Rumex hymenosepalus
and lucretia hamilton's compositional technique

While several of Lucretia Hamilton’s botanical illustrations have been included in the Desert Breeze over the past few years, we’ve never looked analytically at the drawings to see what makes them so remarkable. Botanical illustrations, above all else, must strive for absolute accuracy in recording the plant’s form, relative size, and, where applicable, color. Hamilton’s drawings, particularly those of cacti, certainly display that accuracy. But what else makes them so successful?

What I find most exceptional in this drawing of Rumex hymenosepalus is her mastery of compositional technique. Arranging on a single page all the elements of a plant is not an easy skill to master. So many pieces have to be arranged in a coherent and artistic way—the habit, a typical leaf, the flower, flower dissections, enlarged seeds, and roots. With so many detailed components on one page, the artist must find a way to guide the viewer through the drawing. If executed well, the illustration will provide a specific point where the eye is drawn to enter the page. Once there, the viewer should be able to move easily along a visual pathway to take in all the elements of the work.

In this drawing, the cluster of dark tubers at bottom right creates a focal point with strong simple shapes and intense shading. Nothing else in the drawing has such an immediate attraction for the eye. Once within the drawing, a circular pathway leads from the tubers along the rhizome to the stem and the plant’s habit. This broad area can serve as a visual resting spot before continuing on to the large leaf arching to the right, leading the eye to the dense whorls of flowers on the inflorescence. Below this, the uppermost left tuber points to the enlargement of an achene, and the sheer size of the enlargement easily holds the eye. The various levels of shading and the wide variety of textures created for the various plant structures keep the eye circulating around the page until all the details have been seen.

If it seems that I exaggerate the effect of this visual pathway, take a look at the second illustration, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica. The drawing looks as though it might have been prepared from a pressed herbarium specimen, as there is very little depth to the plant’s form. To enter the drawing, the viewer’s eye would be drawn first to the darkly toned seed enlargement. From there, the vertical stem of the flower takes the eye directly to the top of the drawing—where it stops. There is no easy circulation leading through the entire work. Of course, this drawing is not a terribly complicated one, and a viewer can methodically look at each element in turn. But the contrast between the two drawings illustrates the value of an effective visual pathway.

With all this said, there are many constraints on botanical illustrations prepared for scientific publications where available space can be severely limited. Many of Hamilton’s drawings fall into this category, and in such circumstances, the best compositional techniques may have to be set aside.

Below are two older illustrations of Rumex hymenosepalus. The first is by Matilda Smith, the prolific illustrator of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine who painted the titan arum lily in bloom and also Kew Garden's saguaro. The second illustration is by Margaret Warriner Buck from The Wild Flowers of California: Their Names, Haunts, and Habits. — Cindy Hartwell

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This article appeared in the August 2020 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.