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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