Portraits of Plants, Lesson 3

For the first lesson in this sequence, go here.

I always draw from real plants—never photographs—because plants are three dimensional and were once alive… They are physically present, and can move, change, and challenge the person drawing them. Sarah Simblet, Botany for the Artist

Two summers ago I signed up for a class on botanical drawing taught by Claudia Fitch. Most of our classes met at the wonderful Victorian conservatory at Volunteer Park in Seattle. It was a difficult experience for me in many ways, plunging me back into the sense of inadequacy that I remembered from my high school art classes.

Claudia began with assignments to produce contour drawings like those I described in the first two lessons. Then she introduced us to the concept of drawing negative space. The illustration from the Betty Edwards book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, shows how if we try to draw what we see (as the artist did in the top picture) we will often produce an unsatisfying reproduction. If instead we try to focus on the negative spaces and the outlines, we can produce something that looks more like the object being drawn.

When drawing a plant, the easiest way to see the negative space is to use a frame to isolate the plant. We created viewfinders out of thin cardboard (they should be the same proportion as the page on which you are sketching).  (You can also take a photograph to frame a subject as well.) What you want to do is make sure the plant is not floating in white space in the middle of the page but that it extends to the edges, on at least three sides. Then you draw the negative space, rather than the positive space. The illustration on the left comes from Edwards.

Claudia also taught us to do ten or so quick sketches, trying to frame the subject in different ways, before deciding how we were going to draw. We could move our frames (cut out of stiff cardboard) to see what would make for the best composition as in the example below. As you can see I didn’t finish all of my sketches of the tree trunk I was studying.

When I did these assignments, I became totally absorbed in the task at hand, just focusing on my tools (usually a pen or pencil and a sheet of white paper). It was only when I stopped drawing and looked at my drawing critically that I got frustrated. My sketches bore little resemblance to the plant in front of me.

Yet now, when I am no longer confronted by the actual tree, I am quite happy with the result. This unfinished sketch, takes me back in memory to the actual tree, to the intimacy established as I traced each of its curves with my pencil and then the charcoal.

Once we had achieved some success at reproducing the shapes we actually saw in front of us, we began working with tones and shading. Claudia had us create five distinct tones, ranging from very light to very dark, as samples on the side of the page and then isolate those tones on the plant, almost like doing a paint by number painting. Though it sounds mechanical, this was another interesting exercise in seeing what was really there, rather than what I thought. Again, I didn’t like this sketch of a broccoli leaf at the time I did it, but I can see that by focusing only on tone, I was able to capture some details that I would have overlooked because they didn’t fit my belief about how a leaf looks.

Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook suggests another way to learn how values work: choose a color photo and make a black-and-white reproduction of it. She also suggests turning the photograph upside down as a way to dissociate from what you think you know about the item you are drawing and look instead merely at the shapes and colors.

Making an Impression

And yet, I know artists whose medium is life itself and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They see and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive. Frederick FranckThe Zen of Seeing

I have to admit I really struggled throughout the botanical drawing class. If, like me, you suffer from perceived artistic ineptitude, you might prefer some of these other ways of capturing the likeness of a plant.

Try painting making leaf impressions.  Claudia Nice in How To Keep A Sketchbook Journal describes her technique. She brushes leaves with a medium thick coat of water color, blots them with a paper towel and then presses them on the paper. Gaps in the print can be filled in afterwards with more of the water color paint. She mentions that fuzzy leaves like sage make nice prints. Siegel suggests experimenting with dry and damp paper. She places a piece of newsprint over the plant and smoothes it down with her fingers or an artist’s brayer, a little roller you can buy at art supply stores.

You can also do this in reverse. Put the leaf down on the page (it’s better if it’s something fairly flat and stiff), secure it to the paper with rubber cement or tiny bits of tape, then brush or sponge or spatter paint around it.

I own an extraordinary book called Leaves: In Myth, Magic & Medicine, which is composed of the most exquisite leaf prints created by Alice Thoms Vitale. She applied water-based printer’s ink to the surface of fresh leaves with a brayer. She then lowered the paper onto the leaf (rather than the other way around) and pressed carefully and selectively with her thumb. Then the paper was lifted off and allowed to dry. The delicacy of these images just has to be seen to be believed which is why I am reproducing the paper birch on this page to show you how Vitale elevates what seems like a child’s kindergarten project into an art form.

Another easy way to play around with the shapes of leaves is to do a shadow tracing. Place an object between the sun and your paper so that it casts a clear shadow. Then trace the outline. You can then color in the outline, if you like. I’ve done this with chalk on a sunny day with a tree shadow. It was a fun ephemeral art project.

Assignment for Week 3

If you aren’t totally terrified of an art assignment, then try any one of the sequence of steps I outlined above:

  • Choose a subject and draw it, focusing on the negative space.
  • Create a viewfinder; use it to make six or nine quick sketches framing your subject
  • Choose one view you like and spend time just filling in the negative space with color or charcoal
  • Choose a subject, create a tone palette and then color in your drawing

If you are terrified of art assignments, try one of the more playful approaches.

