Guide to the Art of Botany--Drawing plants

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Drawing opens our eyes to the world that surrounds us. It excites our imaginations and enables us to see and understand things more clearly. This section offers some practical advice on how to work with living plants indoors, ranges of art materials to choose from, the importance of mark making, and the value of searching out local resources such as herbaria and botanic gardens.

Working with plants

Subjects to watch: Winter tree buds make a fascinating subject to watch. Placed in a vase of water in a warm room they soon burst open and grow. They can also be kept dormant in the fridge. Oak buds (Quercus sp.)

Plants are sensitive and responsive when you bring them indoors to draw.

Potted plants turn their leaves and blooms toward the light of your window, and cut flowers sometimes follow sunspots across the wall. Toadstools tilt their caps upward if laid on their sides. Spring bulbs and buds respond to sudden heat and grow. Dry fruits continue drying, then pop and throw their seeds at you, while ants, earwigs, and other delightful insects can run riot on the desk. That is fine, so long as they don't wriggle between stored sheets of drawings, where their ill-placed demise can devastate a precious piece of work. This is all part of the pleasure of working with plants. They demand that we be patient and take care of them, and constantly remind us that they are very much alive.


Figs 31: Keeping roots moist Roots that are exposed to a warm room shrivel and die quickly. Keep roots in water or covered in wet tissues until you are ready to start your drawing.

Dafodil (Narcissus sp.): Moving parts and visitors Mushrooms and toadstools tilt their caps upward if laid on their sides. They deteriorate fast and need to be drawn immediately. Insects are a humorous but serious problem in the studio-squashed on drawings, they ruin them. Running insects can be contained by placing earthy plant specimens in a dish with an upright barrier of sticky tape erected around the edge, sticky side facing inward.

Milk cap toadstool Open and closed buds This crocus flower was in bud when we began drawing it. Flowers that open quickly while you are working can be persuaded to close again if you rest them in total darkness.

Crocus (Crocus sp.): Maintaining freshness-- Small pieces, such as individual leaves and flowers, can be kept fresh for days if laid on a sheet of wet paper towels in a sealed plastic box. This provides them with the humidity they need.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)


Airtight humidity is the key to keeping cut plants fresh. Circulating air makes them wilt. When collecting a specimen in warm weather, put it straight into a clear plastic bag. Inflate this like a balloon, and tie the top very tightly so the bag cannot deflate. This makes a humid, protective tent, and a rigid container that can be packed beneath others without being crushed. You can make small tents from tie-top freezer bags. Plants keep firm and fresh in these, without being cooled, for hours or even days, especially if you add a few drops of water. Alternatively, use airtight plastic boxes with wet paper towels laid flat in the bottom to provide humidity. Vases are useless for storing cut plants-they allow them to crush together and dry out.

Coolness and shade delay plant growth and flowers opening. Darkness will make a flower close. A fridge is good for storing alpine and dormant winter plants, but is far too cold for late spring and summer flowers and foliage, which will turn brown or collapse in the cold. Plants left in low light for too long when actively growing will distort, so it’s best to keep rooted specimens outdoors when not working with them. Masking tape makes a good insect barrier if erected like a miniature fence, sticky side facing inward, all around the rim of any pot containing soil.


A drawing board and paper can be carried everywhere in search of exciting new plants-use them in the landscape, a botanical garden, art gallery, or museum. Drawing boards are expensive in art shops, so it’s best to make your own. Calculate a range of dimensions and have several boards cut at once in a wood yard. Smooth plywood, thick enough not to flex, is ideal.

Avoid grainy wood that will jolt drawn lines and indent paper. It’s also useful to own a portfolio. A high-quality portfolio will last a lifetime; cheap ones can fall apart in days. we make our own using two boards of thick card or thin plywood, hinged securely, with four internal flaps to hold paper in place, and ribbon ties to keep it closed. we make portfolios in a range of sizes to fit different work. Good light is important when drawing, to see your subject and the tonality of your work. At home, an anglepoise lamp is very useful for accentuating shadows and form. When drawing outside, sit in the shade, so you are not blinded by the white of your paper and avoid facing the sun. Looking into the sun is not just uncomfortable, it stops you from seeing tones properly and results in flattened work.

All artists have their own favorite materials, and pots full of brushes, pencils, and pens can offer a feast of possibilities for every subject and mood. If you are unsure of what to buy, begin with a few things that you find interesting. Buy one of each, try them at home, and return for more of what proves best. we do this when searching for good pen nibs. A range of materials are illustrated here, but we only use some of the items to draw with. One HB pencil suits our needs, but lots of artists use three pencils: a hard, a medium, and a soft. Three pencils will give you the maximum range of tones that are possible, for example, 4H, HB, and 6B. You don't need to buy every grade. Take pleasure in assembling your own kit and modify tools if necessary, so they fit perfectly in your hand. For example, we like a short-handled pen, and so we cut and file the ones that we buy from the shop. we keep our materials in a small box so they are stable in transit and on any work surface. When the box is opened it creates a safe place in which to stand jars of water and ink, whether outside, in a field, or in a museum.


