Saturday, 24 August 2019

Beginning in Botanical Art and illustration

I saw a post on social media the other day from someone asking about where to start in Botanical Art and Illustration, it got me thinking about the important points. So here's my not so short take on the subject based on my own process, where I started and what I needed to learn. I've made a top 12, there's probably more. These are not intended to be rules and of course there are many different learning styles and approaches .... this is mine.

A foxglove, Digitalis purpurea from my sketchbook, it doesn't have to be finished - it's a place for working things out  rather than perfect illustrations
First of all there is no magic or quick route, it will be hard work at times and requires tenacity. Outcomes may be frustrating at times but it will also be fulfilling and will make you so happy when you succeed, you will love it and your obsession with plants will grow.... but  be aware that it will be a rollercoaster! There is nothing more exciting than a new subject and a blank sheet of paper. So here goes:

1. Study a little botanical art past and present: from the old masters and contemporary artists, this will feed your mind. Look at the big names Redoute, Ehret the Bauer Brothers and Sydney Parkinson, etc.  alongside the more recent greats such as Rory McEwen and Pandora Sellars and right up to date - there are a huge number to choose from, so I won't name any contemporaries but there's a great library of images online these days. When I say study,  I mean really study them - buy a little notebook and make a list of the artists you like and ask yourself what it is that you like. Don't just be overawed at the impact of a beautiful work but look a the the finer points, such as the light and shade, learn to see where the light is coming from and how the artist used it. Look at how the the colours are handled and the composition. Also maybe look at work that you don't like so much and ask yourself why? You don't have to buy books but there are a few that are useful, lots of resources are available but also try to visit exhibitions - there is nothing quite like seeing the real thing!

Sketchbooks of George Ehret (1708 - 17700 at the Natural History Museum

2. Keep a Sketchbook: this is a must do! This keeps everything in one place and you can see your progress over time. It's your place and you don't have to share it unless you want to. Start with simple subjects drawing first, then gradually introduce tone by shading and colour by making simple colour swatches to match the plant at first. Finally, work out the process for painting. Make notes on everything,  name, the date, write about features of the plant.....this will improve both your observation and knowledge of plants. It will build a wonderful reference library! Leave in the stuff that went wrong too, its a lesson in itself! but if you really can't stand to looking at your mistakes simply stick something over it.
I use the Stillman and Birn Zeta series soft back because it has a heavyweight paper at 270gms and handles washes well, I occasionally use the Epsilon series for graphite work as the paper isn't so heavy and isn't needed for graphite. I don't much like ring bound books because I like to work across double page spreads (as you can see). It's available in a range of sizes,  I use the 8 x 10 inch (20.3 x 25.4 cm) book, any larger becomes too daunting and not so useful as a sketchbook because it's too big! but also the 5.5 x 8.5 inch (14 x 21.6cm) are good, and the mini book 3.5 x 5.5 (8.9 x 14cm) is great for keeping in your bag! see their website for sizes
Keep in mind that sketchbook paper isn't ever quite up to the standard of watercolour paper so it will handle slightly differently than a cotton paper. You can make your own sketchbook of course but thats another subject.

