Learning botanical illustration was another art genre I tried on my path to finding my art and craft niche.
I enrolled in an art class with a tutor at a local art school. This is what I learnt.
Why learn botanical illustration?
Botanical illustration consists of drawing, and water colour painting. While I had taken drawing classes, I knew little about water colour painting. I had not done it, nor had I had any experience of it – other than looking at watercolour paintings and admiring their soft blended colours.
So, I enrolled in a botanical illustration course. It looked innocent enough.
How does botanical illustration differ?
Botanical illustration is a great art genre to admire. The watercolour painting used in the illustrations looked effortless. But was it? I was willing to try.
How about the drawing? I might as well try that with the painting at the same time.
You may have read my previous blog about my experience of a drawing class at art school. This class was expressive and as long as you followed the form of the model you were doing ok.
Now – at the other end of the spectrum is botanical drawing. No – this medium is not about following form and being ok.
This medium is about exact observation. It’s science and art together. Observation and application.
These two art classes couldn’t have been more different.
What was included in the botanical illustration course?
The class ran for a few weeks. Over the course, we learned drawing, perspective, watercolour painting, colour mixing, and colour theory.
In particular, I learnt that:
Drawing observations had to be exact.
Drawings had to be exact.
Paint colours had to be exact.
Did you get all that? Yes. Everything has to be ‘exact’.
Oh – what had I signed up for? Learning botanical illustration was going to be a challenge.
Botanical illustration and photography
You are not photographing the botanical item, you are drawing and painting it.
Now – in hindsight, I have had to photograph and manipulate what seems like thousands of colour swatch images so that they look just like the real thing. And this is difficult to do. There are just some colours that can’t seem to be replicated. I find lemon and green-blue colours difficult to replicate digitally.
Botanical art is not dead. It’s alive and necessary.
The botanical artist should be vigilant as they are recording nature – exactly like it is.
How was the botanical illustration course structured?
The learning content followed part of the Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project, by Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan.
We learnt that botanical illustration includes drawing from observation.
First, we learnt to draw the item on paper by visualising it’s shape. We observed the components that made up the image.
We were taught drawing techniques – such as hatching, and cross-hatching.
As well as hatching and cross-hatching, we learnt pointillism. The images below show examples of pointillism.
Who would have thought that muscle memory is required to draw? Well. It is useful. As part of the course, we learnt to view an item. We observed the item. We looked at its size, and all its components. Then we drew it.
Not just once. But, we did a comprehensive drawing of the item. Then we put the item away. We put the drawing away.
For a few minutes, we then had to remember what we had drawn, and recreate it without any memory tools.
Another drawing technique we learnt was perspective. The drawing below show examples of observation, shape, line, perspective, and cross-hatching.
Who would have thought this would be so difficult?
I suppose with so many art mediums, you need to try it to see if you like it. Then, you have to keep on trying it.
Previously, my drawings had been created with hard drawing mediums, such as charcoal, pencils, and pastels. Yet, while I had tried ‘manageable’ paint mediums before – such as acrylic and gouache – watercolour was something else.
Why? It was beyond my control. When drawing with pencils, you make a mark, and there it stays. However, with watercolour, you make a mark, and ‘initially’ – you make a mess.
I knew that my next few lessons were going to be difficult – and they were.
Just a note though – botanical illustration can also be done with coloured pencils. So, if you’re not keen on using watercolour paint, you can use pencils as an alternative.
We learnt to mix watercolour paints. As part of this learning, we created charts that showed graded colour changes when using two colours. The image below shows an example of colour gradation.
We learnt water colour painting techniques, such as painting ‘wet on wet’, and ‘wet on dry’. After we had an understanding of these water colour painting techniques, we started to paint.
Water colour painting
The image below shows my second attempt at water colour painting. Yes. The first painting didn’t make the cut.
The next attempt was to try to bring the earlier lessons together. This was to observe the item. Find it’s shape. Finally, to paint the image in it’s exact colour.
Yet, somewhere along the line, the learning kicked in. The final image I painted on the course was a surprise. The drawing reflected the colour of the actual item. It had shape and line. It was starting to look like a bit like what I was seeing. No. It wasn’t ‘exact’ – but it was getting there.
So, it was like all the other art mediums. Try it, and keep trying it. Every time you do more of the medium, you get better at it.
Would you like to learn botanical illustration?
Would you like to learn botanical illustration? You can find more information about botanical art from Botanical Art and Artists.com.
You can also get yourself a course about how to do botanical illustration. If you’re in the area, you might like to check out the next Eden Project art course.
You can also purchase the Botanical Illustration book with the Eden Project we referred to in this post.
There are a few online courses that show how to do botanical illustration. One that does show how to draw with coloured pencils is Botanical Crab Apple Masterclass by Gaynor Dickerson on Arttuttor.com. Craftsy.com also has a botanical illustration course that uses coloured pencils and water colour.
A free online course you can try, which is open intermittently, is the University of Newcastle’s Drawing nature science and culture course on edx.com.
Check out your local area. You might find some art societies running in-house botanical illustration, or botanical drawing courses. Such as these courses in Canberra.
A new found respect for botanical artists
I used to look and admire botanical artworks, and had little appreciation of the effort involved in their creation. However, it is only after learning about botanical illustration that I now know the skill, patience, and observation botanical artists use to create their artwork.
If I never do a botanical illustration again, the most important lesson I have learnt in this course is to appreciate botanical artists.
If you decide to undertake a botanical illustration course, you will too.