I took a botany illustration class recently, and the group (Hereford Botanical Art Society) asked for some back-to-basics drawing tips, and chose fall leaves for their subject matter. Having collected a wide variety for them to choose from, I set up the workshop.
Variety of autumn leaves; both flat and curled, and of 12 different species.
Drawing skills are vital, they lie at the root of all illustration; so I was keen to get the group to look and to draw what they see instead of what they assume to be there. The excersizes I used are loosely based on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards as I feel they're proved to focus concentration, and help people to see and draw without pre-conceptions.
First was contour drawings. The group had to draw a leaf without removing their pencils from the page, and feel their way across the subject as they looked at and drew it. Some members didn't like this as they're used to measuring up drawings and taking far longer, but they all took part.
Contour drawing of sycamore leaf (Negative space study below)
Next I did a demo of negative space drawing, where you draw the shapes around and between objects instead of the object itself. The boldness and clarity of line shown in these drawings was gratifying; they were conentrating so hard they forgot to worry about what their picture would look like. Ideal.
Negative space demo
It was wonderful to hear them explain that funny feeling when your brain is busy trying to draw the spaces, and another part is simultaneously trying to over-ride this and focus you back on the leaf. One lady descibed it as "as if your brain keeps slipping out of gear unless you concentrate on looking at the negative shapes". It's a feeling I recognise, and was delighted that they were sharing this ability to see the shapes between objects.
Negative space drawing
After a cup of tea (I'm not totally inhumane) I asked them to do detailed observational drawings, trying to include as much detail as possible. I encouraged them to draw veins and leaf edges, and to use magnifying glasses. The quality of line in these illustrations was strong and bold, and several of them mentioned that they were using new ways of seeing from the negative space and contour excersizes.
Observational drawing in progress
Lunch came and went (most didn't even stop to eat as they were so absorbed with their drawings) and then we discussed tonality and shadows. Shadows have definite shapes which need to be recorded, so I asked them to draw some curled leaves, focusing on recording the shapes of the shadows.
Botanical illustration workshop tonal drawing of Oak leaf
Interestingly, many seemed unwilling or unable to simplify the shadows to blocks of dark; and although they produced good work, it was noticably less bold than their earlier pieces. Perhaps next time I'll supply torches so the shadows are more distinct.
For the last part of the class, and somewhat against my better judgement, the class worked with watercolour. I urged them to focus on drawing with paint rather than getting too involved with colour mixing, and to continue to think about shapes of shadows, negative space, and the details of the leaf venation. There were some good and strong results.
Botanical illustration watercolour study
When we looked at each others' work, there was a general feeling that the "back-to-basics" approach had worked for them; loosened up their line and given them tools to allow them to see things differently. I feel that most, if not all, got something from the day; and many were planning to continue with the leaf studies at home.
For some more good tips on drawing and getting used to trying new drawing techniques, have a look at Jen Miller's blog.
I'm just pleased the group didn't object to being pushed out of their comfort zone or to being bullied by me. Although they didn't have a polished finished piece at the end of the day, I hope the new approaches to drawing and seeing will have a longer-lasting impact, and will be something they can refer to again and again as they go forward with their botanical illustrations.
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