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Botanical Illustration - Week 1

I haven't updated in a while - not because I have nothing to write, but because there is so much! Yow. I probably should start with Connor's birthday, a great visit with Gwen, and FaerieCon (all of which happened last weekend). Plus all the stuff we did this week: a trip to Valley Forge, and a birding/photo expedition. But no. I *will* post about all this stuff, and soon, but instead of jumping in at the beginning, I decided to start at the end, and talk about what I did today.

Today, I went to Morris Arboretum for the first half of a two-part class on Botanical Illustration, and it was FANTASTIC! When I signed up for this class, I really didn't know what to expect, except that we'd been sent a list of art supplies to bring, so I knew we'd be working in watercolor. (This medium, btw, is entirely new to me - I've played with watercolor once or twice, but never had any instruction, or painted anything I thought turned out well. So, approaching this as a total beginner, I was a tiny bit intimidated. I needn't have worried, though - our instructor did a great job of giving us the low-down on painting with watercolors, and I was pleased with my first attempt at painting, even though I only got part-way finished). Mostly, I just thought it would be cool to take a drawing class. :) And, so far, it is. We're focusing on botanical illustration (as the course title would suggest), which is far more specific than I'd guessed it would be. To be honest, I don't think I'll probably do a lot of plant drawings in the future, but I'll be able to apply all these techniques to one of the subjects I most want to draw - birds!

We started out by selecting a flower or other plant (there were gourds, pine cones, seed pods, etc. available). I chose a rose, which was perhaps not the easiest choice. :D In fact, as flowers go, it's fairly complex. I've been wanting to draw a rose for a while now, though, so I'm glad I chose that as my subject. (I actually started a rose drawing a couple of weeks ago, but it started out so craptastic that I gave up :D). I didn't get anything "finished" today, but I thought I'd post about my progress. I'm pretty happy with my work thus far, and I'll continue to work on this project throughout the week (she's hoping that we'll be able to finish this one before next class, so we can start a new project next week). I'm going to try and finish one in watercolor, and I might also do a nicer pencil drawing. Or maybe even one in pen and ink, stippled. (I used to use that technique a lot when I was in high school; it would be fun to try again, I think).

Here's the rose (which I brought home, so I can use it when finishing my illustration):

Rose

Here's my original sketch (which I like, although some of the shading is wonky, since the flower was backlit when I drew it, and our teacher hadn't yet told us about not wanting to have shadows, etc).

Rose - botanical illustration class

And here is my first attempt at using watercolors. I've used too much heavy color, especially on the first petals (the ones toward the center). By the time I'd done a few, though, I felt like I was starting to get a better feel for it. This is just a first wash; I'd be putting at least one more layer of color over this (something yellowy, since there is a lot of peach color in this rose):

Rose - first watercolor layer

I must admit, though, that doing watercolor like this is going to take a *lot* of time. There is a part of me which wants to run for my colored pencils and just color it that way, which will take a fraction of the time (and probably come out "better," since I'm comfortable with pencils). I might do a version in colored pencil, but I do intend to play around with the watercolors. If for no other reason than the fact that I bought a whole bunch of tubes for this class, and it seems stupid not to use them. :D

For my own future reference, here are my notes and favorite tips from today's class:

~ Botanical illustration is always done against a white background. No environmental features, no checked tablecloth and bottle of chianti. The idea is for all attention to be on the plant itself. If framing for a show, use white matte and a simple gold, wood, or neutral-colored frame. All focus on plant.

~ Do pay attention to composition. While the plant is the sole focus, and accuracy of detail is very important, the design should still be pleasing to the eye. Also, botanical illustrations should show an "idealized" plant, not a real plant in its environment. (I liken this to illustrations in field guides, where it's important to be able to see the field marks on a "perfect" bird, rather than a photograph of an individual).

~ When drawing flowers, sketch and paint the bloom first - most flowers don't last long (especially when cut), so since the bloom will only be there for a few days, get it down before it falls apart.

~ Begin all drawings by blocking off a one-inch border around entire page; this is your "do not draw past" zone, allowing a margin if you wish to have the piece framed. Also, start by sketching quick thumbnails, to get the general composition down on the paper. This helps you make sure you're going to have room on the page for all the elements of your drawing (without running out of room, which can happen if you start at one end and just draw).

~ Consider doing more than one part of the life cycle of a plant; this can be very interesting (e.g. a bud, a rose in full bloom, the flower as it withers, or even just the rose hips after the petals have fallen off). Including the root system can add visual (and scientific) interest.

~ It is fine to include birds, animals or insects in botanical illustrations, but they MUST match the life-cycle of the plant (e.g., don't put an autumn butterfly on a spring tulip). Frogs and toads are great with aquatic illustrations.

