Free botanical illustrations

Free botanical illustrations DEFAULT

“We need the tonic of wildness,” writes Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 classic Walden; or, Life in the Wood. “We can never get enough of nature.”

Had he lived in our time, Thoreau would’ve been thrilled to know that the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), the world’s largest open-access digital archive dedicated to the natural world, is now offering more than 150,000 high-resolution illustrations for copyright-free download.

These public domain images belong to an archive of more than 55 million pages of literature about earth’s species of flora and fauna. They include animal sketches, historical diagrams, botanical studies, and scientific research collected from hundreds of thousands of journals and libraries across the world. Some of the illustrations date back to the 15th century.

According to BHL, sharing these documents with the public is instrumental in combating the climate crisis. “To document Earth’s species and understand the complexities of swiftly-changing ecosystems in the midst of a major extinction crisis and widespread climate change, researchers need something that no single library can provide — access to the world’s collective knowledge about biodiversity,” the library says on its website.

It continues, “While natural history books and archives contain information that is critical to studying biodiversity, much of this material is available in only a handful of libraries globally. Scientists have long considered this lack of access to biodiversity literature as a major impediment to the efficiency of scientific research.”

The collections are a feast to the eye. Among them, you’ll find a digitized copy of Joseph Wolf’s 19th-century book Zoological Sketches, containing about 100 lithographs depicting wild animals in London’s Regent’s Park. You’ll also find watercolors depicting flowers indigenous to the Hawaiian islands, and an 1833 DIY Taxidermist’s Manual.

To enhance research, the library also offers search features to find species by taxonomy and an option to follow online conversations about books and articles in the archive. As it continues to add collections to the public domain, the library is currently working on a project to promote awareness of the field notes available from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries, and the National Museum of Natural History. Launched in 2010, the project’s goal is to catalog 5,000 field books and provide easy access to them.

Selected images from the public domain images are available on the library’s Flickr and Instagram pages.  

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital... More by Hakim Bishara


You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

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Botanical illustrations offer mesmerizingly detailed and vividly colored glimpses of the natural world. Now, reports Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic, more than 150,000 such artworks are freely available for download via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an open-access digital archive that preserves images and documents related to botany, wildlife and biodiversity.

Captured in watercolor paintings, lithograph prints and black-ink linework, the collected illustrations demonstrate the diversity of Earth’s wildlife as observed over hundreds of years. The BHL’s earliest texts date to the mid-1400s; its digital collection includes illustrations as recently created as the early 1900s.

The practice of creating detailed illustrations of flora and fauna, whether to document an expedition or a medical practice, gained popularity well before photography was up to the task. Even today, an illustration can offer more clarity than a photograph.

You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

“An illustration can show various parts of a plant at the same time, something a photo really can’t,” Robin Jess, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Botanical Art and Illustration program, told the Associated Press’ Katherine Roth in 2019. “It can show extra details of the fruit, for example, and what it looks like bisected.”

Founded in 2006 by a consortium of natural history libraries, among them the Smithsonian Libraries, the BHL launched its online portal the following year. Then 300 titles strong, the database has since grown to more than 200,000 volumes, 150,000 illustrations and information on some 150 million species. Per Hyperallergic, selections range from animal sketches to historical diagrams and botanical studies.

Collected illustrations and digitized pages of preserved plants, called herbaria, provide insights for researchers studying the ways plants have adjusted to a changing climate. Other works, like the zoological sketches of Joseph Wolf, show how societal norms have shaped the ways people imagine animals.

You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

Wolf illustrated two volumes of rare animals depicted in their natural environment rather than the London zoo where they actually lived. In one lithograph, a trio of African elephants stands by a river. As BHL’s Elisa Herrmann points out in a blog entry, the illustration “reflects the ideal of a Victorian family,” with two parents and a child, but fails to capture actual wild elephant behavior. Unlike what’s shown in the illustration, bull elephants are rogue, and adult female elephants have tusks.

The Flora Graeca, compiled by botanist John Sibthorp between 1806 and 1840, exemplifies the importance of illustrators’ field notes. Described by 20th-century botanist W.T. Stearn as “the most costly and beautiful book devoted to any flora,” the text features drawings printed with hand-colored engraved plates based on Austrian artist Ferdinand Lukas Bauer’s trove of 1,000-plus field sketches.

The BHL is currently cataloging thousands of field books in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Since the project began in 2010, the group has cataloged more than 9,500 field books and digitized some 4,000.

You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

In its mission statement, the BHL cites swiftly changing ecosystems and extinctions as reasons for bringing together a body of knowledge about biodiversity that may help researchers track how the world is changing today. In the wake of Australia’s wildfires, for instance, scientists could make use of this 1907 catalog of Australia’s insects.

Today, writes Adrian Higgins for the Washington Post, botanical illustrators are “rare and becoming as endangered as some of the plants they draw.” The fruits of their labor, however, have and continue to be “essential” for botanists detailing new species or assembling lists of regions’ native plants.

Speaking with the Associated Press, Jess of the New York Botanical Garden explained, “Contemporary botanical artists share a concern for the environment, particularly in light of climate change, as well as for drawing attention to plants.”

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150,000 Botanical and Animal Illustrations Available for Free Download from Biodiversity Heritage Library

Billed as the world’s largest open access digital archive dedicated to life on Earth, the Biodiversity Heritage Library is comprised of animal sketches, historical diagrams, botanical studies, and various scientific research collected from hundreds of thousands of journals and libraries around the globe. In an effort to share information and promote collaboration to combat the ongoing climate crisis, the site boasts a collection of more than 55 million pages of literature, some of which dates back to the 15th century. At least 150,000 illustrations are available for free download in high-resolution files.

Among the collections is a digital copy of Joseph Wolf’s The Zoological Sketches, two volumes containing about 100 lithographs depicting wild animals housed in London’s Regent’s Park. Wolf originally sketched and painted the vignettes in the mid-19th century. Other diverse works range from a watercolor project detailing flowers indigenous to the Hawaiian islands, to a guide for do-it-yourself taxidermy replete with illustrated instructions published in 1833.

The library also offers a variety of tools, including search features to find species by taxonomy and another option to monitor online conversations related to books and articles in the archive. Consistently adding collections to the public domain, the organization currently is working on a project to promote awareness of the field notes available from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries, and the National Museum of Natural History.

For those who don’t want to dig through pages of archives, head to Flickr and Instagram for a more streamlined visual experience. (via This Isn’t Happiness)



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