I recently taught a day-long session on how to do botanical illustrations of leaves, focusing on colour and form, at The Walled Garden in Treberfydd. We set ourselves up in an airy glass house, and had ready access to the enormous variety of beautiful plants Alison grows and sells at the nursery.
Glass house and students at work
After some initial work on form, we had a look at mixing greens.
When I'm illustrating, I'll choose a leaf and try to mix a colour that almost exactly matches it, even painting a little of the mixed colour onto the leaf itself to see how well it blends in.
I tend to keep adding colours to a mix until it matches the leaf I'm painting; some of the students were surprised at this approach as in many traditional botanical illustration classes, only three colours are ever mixed at any one time.
The benefit of such a "rule" is that it's easy to keep track of your componenet colours, however, I reckon that if mixing four, five, or nine colours together gets the desired shade of green, then that's probably fine too.
Mixing greens to match different shades on leaf from the same plant
I also encouraged the students to see just what variety of the colour green they could find in plants in the nursery; below are just a small sample of variety of leaves we found.
Leaves from plants in the nursery showing an amzing array of different greens
Next, I showed the group a step-by-step illustration I'd done earlier, breaking down the building of greens into separate actions. I block in the darkest darks first, then temper the sharpness with a slightly lighter shade, before coming back again to work into the deepest shadows at the end of the painting.
For a detailed breakdown of this, please check out my step-by-step leaf painting blog.
Step-by-step illustration of leaf, progressing steps from leaf tip to base of leaf
It seems this is an unconventional approach, but the group were all willing to give it a go. After talking about the process, I did an on site demonstration (the top left hand side of the leaf) so they could see the colour and tone building up.
I encouraged them to go and choose leaves from the garden to work on, and they became completely absorbed in their work; picking out areas of shadow and matching greens with the leaf blade hue.
Student illustration: plotting in the initial dark areas of a leaf
As always, it's important to make sure the white of the page isn't swallowed up with colour; so I tried to get them to keep the paintings pale to begin with.
Student illustration: Plotting the shape of the leaflets, and keeping greens light and bright
Once the darks were in, a diluted wash of the same colour is applied to soften the edge of the shadows. Generally, veins and midribs seem paler than the leaf blade, or are a very different colour, so these remain white til later on in the painting process.
Student illustration: Close matching of green colour; plotting in slabs of colour on the illustration
There was a wide variety of styles and experience on show - some of the studies were bold whilst others were very delicate. To get the intricate details, I lent many of the students some fo my series 7 number 1 Winsor and Newton brushes which hold their tips beautifully.
Student illustration: Using a wash applied with a Series 7 brush
By the end of the session, many of the students hadn't completed one leaf (these things take time!), but all seemed to think the experience, the demonstration, and most of all the space to focus on a portrait of one single leaf had been worthwhile and interesting.
Study aids, my watercolour paintbox, sheets of mixed greens, and studies of dandelion leaves used to explain the steps involved in illustrating a leaf.
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