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Drawing for beginners: Learning plants

I was recently asked to write a few words about how drawing plants helps you to learn about them for a lovely new book I’ve illustrated, and how even if you’re not confident, or have never tried drawing from life before, turning your hand to a bit of basic botanical illustration can be very worthwhile.

berries, hawthorn, craetegus monogyna, watercolour, watercolor, botanical illustration.
Sketchbook illustration of Hawthorn berries

The (slightly altered) text below appears in Foraging with Kids, by Adele Nozedar; published this month by Nourish books, and illustrated by me.

botanical art, botanical illustration, foraging, food for free,
Foraging with Kids, published this month (order your copy here)
Why draw plants?

If you’re not convinced that you’re good at identifying plants, a brilliant way to learn about them is to draw them.  It doesn’t make any difference whether you can scarcely hold a pencil, or if you’re the second Leonardo da Vinci; it’s the looking that’s involved that counts.

I’m illustrating this blog with pages from my sketchbooks, photos of work in progress, and finished illustrations; if you’re just starting it it may take a while to get your eye in and to feel confident enough to play about with watercolour, but as with all things, if you do it enough you’ll get better and better at drawing!  And once you can draw, the painting is the easy part.

bryony, illustration, botanical illustration,

Working on a watercolour of Black Bryony for Jersey Post.  For a blog on the steps involved in creating this painting click here

Drawing plants is also a really good activity to do with children, encouraging them to draw what they actually see rather than what they think is there can be amazingly rewarding; if you compare a child’s picture of an imagined flower (one leaf, big central disc, lots of rounded petals) with one that the same child’s done when staring at a plant you’ll see an enormous difference.

A page from the “Foraging with Kids” activity pack,available from Adele’s website
Setting out to draw

So how do you go about drawing a plant?

First, get paper and pencil and a rubber together.  A magnifying glass can come in handy too, and a plant identification book might be helpful so you can name the plant once you’ve drawn it.  Go and find or pick a plant that interests you, and be sure to consider the whole plant, down to the base of the stem.  Set yourself up somewhere and make sure you won’t be distracted for half an hour.  Go on, make a cup of tea too.

passionfruit, passiflora, work in progress,
Painting a passionfruit; work in progress. Always have the drawing tools you want to use available, and make space and time to work on your drawing and learn your plant.
Mapping out the subject

Start off by doing a really rough shape of the plant in very light pencil on the page, a suggestion of where each leaf is and where the flowering parts are.  Try to look at things like the shape of the leaves, how they attach to the stem, how many petals or smaller flowers are involved in the flower, what the buds and fruit look like.

daffs, daffodil, how to draw, step by step,
Daffodil drawing. For more step by step guides on drawing different plants, check out my Pinterest board of printable A4 handouts.

Once you’ve got this light “map” down, you can work into the detail.

Fitting form to function

Look to see what the edges of the leaves do, are they smooth or have they got teeth; what direction do the leaf veins go in; what shape is each petal; is the leaf smooth or hairy; has the stem got spines on or is it smooth?  Add these layers of information to your drawing.  Have a think about why these traits might be there as you go along; is the flower coloured that way to attract insects?  Why does the plant have to arm itself with thorns?  What’s the point of encasing a seed in a hard wooden nutshell? You’ll have to stare and stare to sort out some of these details; this is where the learning happens because as you look so intently you find you unconsciously learn how the plant is put together.

clover, trifolium, meadow, botanical illustration,
Working into, and thinking about the purpose of the details of a plant; in this case Red Clover

Use the magnifying glass to sort out the details of things like the middle of a flower or the tiny veins on a leaf.  Feel free to pull the plant apart as you draw it; you’re figuring out how it works so you need to break it into its elemental parts.  Don’t forget to look at the roots too, if you can. In some species there are identifying features that you can only find if you look underground.

roots, nodules, clover, hemiparasitic,
Roots of clover (nodules); and semi-parasitic Yellow rattle, which takes energy from the roots of grass species. From an illustration done of a Hay meadow for BBC Countryfile Magazine (click here for a blog on this job)

An analogy would be to think of a mechanic at work with a motor, tinkering and taking it apart to see what’s going on with each smaller bit of the whole engine.  By understanding each element of a plant you learn how it works as a whole organism.

