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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