The 8.5 x 5.5 inch still man and Birn Zeta series book on the left and the mini 
3. Draw from life and do a little everyday: That means observational drawing from an actual subject, which is important because you can see how a plant is constructed, you can turn it around, hold it in your hand and get a feel for it's texture and surface and you can even take a plant apart in order to understand it. You just can't get this from photographs, I'll write more about using photographs later but they are flat 2 dimensional images and can distort shape and colour and you often can't understand the growth habit of a plant if you are not familiar with it.
I start with the most basic measurements, height and width of the whole, then break it into parts. Look for shapes within the subjects, circles, and triangles, look at angles.
Don't be afraid to correct or to try again. Drawing is a process of working it out, don't expect it to be correct from the start.  Start with simple obliging subjects: no one wants to see droopy leaves, choose tough flowers, long lasting buds, fruit and seed pods. Avoid subjects that move with the light or wilt. Make sure that you align parts correctly in your drawing, especially where a stem passes behind other part and re-emerges or  where the stem lines up with the flower centre, it's all connected from the stem to the ovary. Remember that the seemingly complex web of veins in a leaf meet up, all of these things can be broken down into an order ....misalignment is one of the main errors in drawing, so check overtime. Create a check list to ask yourself questions for every drawing and be your own critic.
Deconstructing a Hellebore
Hellebore: Graphite Sketchbook Studies using line and tone as preparatory work for a larger study. Notice all the measurements and enlarged parts. Enlarge by multiplying the measurements for parts that are too small to easily see. 
Always sharpen pencils and understand their tonal values from H (Hard grades) which are the lightest in tone to B  (Bold)  which are the softest and darkest. 
4. Research your subjects: Being a botanical artist involves detective work! This is your plant research and it goes hand-in-hand with numbers 2 and 3. I put my research notes into my sketchbook. First of all find out what are you painting, i.e. the plant name, you can use flora books or online resources for this, but if you don't know exactly what it is say so and don't guess. It's much easier with species than with cultivated plants. If you buy a plant be sure it has a label or ask the name and check that its correct, you can often find a description in a book of  for name and also what family the plant belongs to. Learn a little about the system of the Latin or scientific name (the 'two name' binomial system)

For example 'Foxglove' is a common or vernacular name.
The Latin name is Digitalis purpurea which is written in italics or if hand written is underlined.
Digitalis is the first part of the name, this is the genus
The second part of the name is  purpurea, this is the species or specific epithet.
A quick Google search also gives the family name Plantaginaceae, this is not written in italics, it's always worth learning which family a plant is in because you find out about relationships and similarities and differences in families.
This system may seem complicated at first but the 2 name system, known as binomial nomenclature, was largely developed by Carl Linneaus in 1753 and it's used to name all living organisms and is the  internationally recognised system, so we need to know about it  - in actual fact it avoids any confusion. It's really not that difficult if you don't try to learn too much at once, deal with it on a plant by plant basis.  Then there are hybrids and cultivars derived from those species but I'm not going to go into this here.

Next: describe your subject, you don't need to be a botanist simply describe in your own words initially, a book like the Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms by Hickey and King is a good reference. For example descibe the shape of the leaf, whether it's hairy, it's outer margin, the pattern of the veins, the shape of the flower, the shape of the stem and reproductive parts etc. gather as much as you can. This sounds like a lot but if you sit down with a plant you can describe it in about half an hour and it's well worth the effort.
Plant research, name and describe the plant, its parts as well as the process
5. Choosing and keeping subjects: Don't pick overly difficult subjects in the beginning it can be the most frustrating experience for a beginner ! Go for more robust plants, orchids are obliging and fruits are fantastic subjects! they last for a long time and change slowly. Start smallish but not too small that its hard to see or draw. Seed pods and dried subjects make great subjects too and can be kept for a long time, so start collecting! dried leaves, nuts twigs and seedpods. Pot plants are very handy as are the contents of the fridge, chili peppers, garlic, vegetables etc. With plant cuttings, keep them cool when not in use, either outside or if it's hot or in the fridge in plastic containers on damp kitchen towel. If flowers wilt, cut the stem and plunge into hot then cold water to revive.
Seedpods are very obliging subjects for a beginner
Something from the fridge! There's always a treasure trove of subjects 

