Bright Red Octopus

77 Fantastical Illustrations Of The Natural World, From Deep-Sea Octopuses To Carnivorous Plants

Published March 2, 2020
Updated July 2, 2020

Whether it's the anatomy of a cucumber or the skull of a sunfish, these incredible illustrations captured the natural world before the advent of modern photography.

Colorful Drawings Of Bandfish
Carnivorous Plants
Illustrated Beetles
77 Fantastical Illustrations Of The Natural World, From Deep-Sea Octopuses To Carnivorous Plants
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It's hard to imagine since the advent of digital imaging, microscopic enhancements, and high-resolution photography that once upon a time the natural world could be viewed only through our eyes.

Long before the days of instant and modern photography, scientists relied on the skilled hands of artists to recreate their discoveries on paper. The results were surprisingly lifelike — and occasionally rather fantastical.

Botanical illustration, in particular, was a crucial art form for centuries. Dating back to ancient Egypt, these detailed renderings helped people to identify edible plants or plants that could be used for dyes and wares. As the ages progressed, the practice of botanical illustration remained useful for traders in 17th-century Holland, for example, to help tulip bulb collectors to record rare differences in their precious flowers during the so-called Tulip Mania.

As the sciences advanced along with our ability to explore the world so too did the art of nature illustration. The results were stunning.

The Merging Of Science And Art

Orange Tree

Biodiversity Heritage LibraryBotanical illustrations such as this commonly displayed the many parts and stages of a plant and its life.

Natural illustrations were vital educational tools and the art itself became rather esteemed. For example, artist Sarah Stone was among the first and few successful female nature artists and she was a highly-sought collaborator on scientific journals.

By the age of 21, Stone was invited to exhibit four of her works at the Royal Academy of Arts — a proud achievement since the institute was still closed to women artists at the time.

Stone received commissions from many notable explorers, including Sir Ashton Lever, who hired her to illustrate objects in his famed natural history and ethnography museum, the Holophusikon. In her late twenties, Stone illustrated the 1790 book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales which popularized the intriguing beasts seen by British settlers when they arrived in Australia.

Despite the labor and cost that these nature illustrations commanded, for centuries they gave readers an even better look at wild specimens than early photographs.

"An illustration can show various parts of a plant at the same time, something a photo really can't," said Robin Jess, director of the New York Botanical Garden's Botanical Art and Illustration program.

"The illustration does it better than almost anything else," added Laurence J. Dorr of the Botanical program.

"And does it much, much better than a photograph."

Over time, this niche art form has naturally become less popular with the invention of modern photography which has rendered the documentation of nature quicker, easier, and cheaper.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library

Variegated Lizard

Public LibraryThe Variegated Lizard by Sarah Stone from her pioneering nature book Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales.

In 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution digitized thousands of natural illustrations from as early as the 1400s in a collection made accessible to the general public.

The extensive collection ranges from black and white line drawings to full-color paintings, allowing the general public the opportunity to explore a world of newly identified flora and fauna which were then still untouched by the effects of human presence. The collection is both educational and eye-catching. It also features a range of scientific illustrations of mythical creatures that the world's naturalists once believed could be real.

While the images are undoubtedly beautiful glimpses into a bygone era, they are also a useful tool when it comes to preservation and cataloging species.

Researchers at the BHL believe that the vintage artwork could help modern-day entomologists better understand how insect species have been affected by natural disasters, such as the Australian wildfires. The collection can also prove vital to researchers in their attempts to recreate damaged ecosystems in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Indeed, some of the flora depicted in the collection have changed dramatically since they were first illustrated, demonstrating life's ability to adapt to change.

The images also demonstrate a way of thinking about the natural world that is different from how scientists think today. Some images show how societal norms influenced art and science. For instance, many of the animal illustrations depict creatures in family units in order to make them more relatable to humans in accordance with their own social values.

Many of the elephant images, specifically, show a mother and father elephant accompanied by a baby. Unfortunately, drawing the natural world in accordance with social norms would sometimes fail to portray how these animals actually lived. In reality, young elephants typically live only with their mothers while the male elephants tend to roam alone.

Launched in 2006, the BHL is the world's largest open-access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. The library aims to provide the public with access to archival materials that are generally only available in small libraries or aging volumes.

The consortium hopes to bring these small volumes to researchers around the world in order to expand the appreciation for the importance of biodiversity.

With the newly-digitized library, the BHL is bringing an appreciation for history, an understanding of art, and education on the importance of both to the masses.

Next, see more natural wonders in this gallery of storm chaser photography. Then, take a look at some rarely-seen ocean oddities with these deep-sea photographs.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Serena, Katie. "77 Fantastical Illustrations Of The Natural World, From Deep-Sea Octopuses To Carnivorous Plants.", March 2, 2020, Accessed June 16, 2024.