botanical art books

by Grace Bonney

Despite all the sweet and well-meaning comments I received after my last tattoo post, I’m still planning on moving forward with my own this summer. I’m looking to get a very precise botanical illustration with clean lines and a specific flower that pertains to my home state, so I’ve been hunting through vintage and antique botanical books to find a good image. I don’t want to pull an exact image to replicate (but rather something to use as a jumping-off point), but after going through books this weekend, I was tempted to rip out some of these pages and run to the nearest artist.

While shopping at Eden on Friday, I picked up a copy of an oldie-but-goodie book from Chronicle called Plants and Their Application to Ornament by Eugene Grasset. The cover alone was so close to what I was looking for that I immediately added it to my bag of goodies and brought it home. After seeing me flip through this book, my summer roomie, Lisa, dragged out a few choice books: Garden of Eden and Insects of Surinam. The former was my favorite, and it’s got about 15 of my D*S business cards stuck in pages marking them for potential tattoo usage.

Those books inspired me to further dive into the world of scientific plant and insect illustration, so I hope you’ll join me after the jump for a few more of my favorites. xo, grace

Amazing Rare Things is a gorgeous collection of various flora, fauna, gem and insect illustrations that are beyond inspirational. Some of them are so bright, colorful and unexpected that it’s hard to believe they occur naturally in the wild. If you’re looking for something unique and special to inspire you, this one is a must.

Last but not least, The Roses is an incredibly lush book full of illustrations that are enough to inspire you to plant a rose garden even in the smallest of spaces. Each page is more rich and full of color than the next — and if you were ever thinking about getting some permanent ink in the shape of a rose, this would be a great place to start for inspiration. If body art isn’t your thing, this also offers great inspiration for a centerpiece or home floral arrangement.

I’m still rummaging around Powells’ used-book section for more botanical illustration books, but if you have a favorite, I’d love to hear some of yours in the comment section below.

More images from Garden of Eden:

More images from Plants and Their Application to Ornament:

More images from Insects of Surinam:

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  • I really like the look of botanical art, I’ve been looking through second hand bookshops for old books to frame some illustrations but no luck yet. Not a bad idea for a tattoo I think, it’s classic and not something you’d get bored with quickly. Good luck!

  • I have been in love with Botanicals since childhood. Thanks so much for this post – very dear to my heart.

  • I love the Insects of Surinam and Amazing Rare things book. Some of my favourite naturalist pieces. I’m going to definitely check out Plants and their application to Ornament. Do you like Ernst Haeckel’s stuff, too?

  • Maria Sibylla Merian – check out her life story. It’s pretty amazing what she accomplished during the time period that she lived! Needless to say her illustrations are gorgeous. The books I read were: Women on the margins : three seventeenth-century lives by Natalie Zemon Davis and Chrysalis : Maria Sibylla Merian and the secrets of metamorphosis by Kim Todd. Not exactly beach reading (it’s up in the 90s today in NYC) but worth it.

  • soo much loveliness! love them all. i bought a book of vintage botanical images from starbucks (!!) about a decade ago (it was such a nonseller it had been marked down to $2), and i still love it. now i know exactly what to do with a damaged wall i can’t look at any longer!
    dang, this site makes me happy.

  • I really liked the post about your tattoo explorations, and wanted to comment then, but maybe the original intention was lost in all the opinions out there….I am a tattooed lady and I take great care in my design, color and most importantly artist choices when getting tattooed. My husband is a tattoo artist and owns his own custom shop, in our sleepy Southern city, I have been very lucky to discover many wonderful tattoo artists out there, and after seeing your references you should really check out Sarah Schor at New York adorned…..she just tattooed a friend of mine who was in NYC for a music gig , her work is feminine and so beautiful….have fun with the process…

  • I think that’s a fantastic idea for a tattoo! I love tattoos, except I generally dislike tattoo art, if that makes any sense. Best of luck!

  • I love natural history illustration and haven’t seen some of these books–I’m excited to take a closer look at them. Thanks for the recommendations!

  • Wonderful book selection–I’ve never seen Plants and Their Application to Ornament, definitely going to have to pick a copy of that up. You probably know about Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel, but if not, it is amazing!

  • I have a begonia on my forearm and the inspiration was botanical artwork. I am hoping to get a larger tattoo that includes many of the flowers from my childhood in the same style. I love it! And five years in, I still think my begonia is stunning.

  • These are amazing! I have one of underwater creatures and is superb. Do you know of any good bird illustration book? I have been on the hunt with little success.

  • Grace, another good place to find botanical images is on Pinterest. There is at least one member you can follow who pins only botanicals. And I second Ernst Haeckel’s “Art Forms in Nature.” Even if it doesn’t inspire a tatoo, it will inspire you otherwise.

  • Have you seen the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities by Albertus Seba? It’s giant and expensive, but would definitely provide you with some more amazing images! I have a sketch of my dad’s lobster boat on my foot, and I never regret it because it’s meaningful to me and reminds me of my home in Maine.