6. Know your materials: Its' all too easy to get carried away buying materials and equipment that you don't need, based on recommendations but this is often a form of procrastination. While it's nice to have a every colour in the shop - you have to ask yourself if you need all of these paints? will they make you a better artist? The simple answer is no, while it's important to have good quality paints, brushes ands paper - you don't actually need all that many paints. I work with a primary palette of 5 reds, 5 blues and 4 yellows, you can read about that in my last post. There really is no need for anything else. It's more important that you learn what your colours are, understand their properties and know how to mix them. Again, refer to the previous post.
I mostly use two brushes, a size 4 and size 2 series 7 Winsor and Newton miniature, plus a synthetic filbert size 1, and a flat, such as the Rosemary and Co eradicator to the Pro Arte Masterstroke flat shader, they cost less than £3. I also have a size 6 flat for mixing and taking paint out and a basic sable wash brush size 6.
Paper is a matter of choice so try sample packs, you need to actually paint a whole subject though to really find out if you like it or not. It's a good idea to exchange paper samples with friends rather than buying expensive paper that you don't like. But you will need a Hot Press (HP) paper, because it has the smoothest surface for fine detail, some artists paint on Cold Press but this has too much texture for me.  I use a few different papers mostly 140lb (300gms) all are 100% cotton. For example: Saunders Waterford HP ehigh white, Arches HP and Stonehenge Aqua. Only use heavier paper if you're working larger or paint with a very wet style.
A good quality range of pencils, such as Faber Castell 9000 grades 4H to 6B
A putty eraser and hard dust free eraser, a retractable Tombow eraser too
You will also need a couple of ceramic palettes, ceramic is better than plastic
Something to measure parts with such as a transparent ruler and/or dividers
Magnifying glass x2
My paintbox and an exercise matching colours using the primary palette of reds, blues and yellows

My trusty old paintbox. I use a ceramic palette with wells (shown here) for watery washes and a flat palette for creamy and dry mixes. 

Flat ceramic palette for thicker creamier mixes and dry brush 

7. Make the workplace comfortable with the correct equipment: If you're not comfortable, you can't paint well, it sounds silly but makes sure that you can reach your paints and water and that they are on the correct side, thats the right side for right-handers and the opposite for left. I can't tell you the amount of times I've seen students trailing a wet brush from the other side and then wondering why they have so many splashes on their work!
Invest in an adjustable height chair - it's important not to strain your neck and to be able to get at the parts you are painting.
A drawing board, which can be elevated is useful, a piece of MDF and a block of wood will do. Elevating the drawing board means that you can see what you are doing properly, a board laid flat creates perspective distortion unless the subject is small,  this perspective issue occurs because the top of the board is further away than the bottom of the board.
I use a lamp for painting with a daylight bulb (there's a post about what a daylight bulb is somewhere in this blog) and a lamp on my subject. The lamp on the subject is generally pointed at the subject from the upper left if you are right handed, and the upper right if you are left handed.

8. Understanding the tonal values to create realistic form: can you see the light?
I mentioned having a lamp positioned on the subject in 7, this is vital to create constant light and shade and to make an interesting drawing or panting with good form. While natural light is great, it does change throughout the day and this can confusing for beginners. Light and shade is important in our work, so its worth spending some time on it.

Start with rounded forms, these are the easiest, and work up to more complex ones. Use photography to turn images to black and white as this can be very useful to see the lightest and darkest parts and all of the areas in between.

Light coming from the upper front left side on this apple, means that the shade is on the right but it's also got some  light reflecting back onto its shiny surface beneath the form shadow. Light and shade can be confusing we have to train ourselves to use it 

Tonal painting and contour drawing of an apple, showing the light coming from the upper right this time.  Note where the highlight is and the form shadow, everything in between are mid tones, if light is too diffused there isn't enough light and shade to make and interesting painting or drawing, so play with the lighting.

Always sharpen pencils and understand their tonal values from H (Hard grades) which are the lightest in tone to B  (Bold)  are the softest and darkest. Start light and work towards the darker shades.
To make tonal studies you can use pencils, black paint or a neutral tint mix, it's a good idea to get and overall feel for a subject by making a tonal study first, this will ensure that you get the tonal values right.
Heres a measured line drawing of a leaf and a tonal study of the the same leaf using continuous tone.  See how light and shade is used to create form. The shading involved starting with a 2H and building up to the darkest tones with HB, 2B and 4 B
Converting this concept to colour can be more challenging but if you understand the basics of light and shade first it will be much easier to create a convincing looking painting.