  • Paint a leaf or flower with water color paint and impress it on a wet or dry page
  • Outline a shadow of a leaf or flower
  • Create a stencil by placing a fern or other stiff plant on paper and painting around it
  • Draw around the shadow of a tree on the pavement with chalk


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Portraits of Plants #1


From A Curious Herbal, published in Nuremburg in 1757

The way of seeing is a way of knowing.
Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

I found identifying plants difficult until I began drawing them. When I first chose a conifer to identify, a scrubby evergreen at the corner of my block, I spent weeks puzzling over it. I cut off a sprig and studied it, comparing it to the illustrations in my tree identification book. I took photographs with my new digital camera but they didn’t capture the details that seemed so relevant to me: the milky color of the swelling bud tips, the nascent cones, jutting forth on the stems, clotted with fresh scales. It was a spruce, I thought, but the tree book contained at least 22 varieties of spruce, none of which resembled my specimen.

Finally I sit down and sketch it in my notebook. Here a packet of needles, unpacked. I learn there are two in each bundle. There an attempt to draw those phallic bud tips. A more mature cone dissembles into scales, each a diamond with an impressed oval at its highest point. When I turn the cone upside down I see the scales are actually rectangles, fanning out from a central point like blades in a fan. The growing cone resembles a miniature pineapple, with a flush of chartreuse green beneath the brown scales. By the time I am done, my fingers are covered with sap. A little bug crawls out of the cone and onto my page. I whisk it outside. The scent of pine fills the room, evoking Christmas.

Nothing gets you up close and personal as quickly as sketching a plant. You take it apart like the pieces of a puzzle, poring over each fragment, sniffing out its mysteries. So many ways to look at it. Prying open the petals to count the pistils and stamens. Twirling the stem in your fingers. Outlining it with a pen, while pinning the plant in place with a fingertip. Tracing the network of veins on the leaves. Shading in the shadows on the folds of the petals. Noticing the tiny star on the base of the berry.

As I handle the plant, turning it upside down, flattening it, pressing back the petals, fondling the leaves, details emerge that surprise and delight me. It’s like exploring a lover’s body during those lazy hours you spend in bed at the start of a relationship. A snowdrop has never been the same since I peeled back its petals and found, to my surprise, striped green sepals inside.

I learned my favorite drawing technique—contour drawing–years ago in a high school art class. Betty Edward also describes it in her seminal book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The instructions are simple. Look at your subject. Put your pen down on the page. Outline the contours of the object with your pen. Do not look at your paper. Do not take your pen off the page. Resist the temptation to peek at your drawing as you proceed. This often turns a lively sketch into something stiff and stilted (though perhaps more accurate).

Why does this technique work better than conscious imitation? What we believe we see is not what we really see. Try drawing a cup while looking at the cup. Then draw it again using contour drawing. I think you will be surprised by how much more the second version actually resembles a cup. We have a notion of a cup shaped by our three-dimensional experience with it but it’s not the cup our eye sees.

I used contour drawing throughout high school and college classes to capture portraits of my teachers, other students, my shoes and my own hand drawing. Sometimes you get an undecipherable tangle of squiggles. But other times you end up with a lovely sketch that really captures the essence of the person.

Spirit drawing takes contour drawing to another level. Jude Siegel in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook says it’s as if “what the eyes sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object—something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen or other tool and is then recorded onto the paper.”

Before beginning to draw, spend time simply taking in the subject as much as possible.

Then take your pen (Siegel encourages the use of a pen, as it will force you to commit), choose a spot on the subject, and focus your eyes and attention there. Begin drawing, traveling along the lines of the object. If you are drawing a flower, pretend you are a tiny bug traversing the edges of each petal. Or you can imagine tracing the edges of the subject with your fingertip, the gentle caress of a lover. After tracing the outline, you can begin to trace some of the interior edges.

Siegel uses spirit drawing as a warm-up before a more studied attempt and I’ve used it this way as well. I have to admit that the first sketches are often more lively than the sketches I labor over. As the name implies, they capture more of the spirit of the plant.

For instance, here’s an attempt to analyze the way a plantain plant looks as it bursts into blossom.

And here is a spirit drawing I did of the same plant as it withered and shrunk. I think it has more life (though it’s clearly ebbing away).




Although I’ve been practicing spirit drawing on flowers, I’ve also started using it to capture glimpses of my everyday life. I have to admit these are my favorites. For instance, this picture of a dog I saw at my favorite café, Pettirosso, one afternoon. It might be hard for you to tell what this is supposed to represent, but for me it vividly recalls that moment when the dog woke up to look at a customer.

Assignment for April, Week 1

Try doing a contour drawing of a plant this week. Don’t despair if your first version is a bunch of squiggles. Try again. Do a drawing a day. If you start to feel comfortable with the contour drawings, try a spirit drawing. Then write up a report on how it went.

If you’d like to share your sketches, you could post them on Facebook, either in the private group for A Year in Flowers 2017 (you need to “friend” me on Facebook and I can invite you) or on the Living in Season page.

For lesson 2 of Portraits of Plants and a new assignment, go here.


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