Figs. 32: Pencils and sharpener

HB pencil rubs out cleanly and completely from beneath watercolor and ink. Perfect for an under-drawing that is to be removed. we use HB for everything. Softer pencils (2 to 6B) make richer, thicker, darker marks, good for expressive drawing but don’t erase well. Pencil sharpeners are safer to travel with than scalpels.


Some white plastic erasers will erase diluted ink substantially, and cleanly, without staining or tearing paper. Cutting the eraser into triangular pieces gives plenty of clean edges for refining detail.


An essential item when drawing in pencil, use a feather to brush away eraser particles without smudging your work.


Keep pencils sharp if making detailed work.

A scalpel cuts a better point than a pencil sharpener, and is needed to dissect flowers.

When dissecting flowers, change scalpel blades regularly. Blunt blades tear petals.


Use a pair of fine-tipped metal tweezers to hold specimens when cutting. Such tweezers are available from medical instrument suppliers.


Papers differ in thickness (weight), size, texture, color, absorbency, pH, and cost.

They may be hand-, mold-, or machine made in sheets, blocks, or rolls. Cheap wood-pulp papers are acidic, turning brown and brittle. Cotton papers are high quality and acid-free, resisting deterioration. Use cheap paper for rough ideas and quality paper for work to last.


4H 2H HB 3B 6B


Fabriano Accademia

An affordable standard medium range multipurpose cartridge. Use with any media from pencil to paint.

Saunders Waterford 300GM2 (NOT)

Mid-quality textured watercolor paper. "NOT" means not hot-pressed and so it’s rough textured.

370GSM Lambeth

Drawing Cartridge

Heavy, hot-pressed (smooth) paper that is acid-free, so will last. Sold in flat sheets, it can be rubbed without crumpling or tearing.

Fabriano Artistico 300GM2

HP (Traditional white)

Tough, white textured paper that can take abrasive use of any medium. HP means hot-pressed. Fabriano produce a range of different weights.

Arches Aquarelle 300GM2 (Rough)

Top quality hot-pressed (smooth) watercolor paper. It’s made of 100% cotton and sold in sheets, blocks, and rolls. Use with any media.


Figs 33:

Pen: You can distinguish a drawing pen nib from other types, because it’s pointed like a fine fountain pen, but without the little ball of metal on the back of the tip. Avoid needle-sharp mapping pens that scratch and kick, and broad calligraphy nibs, because neither of these are made for drawing. Nibs and handles are sold separately and nibs wear out so need replacing from time to time.


Ink: Chinese ink is carbon-based and ca be erased if weakly diluted. Check how light-fast a brand is by making test marks on paper and leaving the on a windowsill for a month, half covered and half exposed to the light we use two dilutions of ink, one very pale and the other a mid-gray, which in three or so layers appears black.

Always keep a tissue nearby to blot the nib and spills.

Watercolors: Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors from which all others can be mixed.

Transparent yellow, permanent rose, and ultramarine blue (green shade) are the best primaries to use as a beginner.


1. Artetje Nost: This brush is synthetic and so relatively firm, makes a fine point, and holds plenty of pigment. we used this brush for this book.

2. Pointed Traditional Writer: This long sable-hair brush holds large amounts of ink for long lines and points well for detailed work.

3. Small Japanese Brush: Made with sable hair, this brush has a soft drawing tip and small ink-holding capacity good for linear work.

4. Larger Japanese Brush: Made with natural hair, this brush has a broad wash capacity and can achieve a very wide range of marks.

5. Squirrel-Hair Sword Liner: This natural-haired brush has maximum ink-holding capacity and an extremely fine and flexible point.


Brushes vary hugely in size, shape, purpose, cost, and durability, as do the materials they are made from. Synthetic brushes are firmer, cheaper, and longer lasting than natural brushes, which are softer, hold more pigment, and make finer points.


Mark making:

Lines and marks are the basis of all drawing, and they can be given different lengths, thicknesses, tones, textures, speeds, and directions, to actively describe shapes, forms, movements, and emotions. Lines and marks have sensory qualities. For example they can be jagged or soft, loud or quiet, direct or hesitant. Like actors on stage, they can physically perform the actions and meaning of what they describe and so bring a subject alive.

Look at the drawings of great artists and study the lines and marks they have made in isolation; think about how they work in the picture and why.