The joy of discovery

I love this part of drawing, and find out incredible facts that blow me away.  I remember drawing a mallow flower once and finding out its seeds were held on a tiny point, like a hoop-la stick with donut shaped rings on it, and each individual seed was shaped like a tiny slice of a donut.

mallow, wild flower, pink flower, watercolour, botanical illustration,
Illustration of the Mallow Malvus sylvestris, along with a sketchbook study showing the super-cool seed structure.

I loved figuring out that each petal of the Wood sorrel flower has the most delicate dark purple lines on it which follow the veins that supply the petal with water and nutrients, and realising that the common daisy flower is actually two sorts of flowers; tiny yellow ones in the centre and each white petal is a perfect little white flower in its own right. (Go on, get that magnifying glass out, you’ll see what I mean!)  These things fill me with joy and wonder, and I’m sure your own drawing discoveries will do the same for you.

flower, watercolour, watercolour, sorrel, wood sorrel,
Wood Sorrel Oxalis acetosella
Drawing as an aid to species identification

Once you’ve drawn your plant, even if the resulting picture isn’t a thing of beauty, you’ll find you can instantly recognise that plant again.  You’ll have learnt so much more about it than you ever could have done by referring to a book.  You’ll know it inside and out, and this is because you’ll have spent so long with it, staring at it, looking it, understanding it.  All these things are required when you draw a plant, and that’s why sketching plants is such a brilliant way to improve your plant identification skills.  Drawings by a beginner can hold just as much information as a drawing done by an expert.

 

clover, trifolium, wildflower, botanicalillustration
Red clover Trifolium pratense sketchbook study, with leaves stuck down in the sketchbook.
Eat your subject matter!

Even better, if you’ve drawn an edible plant you can eat it when you’re done!  This particularly appeals to the younger artists amongst us, at whom Foraging with Kids is aimed.

elder, elderberry, progression, watercolour, botanical illustration,
Elderberry illustration in progress; the berries are edible (in small amounts). Recipes for foraging with elderberry pop up in Foraging with Kids; and in The Hedgerow Handbook (also by Adele with my pictures)
Don’t worry about the results: just enjoy it!

One last thing; do NOT get hung up on whether or not you’ve done a good picture.  The drawing that is the result of these observations is of secondary importance.  It doesn’t matter.  No-one will judge you, no-one will criticise you (except for yourself).  The wonder and the glory of it all is you’ve been lost in concentration, you’ve been absorbed by a flower, you’ve been learning through looking, you’ve been drawing.  And the best bit is the more you draw, the more you learn about plants and plant identification, and the better you get at drawing.  Come on, what’s not to like?  Get those pencils sharpened and head out into the garden (with or without the children) right away!

rose, rosa, flowers, botanical illustration, watercolour, watercolor,
Rose illustration in progress, and completed.

6 comments

  1. Is there a resource for plant identification if you have no idea what it is? Other than going through four zillion google images and hoping you get lucky (LOL but I’ve done it multiple times in desperation)? I’ve seen something online for insects.. you put in characteristics and it gives you a list of possibilities which cuts the process down significantly.

    1. There are indeed some. I use ispot https://www.ispotnature.org/ which has online keys, and galleries of related species. I know there are apps you can get on the phone which will help you id a plant from a photo, but annoyingly I cant remember what they’re called right now. A good place to ask is the BSBI https://bsbi.org/identification who know about these apps and, I think, have collaborated on some. Twitter is lovely too, I often have my queries answered by cheerfully willing botanists. ANd it is TOTALLY normal to struggle with plant id. It can be really tough, specially with plants you’ve not seen before; or with some of the killer families (dandelions, hawksbeard and hawksbits…dont get me started!) There are also good resources on Youtube; I’ve watched and signed up for various teaching videos from an amazing young botanist, Joshua Styles https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEHq4t89EB5R0ss8Z65vZyw, his videos are always worth a look.

  2. Hi Lizzie Harper,
    I didn’t know your work until this morning! It is absolutely the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen. I am new to the proper study of Botany. You could call me a neophyte!
    I would love to come on one of your courses for beginners.
    Thank you for sharing your perceptions of the plant world so beautifully.

    1. Hi Roz, what a gorgeous and generous comment, thanks so much for that. Made my day. And how lovely to be a botanical neophyte, enjoy the journey! xxx

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Lizzie Harper