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

By Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com

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.

“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.”

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  1. One can learn diplomacy from birds. Once years ago, a friend and I were sitting on a boat raft just after sunrise talking about what our next enterprising efforts would be. Two barn swallows swooped down and sat in the middle of the space separating us, 6 feet or so, on gunwales of a rowboat on the dock listening to us, carefully, for several minutes. They were barely an arm’s length away and taking it all in. They could tell our ideas would mean future food and lodging. Wild birds can listen intently.