  • My good friend has a tattoo based on floral design from the Perrier-Jouet champagne bottle- I have always loved it: http://imagehost.vendio.com/preview/a/887395/aview/perrier_jouet.jpg – she has it in black and it actually is even prettier than it looks here. Botanical images are great, but don’t rule out other iconic sources of style inspiration! Good luck – I’m sure you will find something that you will still love when you are 100 years old.

  • My favorite is the first print. I love the looping vines and the title is perfect!! I bet they wouldn’t have thought it would be inspiration for ornaments on your body! :) Portland is inspiring for tattoos. I never thought I’d get one, but now I can’t take my eyes off of them!

  • I have several tattoos and love all of them. I thought hard about each one and they all mean something to me. So…all your research and thought will show, and you will LOVE your new art! Enjoy and can’t wait to see the finished tattoo!

  • A studio teacher of mine has the most amazing beautiful tattoo- on her inside forearm, it is white ink only, and a lacy design….barely there. It is so subtle it almost looks like the imprint after she leaned on a piece of lace. So unique, unexpected and absolutely gorgeous.

  • The New York Public Library also has a complete collection of digital images that you can thumb through. As long as you are not using them for commercial purposes they are just the cost of your own ink.

  • These kinds of drawings make fantastic tattoos (with the right artist, obviously), so I wholeheartedly endorse your plan!! :) We’re thinking of what we can do to dress up our ceiling in our tiny house and I was just realizing some of these images decoupaged up there would look rad. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • I have a floral design on my back – it’s actually taken from a plate design of a New Zealand crockery producer from the 50’s – 80’s. It’s look is very similar to the style you are looking at so you may find what you’re looking for further and wider than books. I’d recommend shopping around for tattooists too – not all are good at fine and detailed lines. Happy hunting!!!

  • “Plants and Their Application to Ornament” is my new “g0-to” resource because it’s oversized, printed on high quality paper stock and organized by flower/plant motif.

  • I have always loved botanical illustrations. In fact, I just recently bookmarked a vintage nasturtium seed packet for my next piece!

  • Absolutely loved your tattoo post before, and was wondering something specific (I don’t know if you read these but I figured it was worth a shot). I also want to get a tattoo, specifically of a white rose. It’s sort of a long story why, but the white rose has a lot of meaning for me and I haven’t been able to find any good images for my design. Would any of those books happen to have any images of white roses? A botanical-style one is exactly what I’m looking for. If so, would you be able to tell me where to buy these books? Are they on amazon?
    Thanks again!

  • I’ve owned Plants and Their Application to Ornament for a few years now and always thought that I would get a tattoo inspired by one of the designs- haven’t done it yet, but it’s still on my mind. Good choice!

  • So beautiful! For my tattoo I ended up scanning and photoshopping a few of my favourite Japanese woodblock prints and kinda merged them all together to create a unique image for my back… I might be coming to NY next year (from Aus) – any other good recommendations for tattoo artists out there?

  • I have a copy of Insects of Surinam too! It is visually stunning, which is why I picked it up in the first place, but the backstory of Maria Sibylla Merian, the artist who created the beautiful images is fascinating. She was a groundbreaking entomologist who researched the metamorphosis of the butterfly. She went to Surinam when she was 52 to research the insects there and first published her findings in 1705. Sorry to nerd out over here, but I love her images and her story!

    PS: I know a previous commenter recommended Cabinet of Natural Curiosities by Albertus Seba already, I second that recommendation!

  • I’ve got a copy of “Plants and Their Application to Ornament”, it’s a beautiful book, full of really inspiring images. Thanks, you have just inspired me to dig out my copy and give myself a creative boost!!

  • I got my tattoo when I turned 50. I use a lot of botanical imagery on my pottery, so I just used one of my images, a bindweed. Along with live plants and photographs I look at a lot of botanical illustration. See if you can find “The Queen’s Hidden Garden, Buckingham Palace’s Treasury of Wild Plants” with illustrations by Marjorie Lyon. Also, “An Illustrated Histor of The Garden Flower: Flora” by Brent Elliott. Also, “Art Nouveau Flowers and Floral Ornament in Full Color- Gustave Kolb and Charles Gmelich.
    “Plants and their Application to Ornament” is invaluable to me! Also check out the work of 19c Japanese Woodblock artist, Kono Bairei, andfind the book “Japanese Woodblock Flower Prints”, Tanigami Konan.
    I absolutely love this stuff and I agree that you should have your tatto designed for you, don’t just lift an image.

  • ahem…we have a card set from that first book in the gift shop at Lan Su Garden (my day job). It’s definitely worth a visit while you’re here!

    Isn’t Eden fabulous? Did you stop in Porch Light as well?

  • Check out two books from the Getty Museum in LA. “Nature Illuminated” and “The Art of the Pen.” Absolutely incredible and stunning botanicals and insects combined with calligraphy from the European Renaissance book, “The Model Book of Calligraphy” (Mira calligraphiae monumenta–from the court of Emperor Rudolf II.) I have been a botanical illustration fan for years and these blew me away!! They also sell books of these postcards in their gift shop.

  • Does anyone know of any contemporary Botanical Artists? I love the traditional style but I was curious as to whether it has been practised/explored in a more modern fashion?

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