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Smithsonian Illustrator Draws on the Life of Plants

Visual impairment doesn’t stop Alice Tangerini from dissecting flora to make detailed diagrams.

Alice Tangerini sometimes spends an entire day sketching the tiny hairs of a magnified plant, her hand making the exact same motion over and over. “They have to reflect the growth pattern because the hairs grow away from the mid-vein on either side,” she says, gesturing over the dried leaf of a Colombian species. “You have to constantly turn the paper so you get that perfect little hair, and each hair’s little curl.”

That attention to microscopic detail—not to mention plenty of patience—is important to understanding Tangerini, a staff illustrator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History since 1972. Her anatomically accurate and beautifully rendered scientific drawings of plant life, from palm trees to lichens, have been published in books as well as displayed in museums and gardens worldwide. In 2008, she received the Award for Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art from the American Society of Botanical Artists.

Tangerini, 61, is arguably one of the best botanical illustrators in the United States—even after losing the use of one eye for close-up work.

“One of the things that helped me is that I had excellent vision when I was younger,” Tangerini says. “I could look at something an inch from my face and see detail. I could also look at a tree in the distance and say what kind of tree it is because I could see the leaves.”

That’s not the case anymore. The Maryland native discovered a few years ago that the retina on her right eye was scarred, and she had to retrain her left eye to see up close. Now when she draws she wears a pirate patch, decorated with skull and crossbones. She got the idea from her boss’s son. “It gives me a little more fierce look,” she says with a smile. “People see it and they don’t ask any questions.”

Tools of the trade

In addition to sketching on archival drafting film with fine pens and brushes, Tangerini started working on a high-definition graphics tablet last summer. It allows her to draw directly onto the computer monitor, add color and enlarge the image down to the pixel, which reduces eyestrain. Many of her scientific illustrations are available online at the Smithsonian’s Botanical Arts Collection, which Tangerini curates. Her work is also featured in the museum’s upcoming exhibit “Losing Paradise: Endangered Plants Here and Around the World,” opening in August.

An essential part of Tangerini’s job is classification. When botanists identify a new plant and want to publish their finding, they go to her and ask for a scientific illustration. Before beginning, she does her homework: She reads the scientific description of the subject, studies photographs and examines the specimen under a microscope. Occasionally during her observation, Tangerini will discover new plants that must be added to the record. “I actually had a plant named after me because of that,” she says. “It’s a bromeliad plant in Venezuela,” now called Navia aliciae.

From animals to plants

Tangerini, the daughter of a government engineer, had never planned to join the rarefied ranks of botanical illustrators. Growing up, she loved copying the hand-drawn illustrations that she found in old storybooks. But “the artist of the family” was into insects more than plants. “I would collect live butterflies and raise the caterpillars from their eggs,” she says.

Tangerini majored in fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, and got her start at the Smithsonian when she showed up at the office of a local botanist who was looking for someone to sketch plants for the summer. Although her portfolio was filled with drawings of horses and dogs, he gave her a shot at the job and later created a full-time staff position for her. “I went from doing huge oil paintings to drawing with a fine pen on drafting film,” Tangerini says, “so there was a kind of big switch as far as artistry.”

But Tangerini hasn’t switched jobs at all during her 38-year career at the Smithsonian. She says that when she finally does retire, she intends to spend time with family. She’d also like to go hiking, and maybe freelance or take classes, like the four-day intensive workshop on digital drawing she recently attended. Cooking shows, old Disney movies and art galleries are also among her favorite things.

Sitting in her office, surrounded by specimens and surgical tools for dissecting plants, it’s apparent that Tangerini is fascinated with botany. “When I talk to art students, they always ask, ‘Don’t you get bored with your work?’ And I say, ‘Never.’ There’s always something new that I’m looking at,” she says. “Every plant is an individual. So every plant deserves that individual attention to detail.”

Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington.

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