Margareta Pertl has been a botanical illustrator for 20 years. She lives in Vienna and Dublin, but spends much of her time traveling to places where she can capture the likeness of the plant world.
You have been working as a botanical illustrator for 20 years, how did it all begin?
We were living in Ireland, close to the Botanical Gardens, when I went to listen to a lecture the head gardener was giving on orchids. I was fascinated by what he said, so I started to look carefully at the plants, how they are constructed and how they reproduce. That was the start of my botanical illustrations. I began drawing and painting orchids and decided to complete 50 watercolors and exhibit them for my 50th birthday.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a project on the go, in which I am trying to find and illustrate the orchids named after Frederick Moore. He was director of the Botanical Gardens in Dublin around 1900.
How is it going?
Good. It's so interesting. I've been to Germany and to Holland and now to Madagascar as well.
Madagascar must offer particular riches for a botanical illustrator?
Yes. I went there with Anton Sieder from the Botanic Garden of the University of Vienna to illustrate the vanilla plants he has been researching for the past 11 years. I'm trying to illustrate all the different vanilla species that grow in Madagascar.
Not everyone will be aware that vanilla is a type of orchid.
It is. And there are many types of vanilla that are unique to Madagascar. We went to the east coast where there are still parts of rainforests which are home to two types of vanilla. We have never seen them in bloom, so I wanted to draw them.
Did you succeed?
Not quite. We found them and know they grow there, but we still haven't seen them in flower.
What is the role of botanical illustration in this rapid age of digital photography?
I use everything at my disposal – including digital cameras and scanners – to illustrate plants. But even the best scan doesn't offer consistent depth. And with illustration, I can show the plants at different stages of bloom or during different phases of their growth, and can also depict the roots, or the tiniest little hair.
I have the habitus, the cross-section, the details and the flower from all angles on one page. Even if you look at the very best photograph, only a small part of it has depth of focus. It was explained to me to achieve the same depth of focus using current technology, it would be necessary to take hundreds of digital photos and put them together.
John Ruskin said, "if you can paint one leaf, you can paint the whole world."
I think that's very characteristic, because the whole cosmos opens. If I look closely, and in-depth, I really see the diversity of nature.
To what extent do you think botanical illustration will remain important in the future?
Very important. First of all, it is a form of documentation. In Madagascar, for example, the rainforests are being so badly decimated that some plants probably won't exist for much longer. But even here, five or six species are disappearing every day.
By drawing them, and by giving painting courses, and by addressing the issue of threatened plants, we create an awareness. That sharpens our vision and our comprehension. Perception is so important, as it creates a profound knowledge about our environment.
If you draw a tree, press its leaves and touch its rind, the tree will stay with you. The drawing doesn't have to be good, because this is all about developing an awareness of the environment around us. Ultimately we don't break what we know.