Botanical Illustrations of Moss: Bryophyte reference and pencil roughs

Story posted: Friday, 21. October 2016 by Lizzie Harper

Sometimes a botanical illustration commission appears that calls for something totally new – in all my days of natural history illustration, I’d never been asked to do a whole lot of mosses before.

The closest I’ve been was illustrating two mosses for the FSC Churchyard Plants leaflet

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Moss: Grimmia pulvinata and Tortula muralis

The commission came from the Field Studies Council’s publications department who I’ve worked with before (see my blogs on Churchyard plants and edible plants).

When confronted with a list of 15 bryophyte species, the first thing to do is to gather reference that will help you.  FSC supply a species list along with important diagnostic features, but I need more than that to work with.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

FSC Species and diagnostics chart

Luckily, there’s a magnificent website for anyone keen on lichen, liverworts and mosses ; namely the British Bryological Society. Not only do they give lots of information, photos, and a reading list, they also have the entire “BBS Mosses & Liverworts of Great Britain & Ireland – A Field Guide” (currently out of print) available to download.  I worked the second hand shops of Hay-on-Wye and soon had my reference books sorted.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophye mossMoss Reference books

This is not enough though; for a total beginner with mosses; I had to get my hands of specimens.  Luckily, through contacts at Radnorshire Wildlife Trust and the Hereford Botanical Art Group, I was able to approach Jonathan Sleath and Ray Woods.  Both of these eminent experts had plenty of other tasks, but extremely generously went out into the field and collected me bags of lovely (and correctly identified!) moss.

I'm keeping all the specimens, but taking a little of each for long-term storage in tupperware.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Moss storage

Without this resource I wouldn’t have been able to begin drawing up these divergent and beautiful plants.

Some species weren’t immediately available; Ray lent me his herbarium specimens, dried in labelled envelopes.  It’s easy to reconstitute these by adding a little water; after use you dry them out and return them to their envelopes.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Rehydrated Sphagnum magellicum and Sphagnum tenellum mosses.  (Worth noting that when fresh, S. magellicum is the colour of red-wine, S. tenellum is a bright green.)

With my live material, list, and moss bibles sorted, I could begin drawing.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Illustrating Scorpidium cossonii

I use Fabriano Artistico hot press paper and a mechanical pencil (Pentel P205 with HB lead).

The immediate problem was that mosses are so tiny I can’t see them.  I’m incredibly short-sighted, so took out my contact lenses.  Result!  By drawing nose-to-moss, I could get all the detail I needed, especially if I used a torch to light up the intricate strands making up the thicket of moss from which individual shoots emerge.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Using a torch and no contact lenses to get up close to Scorpidium cossonii

Each illustration requires a habit sketch (what the plant looks like in the wild), an individual shoot of moss showing branching and typical growth pattern, and a close up of one leaf.  The latter meant my lovely dissecting microscope has been extremely busy over the last few weeks! (Sorry about the odd angle of the next photo.)

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Using a dissecting microscope to see individual leaves of Racomitrium lanuginosum

Once completed, I take innumerable photos of the moss habit and individual shoot I’ve just illustrated.  This should help with colour-matching once I get to work on the watercolour finals, although more than ever I notice the discrepancy between a real living specimen and a printed photo of the same thing.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Illustration and specimen of Scorpidium scorpoides

Each drawing takes about 6 hours; far longer than my normal pencil roughs.  I am also worried; in order to know where I am in the moss clump I’ve had to execute tonal studies.  How on earth will these be transformed into full watercolour once I get the go-ahead?  We’ll have to wait and see.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Hypnum jutlandicum Heath Plait moss (rough)

This moss, Hypnum jutlandicum, has evaded me.  This is my third attempt to capture the vital characteristics that make the plant “feel” like H. jutlandicum.  Many thanks are due to Ray who not only gives me support and feedback, but has collected me this moss for me on two separate occasions.

I was surprised but how engrossed and how firmly in love I fell with these mosses; I really enjoyed the enormous challenge of illustrating them.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Pencil rough of Scorpidium cossonii alongside specimen, scalpel and Pentel pencil

I have sent off scans of these roughs to FSC, to Ray Woods, and to Jonathan Sleath for feedback.  This is, for an illustrator, always a terrifying time.  It’s perfectly possible every single moss will need a complete re-draw.  Obviously, I really hope not; but I accept that all feedback and comments received will need to be taken on board, alterations are a vital part of the process, and I’m incredibly grateful to FSC, Ray, and Jonathan for taking the time to look and give advice on these pencil roughs.

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Sphagnum magellinicum Megallanic Bog moss pencil rough

Once I get the feedback, I’ll begin the painstaking process of revising, and then of painting these beautiful lower plants.  I just hope I can do them justice!

Lizzie Harper botanical illustration illustrating bryophyte moss

Racomitrium lanuginosum Wooly Fringe moss pencil rough


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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