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Interview with Alice Tangerini, Staff Illustrator, Smithsonian Institution


As a Staff Illustrator for the Botany Department at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Alice Tangerini has been specializing in drawing plants since 1972. She works with pen and ink, graphite, and—recently—digital color. She has illustrated over 1000 species of plants appearing in scientific periodicals, floras, and botanical and nature books. Tangerini teaches classes in illustration techniques, presents lectures on botanical illustration, and juries shows in botanical gardens and academic institutions. Her responsibilities in the Botany Department also include managing and curating an extensive collection of botanical illustrations. In 1999, Tangerini received the Distinguished Service Award from the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators. In 2008, she was honored with the Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art award from the American Society of Botanical Artists, of which she is a past Board Member.


What incited you to become a scientific illustrator?

I had always been interested in drawing the natural world since I was in elementary school. My subjects were horses, dogs, and dinosaurs, the latter probably from the early influence of visiting the Smithsonian museums. Even in art school during the late 1960s and early 1970s I continued this interest in realism rather than abstraction. In 1968 (I was in a local junior college) a neighbor, Virginia Jachowski, who knew I liked to draw, recommended that I apply for a summer apprenticeship at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) with a botanist in our neighborhood. The botanist, Dr. Lyman Smith, a Harvard graduate, agreed to view my portfolio to apply. I took over a manila folder of horse and dog drawings rendered in pen and ink, to show him. When he looked at the drawings he asked: “Have you done any plants?” I carefully pointed out the grass under the horse’s hooves and he gave me a quizzical look but said: “Come on down to the museum and I’ll give you a try.”

That began four summers of drawing at NMNH for Dr. Smith. During that first summer, Dr. Smith invited me over to his house to meet a visiting artist, who happened to be Margaret Mee. He was reviewing some of her paintings, perhaps to purchase for himself. He had earlier commissioned several paintings for a book he had written, Jewels of the Rainforest, which were subsequently donated to the Department of Botany through a National Science Foundation grant. Mee’s paintings were strewn all over the furniture in the house and I found them to be beautifully painted plant portraits, mainly of Bromeliads (Lyman’s specialty). Margaret Mee was a small woman with big eyes who was talking about her travels in the Amazon. I found it fascinating that she traveled in a canoe down the Amazon to collect her plants. These plants then became the subjects of the paintings I was seeing in Dr. Smith’s living room.


Describe to us the process of producing a botanical illustration. What choices do you have to make?

Production of a scientific illustration involves a collaboration between the scientist and the artist. In a museum, typically the specimens are provided by the scientist for the artist. In an herbarium, the material is dried herbarium specimens which may or may not be accompanied by photographic images of the plant before it was pressed. I usually ask if the drawing is for the publication of a new species, a monographic treatment, or a flora, as this may determine the level of detail. A new species usually involves the most specific detail since it must represent the Type of the species and match the description which is published with the drawing.

I generally start by making photocopies of all the material at natural size and trace the habit (the representative part of the plant on the herbarium sheet). Tracing papers and matte acetate (a coated film) are used in tracing the photocopies and the resulting sketches are attached with clear tape to a smooth Bristol board in a format at twice the publication page size. Then I make more detailed drawings of the specimen’s flowers and fruits by first rehydrating the parts in a solution of water, alcohol, and aerosol in a petri dish on a hot plate. When these are sufficiently relaxed I make dissections of them under my microscope (a Wild M5 outfitted with a camera lucida) and trace the magnified figures at a size that will show the necessary characters for their description. I retrace the camera lucida sketches into more refined drawings and add those figures to the plate. I use as much of the area as possible within the format for the figures. The penciled plate is then reviewed by the scientist for accuracy. After approval I place a sheet of translucent drafting film over the penciled plate and trace in ink with a combination of flexible pen nibs (Hunt nibs 102, 104), mechanical pens (Rotring Isograph) and a Winsor Newton sable brush in size 000. I use shading techniques of line and stipple to achieve the most accurate depiction of the specimen while retaining clarity for the reduced publication size. The illustration is scanned at 1200 dpi and any further manipulation of the figures and composition is achieved in Adobe Photoshop when labels and scales are also added. I reduce the final image to the journal page size.

Scientific illustrations were traditionally drawn in line or graphite to save on the higher cost of publishing in color. And in botanicals the source material from herbaria usually had no color reference. This is now changing.


What changes have you seen in scientific illustration and publication throughout your long career at the Smithsonian?

Scientific illustration has gone from a traditional drawing method to a digital one. Most of my early graphic tools and devices are obsolete now. Even the use of line art is slowly disappearing as many journals are only online and there are no publication page charge differences in media. Some scientific illustrators still use traditional media (ink, watercolor, graphite) and I still prefer the feel of a pen in my hand, but the digital method can save time on any changes in the drawing. My work falls in between the two and all my color illustrations are now digital. For digital drawing I use a graphics software program (Adobe Photoshop) and a 27” drawing monitor (Wacom Cintiq). The advantage of a large monitor is the ability to enlarge the illustration on the screen, thus saving vision strain. Since most reference images come in as digital photographs, I can also trace the photographs directly on the monitor screen and add my own corrections in the final drawing.

The botanical journals that are online do not necessarily publish a print version. In 2012 the botanical community voted to allow electronic publication of new species. The former requirement to have a drawing accompany the description of a new species has been removed. Many botanists now publish only with digital photographs as it can save time and the expense of an illustration. I feel that an illustration still contains much more information in its representation as it requires the thought and knowledge of an illustrator to parse the details that make a plant or new species distinct.