With flowers fully in bloom, what better time to delve into the wonderful world of botanical art? To get you started, we’ve asked for tips from a whole host of respected artists and illustrators, from RHS Gold medal winners to much-loved botanical authors
1. Obey the Seasons
Picking subjects in season will add real impact to your botanical art. A cheap pocket planner like Ian Spence’s RHS Gardening Month by Month can prove invaluable.
2. Notes on tone
Janet Wood SBA: “To express a plant’s three-dimensional form on paper, use at least three tones: dark, medium and light. Good lighting is essential for this, from the left if you are right-handed or from the right if lefthanded. The middle tone area between the two is where you will see the true colour of a subject. Always aim for a smooth graduation of tone from light to dark. “Before applying the first wash, study your subject and note the strongest highlights. Take care on the light areas not to overwork veins or surface pattern. To check if darker areas could be improved, place tracing paper over the work and use a pencil to test the effect of intensifying the tone. Even a small area of very dark tone can increase the subject’s depth and make it more lifelike.”
3. Keep your subjects fresh
Keeping your specimens fresh while you study them can be vital. Begin with the petals as they will be the first areas to curl or discolour. Conversely, leave the stems until last. Keep individual flower heads fresh by placing them on a piece of cotton wool in a dish full of water.
4. Establish a focus
Establish a focal point for your painting and keep it white. This means you can return to it at the end and add the detail to it in the context of the rest of the work. Don’t be afraid to crop in on the flower heads. This will keep the image exciting and make detailing more accessible.
5. Find a suitable brush
Billy Showell: “When painting flowers you need a good brush. I predominantly use a fine-tipped, pointed no.6 brush. When you are picking up the paint with the brush, twist the brush between your thumb and forefinger to obtain a beautiful point. Always pull the brush towards you so that the hairs are not broken. A good brush is worth the investment and you should take good care of it by keeping it in a brush-roll when travelling. Add some artist’s paint and top quality paper, then all that’s left is lots of practise and you’re there.” Billy is the author of botanical books and hosts regular art classes. See www.billyshowell.co.uk
6. Challenge yourself
Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan, SWSBA: “Painting white flowers is difficult, but painting black ones is far more challenging. First of all you need to understand how to mix a neutral black from primary colours. You will need cool and warm versions of yellow, red and blue (e.g. Lemon Yellow and Indian Yellow; Alizarin Crimson and Scarlet Lake; Prussian Blue and French Ultramarine). By adding extra colours you can then make a variety of blacks as shown in the circle. Clockwise from the top it shows cool/ warm versions of yellow, orange, red, purple, blue and green. “To paint a black flower, build up the colour from light to dark, starting with a watered-down version of your chosen black. Build up layers, using slightly darker colours and increasing their intensity. Allow paint to dry before applying new layers, blending with a damp brush. At mid-tone, you need to switch from layering the washes to using small, stippled strokes, thus avoiding the risk of disturbing the previous layers.” Rosie and Meriel are co-authors of Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project and Contemporary Botanical Illustration
7. Add texture with veins and hairs
The veins on leaves are intricate and often include highly complex patterns, and the treatment of them in a botanical painting can be make or break. They are hard work and it is best to leave the veins until last, painting the gaps between them, slowly building up towards the outline of the vein with a very tiny brush. To capture the high shine found on some leaves you should not rely on using white gouache at the end. To achieve the best glossy sheen, the area should be left completely white. To add texture, for a hairy or bumpy leafy, use dry brush strokes around the ‘raised’ areas.
8. Always look for subjects
Shirley Slocock: “How marvellous it would be to make an instant decision about what to paint. No wandering around Waitrose inspecting fruit and veg, no sleepless nights, just the certain knowledge about what to do next – bliss! “Try to minimize the agony. Make notes thoughout the year of flowering times of favoured plants, scour books to see what others have done, plan a series, make quick sketches of any possible subjects, take reference photos – anything to build up images in your mind of the next fantastic painting before you need to start.”
9. Use masking fluid
When painting the stamen of delicate flowers such as the lily or the hellebore, keep the area white with masking fluid as you paint the petals. Wet the petal areas and paint around the stamen in the petal colour. The liquid will pull the paint into it and away from the stamen. Brush away the masking fluid and work in gouache with a small brush to add detail to the stamen.
