Natural History & Botanical Illustration: Sketchbooks

Story posted: Friday, 31. July 2015 by Lizzie Harper

As a natural history & botanical illustrator, sketchbooks are a vital part of both the drawing and the learning process for me.  Being asked to consider my relationship with them recently by Illustrator Magazine has made me pause; it’s not something I’ve thought about closely before, but has made me realise these tools are even more important to me than I previously realised.

Much of this blog formed the base of the article soon to appear in Illustrator magazine.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration natural history illustration lichen sketchbook

Pencil sketchbook notes on lichen species studied at a Radnorshire Wildlife Trust event

All my sketchbooks are hotpress watercolour paper, and robust.  Currently I’m a big fan of “Fat Pads” as they’re made from my favourite Fabriano classic paper, and I love the flexibility the spiral binding gives.

The first purpose of my sketchbooks is to take field notes.  Using my sketchbook, I draw the plant in situ, catching both the details of its colours and anatomy, as well as the usual growth pattern of the entire plant (its “habit”).  I take voluminous written notes, and messy piles of measurements.  This is clearly visible in my studies of the Blackstonia, as the only specimen I found in that particular location it was imperative not to pick it. Quite often I’ll stick in parts of the plant itself so I can ensure the details of a leaf vein or petal are accurate.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator Blackstonia botanical illustration sketchbook

Page of notes on Yellow wort Blackstonia perfoliata from my sketchbook 2004 (used later to illustrate the plant in the HarperCollins Flower Guide by David Streeter)

I use my sketchbooks to gather enough knowledge to reconstruct and illustrate the entire plant at a later date, quite possibly decades into the future and certainly at a time of year when it’s not in flower.  This is why the studies are partial; so long as I can see the shadow pattern and veins on a leaf, or the colour variation of a couple of flowers I’ll be able to build a whole plant. I’ve been able to test this idea several times, and resorting to my sketchbook studies has allowed me to get all the detail I need to complete a commission.

Lizzie Harper borage botanical illustration sketchbook notes

Page of notes on Borage Borago officinalis from my sketchbook 2004 (used later to illustrate the plant in the HarperCollins Flower Guide by David Streeter)

By drawing a plant you take the time to look at it, and see and learn from it.  It’s only when lost in the minute details that you discover new and thrilling facts about the anatomy of your flower; the way the leaves attach to a stem, how the seeds are crammed together in the fruiting capsule, the geometry of a bud.  This is what thrills me as much as anything else I do; discovering new things as a result of taking the time to see through drawing.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook study Vinca periwinkle

Periwinkle Vinca major sketchbook study

I also use my sketchbooks to take notes on seminars and talks; sketching both from images on the screen and from specimens provided.  This is shown with my quick sketches of lichens, examining their different physical forms, and observing their fruiting bodies under a dissecting microscope.  Without a sketchbook I’d forget everything I was told within days!

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration sketchbook study of lichen

Notes taken on lichen morphology at a talk by IAPI.  For more on the Lichen lesson read my earlier blog.

One last way I use my sketchbooks is to pass time when I’m at an exhibition, or demonstrating to the public.  You need to be drawing something, that is what they want to see you doing, but you need to choose a subject which doesn’t need to be finished, nor to be perfect.  Something you can get into, then ignore as you have a 40 minute chat about the historical approach to naming ferns, or get a three year old to draw a daisy.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration polygala fruticosa sketchbook

Sketchbook study of Polygala fruticosa done to demonstrate how I paint, and to pass time.

I tend to pick up whatever comes to hand, a nearby plant or a fallen leaf.  Sometimes, perhaps because there’s no pressure, I end up being very fond of these gentle studies.  They remind me of whatever event I was at, and sometimes it’s a real luxury to just dabble about with a subject.  Lizzie Harper natural history illustrator botanical artist sketchbook study of leaf

Sketchbook study of leaf from Hilliers Botanic Gardens in Hampshire (where I was exhibiting and demonstrating)

So as a learning tool, a record of events and shared knowledge, a tool-box for future illustrations, and a way to constantly hone my craft and enjoy my trade there’s nothing that can beat the keeping of a sketchbook.

For more on how I go about creating sketchbook studies, please check out my earlier blog.

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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