Botanical Illustration: Composing a sketchbook study March 21st 2014

Story posted: Friday, 21. March 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Winter, and my natural history illustration work continues.  No problem painting a botanical illustration specimen in February if it's a conifer, like this Douglas fir.

Instead of examining the techniques involved in mixing colours etc., I thought perhaps it might be an idea to discuss composing the way a botanical subject sits on a page.

Here we are at the very start; lots of specimens, a blank sheet of paper, and a deadline.

Set up for sketchbook botanical illustration of douglas fir by Lizzie harper

I know what elements I need to include in this sketchbook study. I need a decent sized "habit" drawing; a picture which shows how the branches attach, where the pine cones grow, and shows the shapes and map of where all the pine needles lie.  I know I want a full colour study of a pine cone, with attached needles.  The focus of this illustration is the bright green fresh needles, or tips.  I want to show the buds they come from, how they look as they emerge, and how they look once fully out.  There also needs to be a block of text, compromising my notes on the plant.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir in progress

First up is the habit drawing, which forms the backbone of the piece.  I want it to stretch across the page, but need to make sure there's nothing to jar the eye (when something looks wrong in a composition), but also that I don't bore the viewer by lining up the cone so it's bang in the middle of the page.  This pencil study is going to need to have curves and dips, some movement, as the following studies will be smaller and less able to move the viewer's eye around the page.  These things need to be remembered along with ensuring botanical accuracy isn't compromised.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir in progress

The habit sketch is complete, and I chose a specimen which has left a natural space for other details around it.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir in progress

I want an area of colour to engage the viewer, so have plotted the pine cone and twig in the top left.  Again, along with getting the details right, it's important to leave enough space around this detail so it doens't feel cramped; and also to be sympathetic to the shapes of the central illustration.  I drew the twig at an upright diaganol to try and ensure this.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir in progress

With a block of heavy colour at the top, it's vital to provide a visual anchor lower down on the page.  A study of the buds contains similar colours, and fits neatly into the space below the lifted branch tip.  Below this, I can put in the text block.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir in progress

With the buds complete, I need to put in some tips emerging, and some tips fully emerged.  I out the first element (lighter in colour and smaller) at the top right; and the second down below.  I'm not entirely convinced this has worked.  the yellow in each carries the yee through, but I think the text has failed to anchor the illustration quite as firmly as I'd've hoped for.  However, I do think all the elements work well in terms of fitting on the page without jarring the eye, and it's just a matter of the weight of the composition which hasn't quite worked out ideally.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook illlustration of douglas fir final

It's odd deconstructing these decisions, none were taken consciously as I did this study sheet.  I guess it's like all things, the more you do it the less you think about what you're doing.  However, there's so much to be learned about good composition.  The old botanical artists with their herbals and psalters were excellent at using the page efficiently and beautifully (and often very boldly, check out the Clutius Botanical Watercolours book by Claudia Swan). Quite frequently, the only element that detracts from a gorgeous botanical illustration will relate to compostion.  Without a decent layout (and goodness knows I get it wrong often enough) even a superb illustration can look average.  It's something which needs to be considered, in every illustration that you do.

 

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