~ Don't use harsh lighting when drawing; there should be no shadows in a botanical illustration. Also, it can be useful to place a solid background behind your subject, so there is no backlighting - light shining through petals, for example, can change the colour and enhance contrast, making it difficult to accurately represent the plant.

~ When painting, put a paper towel underneath your hand, to help keep skin oils off paper. Also, can use paper towels with hole cut in the center when working on a section in the middle of the paper (paper towel shields everything but the area being actively worked).

~ Cold press paper has more texture, making it more difficult to get sharp lines. Hot press is smoother, and better for fine work and detail of botanical illustration.

~ Use at least 140 lb paper; 300 is better (won't buckle), especially when working on a large scale.

~ Use hard (#2) pencil for transfer; less chance of carbon rubbing off onto drawing.

~ Don't erase watercolor paper unless absolutely necessary; erasing damages the fibres.

~ Don't use white or black; white is not needed, and blacks with more depth can be mixed. If necessary (putting fine light-colored hairs on a dark stem, for example), opaque white gauche can be used.

~ Start with slow washes, and add layers. Transparency and subtle layering is the secret. You don't need to use much paint.

~ If you mix colors on individual styrofoam plates, they can be dried and stored as -is, to re-use the paints at later painting sessions.

~ When mixing colors for foliage (or doing tea washes on foliage) bring in colors from the flowers. Even if they can't be seen "consciously," the eye will pick them up, and it will unify the composition. Also, make sure to have a balance of intense colors - don't just have bright blooms at the top of the page without something warm or bright at the bottom to keep the eye moving. Roots/bulbs can be good for adding this sort of interest.

~ Try and include a large range of values; having very light colors next to very dark/intense ones can be very pleasing, visually.

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Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
chickadilly
Oct. 21st, 2007 01:33 am (UTC)
wow - I'm impressed! Nice job. I've always wanted to take a drawing class because I just suck at it (really, I can't draw a stick figure) and I think it would really help me to 'see' things in a whole new light. Like when I first started to learn Photography I started really noticing lighting effects - I think drawing would be a similar experience.

But the times I've tried from books and such I've never really gotten it. I think being in a class room setting would help. Ah, someday. :)
here_be_dragons
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:04 am (UTC)
I'm only just starting to feel like I can "draw" - for the longest time, I sucked at it, too. :D In fact, I had a good moment today when our instructor came around - she had a look at each of our drawings, individually, and I happened to be the last one she saw. I was kind of nervous that maybe it was really horrible, or something, but when she saw my drawing, she sat down and breathed a sigh of relief and said (paraphrasing), "Thank heavens! Everyone hear can draw." Then she said that she has had classes where some of the students had obviously not picked up a pencil before, and that's a challenge for her, because they need so much individual attention (and she doesn't really like teaching beginners). Hee! Obviously, she didn't classify my sketch in the "beginner" category. :D :D :D

I've just started working through "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain," and so far, I'm enjoying it. I haven't actually done any of her exercises yet - I've just drawn the "before instruction" drawings, so I'll be able to see how much progress I make by the end. But so far, I think it's going to be a great system. You're right - it's all about *seeing* things differently. Or, rather, *seeing* them at all. A lot of the time, our brains default to symbols, or things that we are familiar with, and we don't really *see* things as they are. According to DoTSB, our right brains are much better at this type of seeing, but often our left brains get in the way, thinking they can "do" things better. Um, I'm probably explaining this really poorly. :D Anyhow, I'll let you know how I do with the workbook - that might be something you could do on your own, and it's probably available at your local library.
chickadilly
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:10 am (UTC)
Oh Heavens - that's just what I'm afraid of - that I'd finally sign up and get an instructor who doesn't like teaching beginners - I very much am a beginner! LOL

And no, you're explaining it very well. We've been talking about that whole right brain vs. left brain thing in my classes as well. My instructor is really disorganized about explaining software (and luckily so far it hasn't been too much of a problem since we're still working with photoshop but I am a bit concerned when we get to flash ... ) but she is very good at explaining design concepts.


here_be_dragons
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
Hee! Well, this class wasn't advertised as a class for beginners - she didn't say beginners weren't welcome, but it was called an "intensive studio workshop," or something like that, so I think they were trying to market it to people with at least some art experience. :D I'm sure you could find beginner classes, though - probably at the local community college, in fact. Or maybe even a local nature center. How far are you from Descanso Gardens? Or Huntington Gardens? I wouldn't be surprised if those places (or similar) offer classes.

The instructor of this class has been giving some good design tips, too. In fact, I should probably try and remember more of them, and add them to this entry.
here_be_dragons
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:05 am (UTC)
Hmnh. Or she might have said "everyone HERE can draw." Maybe someday I'll try proofreading my comments BEFORE I post them. :D
chickadilly
Oct. 21st, 2007 02:11 am (UTC)
I knew what ya meant. :D
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