10. Splash out!
Anna Knights: “In real life, we know that water droplets sit on top of apples, and because of this, people often assume that the droplets must have been painted on top of the apples too. However, the key to this, and any botanical painting, is to paint what you see and not what you think you see. “For this painting, I simply treated the ‘droplets’ as more shapes of light and dark colour. I worked from a photograph, beginning with a pencil drawing. Then, using a size 3 spotter brush, I painted the lightest parts of the picture first. I began with the highlights on the droplets, working my way through to the darkest areas with a combination of thicker paint, stronger colours and layering up of the watercolour. The darkest areas included the edges of the droplets, and for those fi ne edges I used a 3/0 brush.” www.annaknights.co.uk
11. Mix those greens
Mary Ann Scott SBA: “Greens look unnatural when used straight from the tube, so I prefer mixing my own. I am a devout believer in the utility of shade cards – they save time and will help you learn about the properties of paint. I like mixing Raw Umber with blues, for example, to make beautiful, muted greens, useful for the undersides of leaves. Another good mix is Alizarin Crimson added to Hooker’s Green, resulting in a subtle purplish-green, perfect for the buds of Helleborus orientalis.”
12. Punch up your highlights
For a really striking finish, concentrate on keeping your highlights punchy. You can pull out softer highlights by blotting wet watercolour with tissue or a clean, wet brush. A brilliant white paper can ensure bright highlights but adding a touch of white gouache at the end is equally effective.
13. Avoid hard edges
Working with watercolour wet-in-wet gives wonderfully smooth tones. However, if you don’t want the shape to end on a hard edge, wet the paper around it too. This way the pigment won’t pool around the edges, leaving you with a much softer finish.
14. Get outdoors
A botanical illustration will only be as interesting as the subject itself. It can be tempting to pick something from your own garden, but for a real challenge look further afield. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is one of the world’s leading botanical destinations, with 300 acres of glasshouses and landscaped gardens. The on-site Marianne North Gallery should provide inspiration for how to interpret their tropical specimens too! RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey is a world-class garden full of extraordinary beauty, all year round. Its giant glasshouse covers an area the size of 10 tennis courts, with 100s of endangered species across three climatic zones.
15. Underpaint for depth
Gareth McCorry: “For me, a strong tonal underpainting is the key to everything else; even with a subject as delicate as a magnolia in flower. A decent underpainting not only establishes the tonal range of the image, from the very darkest areas through to the brightest highlights, but in doing so, it creates depth and perspective. This acts as a great base to apply colour onto. I like to think of it in musical terms; with the underpainting acting like bass and rhythm, providing a foundation for the melody. The tonal underpainting fills out the colour. It helps when it comes to mixing the palette too, as you can see at a glance whether the colour you’re working with has the correct tonal value.” www.garethmccorry.com
16. Be methodical
When sketching, create clear sections to paint. Complete them one at a time and don’t start another until the last is finished. This will give you a template to work to when you progress across a painting.
17. Don’t leave the leaves
Mary Ann Scott SBA: “I enjoy painting leaves and I find that large, textured leaves such as those of the Japanese Loquat are particularly rewarding. They need a colour with a high tinting strength to depict the glossy surface so I made up a strong mix of French Ultramarine and Cadmium Lemon with a touch of Alizarin Crimson and built up layers of colour, wet-on-wet. I was careful to leave plenty of white paper for highlights and to let the paper dry between washes.” Mary Ann is the author of Botanical Sketchbook, published in April by Batsford
18. Exercise regularly!
Fiona Strickland SBA: “An excellent way to improve your work is to ‘exercise’ by drawing in a small sketch book everyday for 10-20 minutes. Choose a flower head or leaf and observe it from different angles over the course of a few days. If you select the least predictable view, it will make you observe the specimen more closely and you won’t be drawing what you ’think’ you see. “The drawing needs to be analytical, not a quick sketch. A clutch pencil, 0.3 HB lead is ideal for this as it keeps a consistent point.”
19. Don’t skimp on presentation
After all of your hard work painting, good presentation is important. Consider how much space your image needs – try out options by making a ‘window’ from two mount corners. Don’t overpower your image with bright surrounds either. An off-white mount with a natural wood frame is the safest (and most commercial) option.
20. Avoid black paint
Paul Fennell SBA: “Avoid using black watercolour paint in your botanical studies. It can seem fine when wet but as it dries the matt quality of watercolour makes black appear a dark grey with an almost whitish deposit on it. That opaque, ‘sooty’ quality stands out, spoiling the harmony of the painting. “I would also suggest avoiding colours which contain black pigment such as Payne’s Grey, Sepia and Indigo. At one time these colours were not a problem but today’s colours are imitations produced by manufacturers using mixtures of other colours including black. Much better alternative ‘blacks’ are to be had by combining close complementary colours.”