Natural History Illustration: Using Negative Space in Botanical Illustration

Story posted: Friday, 27. March 2015 by Lizzie Harper

Natural history illustration, Sciart, and botanical illustration require the illustrator to draw accurately and with confidence.

One of the many tools I use almost daily is the idea of negative space.

The easiest way to think of negative space is as the space between and around objects; the triangles between spokes of a bike wheel, the ovals in the handles of scissors, the shapes made by overlapping leaves.   Here’s a demo I did for a botanical illustration workshop recently.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator demos negative space

Negative space demo

I first learned about negative space from my mother, a fine artist, and then far more from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  Although originally published many years ago, the ideas in this book are still current and formed not only the basis of a recent children’s workshop I ran, but also of courses run in the UK by Anna Black.

Using negative space to draw a rose Lizzie Harper Botanical Illustrator

Using negative space to illustrate a rose

Painting a rose is one of the times I rely heavily on negative space; plotting in the spaces between the leaves and the stems.  Negative space is such a handy tool; if ever I’m totally stuck as to what a line should do, if I just concentrate on drawing the shape of the space that surrounds the object, then I can sort it out.

Using negative space to draw a rose Lizzie Harper Botanical Illustrato

Drawing of rose, heavily reliant on using negative space

(For more on the evolution of this illustration, check out my blog from 2013).

Drawings of negative space can be gorgeous and strong, and can stand alone, like this 10 minute sketch done by a 12 year old on my drawing course.

Illustration using negative space by a child Lizzie Harper workshop

Child's illustration of bicycle using negative space

Other times I rely heavily on negative space is when drawing up a plant with a whole load of tiny parts, an elder flower, the leaflets of a fern, or the needles of a douglas fir.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration of fern

Ostrich Fern Matteuccia struthiopteris from The Garden Forager by Adele Nozedar

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration of fir

Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii from The Garden Forager by Adele Nozedar

It’s not just plants that benefit from a touch of negative space; the shapes between hairs on an insect leg, shapes formed where space touches the edge of a bird’s feathers, the dark spaces between teeth inside the mouth of a mammal…

For a good tutorial in using negative space, please check out the tutorial by Marian Boddy-Evans.

Without using negative space my job would be a great deal harder; and give me less pleasure.  I love the way drawing negative space gives you a feeling like you’re cheating, you’re beating your drawing, and it always feels brilliant to have such an effective tool in your illustrating toolbox.

On another topic entirely, I'm afraid I've had to turn off the "comments" button on my blogs due to spamming.  If you would like to give any comments or feedback, please do so on my Facebook page or Twitter account or email me at  Many many thanks; and apologies.





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