When making your own drawings, you can learn a lot by covering a sheet of paper with as many different lines and marks as you can make with one pencil. Keep changing the pressure, speed, and direction of your hand, and try to use the pencil to enact different sensory experiences. Then, write words beneath your marks to describe them. For example, agitated, sharp, crackling, or blurred. Assigning written language to drawn language will quickly show you how we can use drawing to communicate. If you focus on drawing the expressive character of every subject you draw, as much as its structure and shape, it will become real on the page in front of you.

Figs 34:

Jagged lines: Short sharp movements and abrupt changes in direction make brittle and jagged lines.

Parallel lines: Practice making parallel and even sweeps of the pen. Tilt your pen in different directions and keep your hand steady.

Using the paper: The white of the paper is part of every image. Here fast jabs of the pen, with white showing through, create a speckled haze.

Energized strokes: Parallel lines grouped in curves can describe contours. Short and long strokes look energized if put together.

Ink layers: Ink can be pooled into shapes and built up in layers. Use the ink in this way to make craggy, bark-like textures.

Cross-hatching: Avoid right angles in cross-hatching. Wide and gentle angles between crossing lines look more natural.


Mixing colors:

Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors. From these, all others can be made. We recommend you use transparent yellow, permanent rose, and ultramarine blue (green shade). These colors are clear (not gritty), and transparent and luminous, which are key qualities in watercolor. When mixed, these colors give the broadest range of secondary colors: greens, oranges, and violets, and tertiary colors: grays, browns, and blacks. It’s important for a beginner to start simply, and to learn to mix their own colors, which is a pleasure and not a difficult task. Try mixing two primary colors to create a secondary color: mix red and yellow to create orange, yellow and blue to create green, and blue and red to create violet. Next mix each of the secondary colors with its complementary color, which is its opposite on the color wheel (see below), to create tertiary colors. By altering the amounts of secondary color and complementary color that you use, you can create a range of tertiary colors as shown below. When mixing colors, a large white ceramic plate makes a good palette. Use two pots of water, one to clean brushes, the other to dilute paint. Use an old brush to mix colors, and your best brush to apply them. Never stand brushes in water, always keep them clean, and dry all brushes flat.

The color wheel: This wheel shows how the three primary and three secondary colors relate to one another. Each secondary color sits between the two primary colors it’s mixed from.

Opposite each secondary color is its complementary color-the primary color that it does not contain.

Red --Primary color—Violet--Secondary color—Yellow--Primary color—Green--Secondary color— Orange--Secondary color—Blue--Primary color--PRIMARY SECONDARY

Tertiaries: Tertiaries all contain differing proportions of the three primary colors-red, yellow, and blue. Tertiaries are usually created by adding small amounts of a complementary color to a secondary color. Gradations are best made slowly, by mixing together tiny amounts of paint to create gentle changes in hue.

Olives and chestnut browns; Violets, olives, and ochers; Browns and grays; SECONDARY COLORS; COMPLEMENTARY COLORS TERTIARY COLORS

Preparatory drawings

Preparatory drawings can be made in many ways and for many different purposes. When planning books, we sketch our first ideas in colored felt-tip pens on rough paper, using thick, fast marks to represent the sizes, shapes, and positions of drawings, photographs, and blocks of text. Next, when making a botanical plate, we use a pencil to draw each plant roughly onto photocopy paper. Then we cut out the drawings and place them onto another plain sheet of paper, on which we have drawn a rectangle to represent the plate. By moving the cut-out pencil drawings inside the rectangle we can see how everything will fit together on the plate, before beginning a final work.

Here, investigative drawings are shown-the kind of preparatory work that we make in notebooks when we are traveling or trying out ideas. These drawings combine thoughts about volume, form, and view, with observations of character and detail. Drawing the same thing over and over again helps me to see it more clearly, understand it, and memorize its most important characteristics.

A sketch book is a wonderful thing to keep in your bag at all times, and its presence will actively encourage you to draw. As it fills with drawings it becomes an invaluable personal reference guide and a journal. Our own drawings hold vivid memories for us, of events, time, and places. we drew these rosehips and honeysuckle flowers while staying in an old wooden house in Bergen, Norway, during a terrific summer storm.

Rosehips: After drawing something whole from numerous views, so as to understand its entire form and all of its surface parts, we usually pull it apart to see how it’s constructed, and what it contains. These drawings of rosehips look at interior and exterior structures, volumes, and forms.

Make ellipses by spinning the pen nib above the page before lowering it onto the paper

Draw solid forms as if transparent to see the relationships between all of the parts at once

Don’t discard crossed-out drawings as these will remain important parts of a sketchbook; reminders of ideas tried, and reasons why another approach was needed.

Make detailed observations of the calyx of the rosehip

Cut open a ripe rosehip to see how it’s filled with many dry fruits called achenes, also a lot of irritating hairs

Honeysuckle: This plant grows on the yellow-painted wall of a Norwegian house we once stayed in.

we opened the window to pick and draw it during a storm. Sketch book studies help us to see things we are interested in, and simultaneously imprint powerful memories of time, place, and what is happening.

