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Another gold for botanical artist Esmée Winkel

Alumna Esmée Winkel, scientific illustrator and botanical artist, has been awarded a gold medal by the British Royal Horticultural Society for a series of six watercolours.

Winkel (35) was awarded the gold medal for her series of watercolours of Ophrys, a species of orchid. She made the paintings from living plants in the Leiden Hortus botanicus. Winkel works for the Natural History Museum, Naturalis, in Leiden and can often be found in the Hortus, where she also draws plants and flowers for PhD candidates conducting research on living material. 

Ophrys apifera
Ophrys apifera (© Esmée Winkel)

Strict checklist

It is possible for several botanical artists to win gold at the Botanical Art Exhibition organised by the British Royal Horticultural Society,  Winkel explained. ‘There is a strict checklist for the drawings, but if you meet all the criteria, you are awarded a gold medal. So, several artists can all win the honour.' This year, sixteen gold medals were awarded. Winkel also won gold medals in 2013 and 2016.

Winkel told us that entering the competition meant providing six paintings, preferably on a single theme. With help from Jaco Kruizinga and Rogier van Vugt, florist and head of the greenhouses at the Hortus Botanicus respectively, she made a mini exhibition of the works, with information for each orchid. Once the medals have been announced, the jury speaks to all the candidates, sharing some constructive criticism with them; they had no comments on Winkel's work.    

Big event

The Botanical Art Exhibition of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) took place in the second week of July in the heart of London. It was a big event, at which forty botanical artists, ilustrators and photographers from throughout the world exhibited their work. There were also other exhibitions, workshops and lectures during the exhibition. In the RHS's Lindley Library, which specialises in gardens and botany, works from the library's own collection can be seen, including a scientific illustration by Winkel. The Worth a Thousand Words exhibition can be seen up to and including 17 August. 

Ophrys spruneri
Ophrys spruneri (© Esmée Winkel)

Man as an object of drawing

Esmée Winkel grew up on Curacao and came to Leiden to study biology. Although she always enjoyed drawing, she only discovered during her study programme that she had a real talent for it. Having obtained her bachelor's degree in Leiden (2007), she went to the  Maastricht Academy of Fine Arts and Design (MAFAD) to further develop her skills.There she improved the technique of fine and realistic drawing based on a completely different subject: man as an object of drawing. Winkel drew bones and muscles and was present with her pencil poised at operations and dissections in the Maastricht University Medical Centre.‘ She studied part-time because she already had a  job in Leiden as an illustrator at the Herbarium, at that time part of Leiden's biology department. Later, when the Herbarium became part of Naturalis, Winkel also transferred to Naturalis. 

Illustration for a scientific article

In some instances Winkel completely dismantles a flower in order to be able to examine it in greater detail. The flower is stored in ethanol in order to preserve its characteristics. Winkel's drawings are used to illustrate a scientific article or for a classification. Afterwards, they are saved with the corresponding information.

A photo can never take the place of a drawing. This is how Winkel puts it: 'There is no better way of capturing the essence of a living plant or animal than by drawing or painting it. In spite of the impressive techniques of modern photography, it is only with the help of an illustration that it is possible to reconstruct a damaged plant or dried herbarium material.' 

As a botanical artist Winkel  has a greater degree of freedom. This type of work also has to be precise, but it does not need to contain all the details that are importance for scienctific illustrations.

Esmée Winkel at the award presentation at the Botanical Art Exhibition

Scientific illustrator and botanical artist

Winkel describes herself as a scientific illustrator and botanical artist. Can she explain the difference? Her position at Naturalis is scientific, she says; the work she does is at the request of researchers: 'I record plants in minute detail, with all heir distinguishing characteristics. What's important is that the species has to be immediately recognisable. If I draw a tulip, for example, the flower has to have the ideal shape for the species. Everything has to line up. For example, I also have to show very precisely how the stamens and the female shape, the pistil, emerge from the flower.’

World leader?  

Is Winkel among the world's leading botanical artists? ' That's something other people will determine,' is her response. Still, her work receives prizes every year, and sometimes more than once a year, and it can be found in the permanent collections of important botanical museums in London, New York and... Leiden.  The overview below gives an impression of her achievements.


Gold Medal, Royal Horticultural Society, London, for six watercolours


The Margaret Flockton Award, Second Prize, for a scientific illustration


ASBA Botanical Illustrator Award for Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art


Hermine van Bers Visual Art Prize, Honourable mention


Gold Medal, Royal Horticultural Society, London, for six scientific illustrations


Jill Smythies Award, The Linnean Society of London


Gold Medal, Royal Horticultural Society, London, for six scientific illustrations


Gold Medal, Biscot, Edinburgh, Scotland, for eight scientific illustrations


Jury award, ‘Focus on Nature’ exhibition, New York State Museum, USA, for an illustration of the sex system of dragonflies

Text: Corine Hendriks

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