Initial tonal drawing for the painting below. it's important to understand the different tones between parts and  in relation to light and shade, the light flowers will require harder grades of pencil and the darker leaves will require softer grades. The more shaded areas also require softer grades. For example flowers might require a 4H for the lighter parts but no harder than HB for the darkest areas within them, whereas leaves might start with a 2H for the lightest parts and working up to a 6B for the very darkest parts, using every other grade in between.

The final painting maintains the same tonal values. Convert your image to black and white to check them! 

Photographing and converting the colour image back to black and white helps me to check those tonal values. 

9. Learn Techniques in graphite and watercolour: Spend time experimenting with techniques. With graphite we mostly use the continuous tone technique, this produces a smooth finish, the motion requires elliptical movements, working over and over lightly to gently work the graphite into the surface of the paper, other techniques include stipple and hatching. I can't cover all of these here but if you delve back in time there are some posts on shading in graphite.
With watercolour you need to be able to use flat washes, graded washes (from dark to light), blended washes (working from one colour into another), wet-in-wet (dropping colours into a wet surface and  controlling them) but to really achieve the depth and details in nature, the dry brush techniques are necessary too. There are  a number of approaches to dry brush, which can be used to model the surface of a subject building rich colour, or to add different types of detail, the approaches are different and I use 5 different ones.  There isn't room to explain all of these here but i'll write more in the future. Take a class if you can but make sure it's one where you will learn these techniques and methods. Once you have the techniques learned you can really start to develop your work, you can make clean edges, rich colour, texture and fine detail. All of which are vital for botanical artists.

Learn the various dry brush and wash techniques. From my watercolour Techniques Tutorial, modelling dry brush
10. Learn about colour mixing: This relates back to the previous materials entry. Learn about primary palette colour mixing, make colour charts  and experiment with saturated and desaturated colours. Practice matching colours to a subject.  For example, if you have a red / orange flower, start with the nearest red in the palette, if the flower is leaning towards orange, add some yellow to it, if it's leaning towards purple add blue. That's a simple version but if you use a limited palette you soon get to grips with the warmer and cooler versions of colours in your subjects.  Colour charts and wheels can really help with deciding where to start and you can simply place your flower on them to see what the nearest colour is. Greens need special attention, you can read previous posts on green mixing but bear in mind that most greens will require a blue plus a yellow and then a very small amount of red to make a more natural green, again,  if your colour palette is only primaries this makes it quite easy. Simpler principles can apply: for light greens use a light blue, for mid greens use a mid blue and for dark greens use a dark blue. This sounds obvious but it's often missed.
Purple chart, mixing and matching purples to the subject using the blues and reds
11. Draft and redraft: After making sketches and deciding to compose a painting, draft out a rough composition, this can be done on tracing paper. Re-work the drawing until you are happy with it, arranging or rearranging. This preparation work is preferable to rushing in with a painting and eliminates the possibility of errors.
Drafting the layout for a composition using tracing paper, parts are cut out and rearranged slightly. 

12: Photographs: Don't be afraid to use technology. Photographs can be useful to supplement your work but it's important to understand the subject first and to be able to draw it from life but don't ever rely on photographs for colour as they can be quite inaccurate.
You have seen that in this post that I have used photographs to check for tonal values and to check and play with lighting effects. Photographs are also useful  for capturing subjects in the field and that change or are short lived.
Equipment like light pads are useful for transferring drawings. Digital microscopes are amazing for close-ups of small parts and apps can even be used to edit images of your work to see how they might look with more colour or darker tones. Technology isn't something to be afraid of, it's just another tool.

Most of these points can be expanded on, this post is intended to provide an overview of some of the processes involved in producing botanical work. Hopefully I will be able to expend on some of them in the future.


  1. Diane,
    How thoughtful and thorough this is! It is very specific and informative. So generous of you to share all this information. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for this. Lots to think about and start tackling.

  3. Dianne you should make this into a book!

  4. Wow, thank you for this detailed explanation. This has been an extremely useful and informative post, packed with easy to follow suggestions.

  5. Great! Thank you for this very interesting post. I have published it on the Société Française d'illustration Botanique - SFIB- Facebook page.
    Best regards