Botanical Art: An Interview with Leslie Boose

Maintaining a dye garden is a loud and busy business, at least the way we do it is! Once the plants are up and established, there’s weeding, watering, gathering, drying and, eventually, dyeing. There’s also conversation and laughter — we are fortunate to be a group that likes and  cares about each other — and exclamations over the quality of color our plants are producing. We have a good time.  On several occasions over this past summer, our work days included the graceful, quiet presence of Leslie Boose, a student of botanical illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In the midst of activity, Leslie was a still point, silently sitting on the ground, pad in lap, pencil in hand, sketching.  It was a pleasure to stop and peer over her shoulder as we moved between plants and drying racks, watching plants emerge on the page. Another facet of our garden was developing, one we’d not considered. At age three, the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden is attracting and bringing together people with interests beyond dyes, gardening, and fiber. As our community grows, we thought it would be fun to profile some of the people who enrich the experience. Allow us, then, to introduce you to Leslie Boose, botanical illustrator.

Leslie Boose, August 2016

The main goal of botanical illustration is not art, but scientific accuracy. It must portray a plant with the precision and level of detail for it to be recognized and distinguished from another species.

Dye Garden: Hi Leslie! We really enjoyed having you with us this past summer, and watching your work develop. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. First off, would you tell us where you grew up and how long you’ve lived in the Denver area?

Leslie: I grew up in Louisiana.  We moved to the Denver area 25 years ago, and we love it here.

Dye Garden: Did you like to draw as a child? If so, what or who influenced your desire to draw?

Leslie: As a child, I always liked to draw and color, and to make things.  My mom was creative and she encouraged all of her three daughters with art supplies and craft projects.  I had a few teachers who also noticed I liked art, and they encouraged me.  I went on to earn bachelor’s degree in art from the University of New Mexico.

Dye Garden: How did your interest in botanical illustration develop? What do you enjoy about it?

Leslie: I first noticed contemporary botanical art when I saw an exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was the work of students in the botanical illustration program. I really liked it, and thought I would love to do that someday. About 15 years later, I began to take classes. I love illustrating plants and flowers. I like the combination of discipline and creativity to make beautiful art. I also like learning about the history of botanical illustration, which is centuries old.

The need for exactness differentiates botanical illustration from more general flower painting. Many great artists, from the seventeenth-century Dutch masters to the French Impressionists, such as Monet and Renoir, to modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, portrayed flowers; but since their goal was aesthetic, accuracy was not always necessary or intended. In the hands of a talented botanical artist, however, the illustration goes beyond its scientific requirements.

Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, by Leslie Boose.

Dye Garden: Can you tell us more about the botanical illustration program at Denver Botanic Gardens?

Leslie: The School of Botanical Art & Illustration at the Denver Botanic Gardens is really quite wonderful. It offers a curriculum leading to a Foundational Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration, and a more advanced Diploma in Botanical Illustration. The catalog for Winter/Spring 2017 offers 68 classes with 11 instructors.  Visiting instructors are invited from other states, and from other countries, such as England and Australia. Some of the classes offered are in areas outside of botanical illustration, such as calligraphy, book binding, and iconography. Many classes are open to anyone, not just students in the botanical illustration program. There are also classes for teens. Students are of all ages, though many are retirees. Some of us are artists, some are gardeners, and some are both. Some students have art backgrounds, and others don’t. I enjoy learning a variety of techniques (watercolor, graphite, colored pencil, pen and ink, etc.) from the talented staff of instructors. The camaraderie is wonderful. We all encourage and learn from each other. I have finished the Foundational Certificate and am working towards a Diploma.

Dye Garden:  We really enjoyed your presence at the garden this past summer. How did you hear about us and … well … what do you think of it all?

Leslie: I learned about the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden from the Denver Botanical Garden website. I was working on a project about cotton, and I was interested in the indigo growing in the dye garden, because indigo is used to dye cotton. I visited the garden to sketch and photograph the indigo plants, and made an illustration (above). The dye garden is a beautiful, peaceful place, and I was drawn to illustrate more dye plants. With the encouragement of the School of Botanical Art & Illustration director, Mervi Hjelmroos-Koski, my diploma project will be about dye plants growing in the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden. This past summer, I was fortunate to be able to join the dye garden volunteers several times when they worked in the garden on Thursdays. They are a very friendly, creative, and dedicated group!

Dye Garden: Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! We’re delighted that you’ve chosen to do your diploma work on the plants in our garden and cannot wait to see the results. Best of luck to you!

So why can’t this job be done using photography?

Although photography and perhaps particularly microscopic photography, may help inform botanical work, there is certainly still a need for botanical illustration because it can represent clearly what may not easily be seen in a photograph. Outline drawings for example, distinguish elements that cannot easily be made out using reflected light alone. Also, the composition of the image can be manipulated more fully in illustration, and features displayed together which may not easily be shown simultaneously in nature.

Above: Japanese indigo, Polygonum tinctorium, from the summer, 2016 growing season at the Janice Ford Memorial Dye Garden.

Text in green type is from Botanic Gardens Conservation International