Free Illustrations of the Natural World

Free Illustrations of the Natural World
February 29, 2020 Christina Mullin

You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

The artworks, collected by the open-access Biodiversity Heritage Library, range from animal sketches to historical diagrams and botanical studies

Botanical illustrations offer mesmerizingly detailed and vividly colored glimpses of the natural world. More than 150,000 such artworks are freely available for download via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an open-access digital archive that preserves images and documents related to botany, wildlife and biodiversity.

Captured in watercolor paintings, lithograph prints and black-ink linework, the collected illustrations demonstrate the diversity of Earth’s wildlife as observed over hundreds of years. The BHL’s earliest texts date to the mid-1400s; its digital collection includes illustrations as recently created as the early 1900s.

The practice of creating detailed illustrations of flora and fauna, whether to document an expedition or a medical practice, gained popularity well before photography was up to the task. Even today, an illustration can offer more clarity than a photograph.

Founded in 2006 by a consortium of natural history libraries, among them the Smithsonian Libraries, the BHL launched its online portal the following year. Then 300 titles strong, the database has since grown to more than 200,000 volumes, 150,000 illustrations and information on some 150 million species. Per Hyperallergic, selections range from animal sketches to historical diagrams and botanical studies.

Collected illustrations and digitized pages of preserved plants, called herbaria, provide insights for researchers studying the ways plants have adjusted to a changing climate. Other works, like the zoological sketches of Joseph Wolf, show how societal norms have shaped the ways people imagine animals.

In its mission statement, the BHL cites swiftly changing ecosystems and extinctions as reasons for bringing together a body of knowledge about biodiversity that may help researchers track how the world is changing today. In the wake of Australia’s wildfires, for instance, scientists could make use of this 1907 catalog of Australia’s insects.