Look for simple geometric forms in every plant. See how this umbel presents a triangular display of flowers.

This loose umbel of flowers makes a cup shape when it’s viewed from the side. It can help to visualize an ellipse when drawing.

Soft-skinned round rosehips contrast with heavily prickled stems and leathery leaves

Carefully observe the true angles between parts when fresh to ensure you don't make them look wilted or broken.

Pull an umbel apart to see how it’s constructed.

Creating a drawing:

These five mahogany fruits (Swietenia macrophylla) show how we use pen and ink to draw plants. First we use a sharp HB pencil to lightly sketch the whole subject on paper, looking for simple geometric forms to help me find and correct perspectives. Here, we visualized a sphere within a cone. Then we refine each individual shape and make precise connections between all of the parts, still using a pencil. Next we dilute a small amount of Chinese ink with tap water to make a very pale shade of gray, and dip a clean, metal drawing pen into the diluted ink. we then stroke the loaded nib swiftly across a tissue, to draw off excess liquid, and ensure the marks we make are relatively dry and fine. My first ink lines are made to confirm the precise structure of the subject, and when dry, we erase all of the pencil marks that are beneath them. This ensures that gray pencil tones don’t interfere with the developing image.

We then mix a dark gray dilution of ink in a second glass. Diluted Chinese ink can be erased slightly or completely if rubbed with a hard white plastic eraser. Erasing ink is an important part of our process and creates depths of texture and sheens of light. Neat ink is jet black, a tone never seen in the shadows of plants, so too strong for our drawings of them. Instead, we use ranges of gray with rare touches of near black. We test newly mixed ink tones on scrap paper, leave them to dry, and adjust them if necessary before starting to draw with them. Different lengths, speeds, pressures, and directions of mark can be used to create a variety of textures. We seek to understand the core structure and posture of a plant, and express its individual character with marks that emulate its surfaces. Every drawing is built in layers working across the whole image so it remains unified, and the darkest tones are always drawn last.

First ink lines are smooth, minimal, and pale enough to be faded with an eraser. They define structures, connections, and boundaries

Ink pooled into small, rounded shapes suggests the corky texture of the meso-carp (the middle layer of the fruit).

Pencil under-drawing – we hold our pencil loosely in our fingertips and allow it to move freely over the paper, searching for shapes and volumes. Under- drawing is kept pale so it erases cleanly.

First ink lines--When happy with the structure of the under drawing, we replace it with pale ink outlines and completely erase all pencil marks. This stage can look flat and diagrammatic but it will soon be brought to life.

Tones and textures--we build tones and textures in layers, working over the entire image at once, never from one end to the other. As soon as possible we establish the greatest contrasts between rough and smooth, light and dark.

Long, fast marks following contours and quickly changing direction create a sense of movement, which gives life to a subject.

All of our drawings are illuminated from top left, because this feels most natural to me, and we can easily visualize it

Layering different qualities of marks helps to create rough textures.

Fine pale lines can be drawn with a nearly dry pen held upside down.

Long, fast marks:

It’s important to make some long, fast, sweeping marks in directions that will accentuate the form.

These unify the image and stop it from looking flat and static.

Contrasting speeds and qualities of mark stimulate the viewer's eye and interest in the image. 4 Adding and erasing ink

Textures can be pushed deep into shadow by adding more ink, or lifted out into the light if they are softened with an eraser. In this way we push and pull the surfaces of our drawings back and forth, through adding and taking away ink and light, while all the time trying to make the broadest range of marks possible to reflect the character and substance of the subject.

Flame tree (Spathodea campanulata) Ringworm senna (Senna alata) Cochlospermum sp.

Aspidosperma sp.

Afzelia (Afzelia africana) Jequirity seeds (Abrus precatorius) Nile acacia (Acacia nilotica) Brachystegia sp.

Sources of inspiration:

Many people with a passion for plants will know where to find the best botanic and private gardens, horticultural shows, and specialist nurseries- all are immensely rich resources from which to draw. Few people, however, know where to find their local herbarium. Herbaria are treasure troves for the artist, or indeed for anyone with a love of plants, natural forms, and history.

They are collections of preserved plants, usually assembled over hundreds of years, together with books and works of art. Herbaria are used for scientific and artistic study and can be found associated with many universities and natural history museums. These fruits belong to Oxford University Herbaria, which are open by appointment to everyone and are full of inspiration for designers, writers, photographers, and artists.

Devil's claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) Drift seed from Seychelles Cedro espino (Pachira quinata) Sapele (Entandrophragma sp.) Apple-ring acacia (Faidherbia albida) Tallow tree (Detarium senegalense) Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia ringens) Gilbertiodendron splendidum

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