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):
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).
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):
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.