Issue: Winter 2008
Laboratory Ink: Linda Mary Reeves' Botanical Drawings
Written by Connie Gotsch
In a corner of the San Juan College biology preparation lab in Farmington, New Mexico, botanical illustrator Linda Mary Reeves opens a ziplock bag and lays a gum eraser, glue stick, scissors and No. 2-H pencil on a counter. She’s starting a botanical illustration—an ancient blend of art and science—amid computer readouts and electron microscopes.
“People have feeling for hand-done art work and hand-applied inks and colors,” the small, broad-shouldered woman explains, setting fine, acid-free vellum paper on the table, settling on a chair, and selecting a folder from a pile at her elbow.
Drawings begin with an example, preferably a live plant or photograph, but in this case, a dried herbarium specimen of Bignonia capreolata, commonly known as trumpet bush or crossvine.
“Plant roadkill, as one of the students said.” Her laughter booms, and her short straight hair fluffs around her face. “Flattened, run over and glued onto a piece of acid-free paper.”
Bignonia capreolata grows in the southeastern United States, but this specimen has an interesting western connection. The naturalist who collected it, a Mr. Vasey, worked with John Wesley Powell.
Nodding at the yellowed, handwritten card with the plant, Reeves points out the year it was pressed, 1878, then examines the brown flowers, stems, fruits, leaves and vines. Because she’s drawing for publication, she’ll use black ink, though she owns two magnificent boxes of colored pencils.
No. 2H pencil swishing, she shapes and reshapes the life-sized lines. “You need to pay close attention to the base, the apex which is at the tip, and the margin which is the edge of the leaf. Then also the venation—the way the veins are.”
This Bignonia capreolata has a compound leaf, with each blade attached to a common stem or petiole. Its veins curl parallel to the leaf edges. Reeves elects to suggest those details rather than fully render them.
Botanical illustrators choose what to emphasize in a drawing. Highlighting plant attributes helps people identify species. “It’s kind of an untruth emphasizing it,” Reeves admits, “But it draws people’s attention to it.”
Bignonia capreolata leaves outlined, she selects a micron archival ink pen, which resembles a fine magic marker, and draws swift, broken lines over her pencil marks. A solid line would “look a little forced,” she muses. “It should look like a drawing.” Reeves prefers a light cast to her illustrations, opposed to the dark appearance favored by some botanical illustrators. She uses her particular pen because it doesn’t smear or cause ink blots.
Trained as a botanist, Linda Mary Reeves began her botanical illustration career drawing ferns for her husband’s research at the New York Botanical Gardens and Boston University. One day in Boston while she drew, an explosion shook the lab next door. “I wondered what was going on,” she recalls.
A 19th-century steam pipe had burst, ruining drawings for evolutionary cell biologist Lynn Margulis’ book Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth. She burst into Reeves’ workspace, exclaiming, “You’re an illustrator. Can you illustrate a book for me?’”
“I was thrilled.” Reeves guffaws as she continues to draw.
By convention, a botanical illustration’s light source comes from the upper left, so, using tiny dots, she shades portions of the leaves that would be in shadow. Some illustrators leave drawings flat, but Reeves believes the three-dimensional effect “gives a little life to the drawing.”
Finishing the basic shadows, she lays the drawing aside. When it dries in about a day, she’ll spend five to ten more hours filling in details. Next, she’ll integrate her signature and copyright into the drawing, glue it to acid-free board, label its parts, and send it for publication.
Reeves enjoys botanical illustration because it has taught her things such as plant lore. The Navajo used the inner bark of cliffrose for diapers. Indigenous people around the world employed monkshood as a hunting poison. “And who knows what else … sometimes,” she chuckles.
As a botanical illustrator, Reeves has spotted errors in written plant descriptions and made delightful discoveries. Sketching a Russian olive fruit, she caught a bronze tint that she didn’t expect. A magnifying glass revealed tiny hairs that looked like “golden suns.”
“It was so beautiful I could hardly contain myself.” A smile spreads across her round face. “A new plant species is really neat. It’s really neat to do that.”
“Aralia racemosa” graphite on paper
“Sambucus racemosa” graphite on paper
Linda Mary Reeves is co-editor of Flora of the Four Corners Region, the San Juan River Drainage of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, available through Missouri Botanical Garden Press. For more information or to view sample illustrations, visit http://www.sanjuancollege.edu/pages/433asp. Linda teaches both botany and botanical illustration at San Juan College in Farmington. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connie Gotsch is the program director for KSJE 90.9 –FM, Public Radio in Farmington, New Mexico. She hosts the award-winning show, Roving with the Arts, 8 until noon weekdays, and the writers’ half-hour, Write On Four Corners, on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and Friday at 2:30 p.m., http://www.ksje.com. She has published two novels, Snap Me a Future and A Mouth Full of Shell, available from http://www.dlsijpress.com. In August 2009, she will publish a children’s novel, Belle’s Star, with Artemesia Press, http://www.apbooks.net.