprouting, Siyuan is keen to include the new shoots in the spring paintings, and in late summer or autumn, she’s also excited to add the wilting ones to the mix. 

    2. The order in which she paints is vital - some parts of the plant will last longer than others. Petals will be the first to wilt and change colour, so start with them, and in the meantime, put them in water that is often changed to keep them fresh. She focuses on leaves afterwards, and stems last.

    3. Botanical art takes a lot of time. It usually requires a lot of focus and attention to detail - there are many elements of the plant to depict. To create a quality painting, it usually takes her two weeks to finish.

    4. Testing the palette - a lot depends on which colour she wants to achieve and how realistic she wants the painting to be. Colours might change significantly when adding another coat of paint or after the paint dries. It’s best not to leave too much room for surprises.

    5. Apart from polishing the artistic skills, it’s important to learn about the plants, too. Understanding the flower will make it easier to paint it more accurately. Therefore, Siyuan often dissects the peonies to study the composition, the petals, and the seed pots. 

    6. As a self-taught artist, Siyuan often learns from the best, such as RHS and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

    7. As well as learning from the best, Siyuan doesn’t lose her personal artistic touch, the fusion of English romance with Oriental elegance. Her style is expressed via her composition of the flowers and the media she uses - Chinese ink and pigments on watercolour paper. 
    Peony of the Month - February - Lovely Rose detail

    We hope that in this article, we shed some light on the distinction between botanical illustration and botanical art and provided you with some useful tips on creating botanical art. If you want to have a closer look at some of the examples, we encourage you to take a look at our limited collection of "Peony of the Month" botanical prints. For each peony of the series, there will be only 35 fine art gicleée prints,  and each one of them will be personally signed and authenticated with Siyuan Ren’s and The Peony Girl’s seal. 

    You’re welcome to see other fine art prints on demand we have in our store, including giclée prints of Chinese gongbi paintings, peony painting prints, oil paintings, and more., including prints of Chinese paintings in gongbi style and oil paintings.

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