This week I had the good fortune to be asked to teach a course of botanical illustration for beginners, at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens.
I was so impressed by the classroom preparation and friendly welcome from the staff – a spotless room, daylight lighting, neat desks with drawing boards and pots for water neatly laid out for the students, and a gorgeous view onto the lawns and borders and trees in the botanic garden.
The classroom at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens
Before the students arrived, Felicity (Head of Education at the Gardens and I wandered round in the bright spring sunshine, gathering flowers to draw. There were stunning hellebores in greenish white and dark magenta, forget me nots glowing with a dark blue, daffodils, sweet-scented mahonia, fragile fruit blossom, large snowdrops with their blue-green leaves; plenty to inspire, and a wonderful way to start a day.
First I talked through a bit of basic flower anatomy with the students; stuff they all knew (familiar terms like petal, bud, leaf and root) and less obvious ones (anther, filament, style and stigma). Then we went for a sunny wander in the garden looking at the enormous variety of forms that the flowering plants and leaves show. We looked inside daffodils and cut hellebores in half to see the ovary. We removed outer petals from snowdrops, and were blown away by a gorgeous cyclamen leaf.
Flowers for the students to look at, draw, and pull apart in our quest to see how they're "built"
Back in the classroom we talked about atonal line drawings, not using lights and darks, just observing the shapes and relationship between different parts of the plants. I did a demo showing how to “map” a plant on a page, then how you can return to it to add detail.
Student line drawing with plant
The whole class spent the rest of the morning doing some beautiful observational line drawings. Hellebores and daffodils were popular subjects, and the students did an excellent job of taking on their complicated flowering structures.
Student line drawing of hellebore
Student sketchbook study page of Snowdrops
Student line drawings
After lunch, and numerous cups of tea from the magic coffee machine we could use all day (what a treat!). we moved onto talking about shadow, how to see areas of dark, why those areas looked darker (and what structures caused the shadows to fall). Another tutor demo, then they all got to work and really got their eye in, correctly pinpointing tiny gradations in tonal value, and carefully recording them in their drawings. I was particularly impressed by how they managed to avoid making their drawings a flat uniform grey, this often happens with tonal studies if you don’t keep your whites clear of pencil. Unfortunately, I failed to take many photos of their work as I was too busy peering over their shoulders and interfering….
Student tonal drawing of Hellebore flower
Next there were some watercolour excersizes; firstly making a colour paler by diluting it with water (not mixing it with white). One of the students noted that by diluting it you were allowing more of the white of the page to show through; a perfect and new way to explain the process.
Series dilution of Crimson by a student
Darkening a colour is less prescriptive, and I suggested they play about to see what mixes (based on one primary) they could come up with. Some gorgeous dark rich reds and green yellows ensued, so much deeper and fuller colours than if your base colour was simply mixed with black. Finally, we experimented with mixing greens as watercolour tube/pan greens tend to have very little to do with the colours of nature. They excelled at this.
Tutor demo of mixing greens and darkening a colour
Next was a watercolour of a plant. I did a quick demo of painting a leaf (explaining that my way of blocking in darks then working to light before returning to pick out the darkest detail was unconventional in botanical illustration circles – I always stress this in case they get told off on other courses!).
Tutor leaf painting demo (and bits of a hellebore flower)
I was deeply impressed by their work, many of the students claimed not to be able to draw, or to have very limited experience. Their paintings belied this fact, and there were some very delicate stems, daffodil trumpets, green-whites of hellebore leaves. Some students tackled the prickly problem of painting white flowers, others managed to accurately make a stem look flushed with crimson. A few managed to make the blue of their flowers glow against the page. Unfortunately I was too busy rushing about looking at their work to take many photos of their lovely paintings, but here is a study of a snowdrop.
Student watercolour of a snowdrop
At the end of the day I think they were exhausted (the idea that drawing is “relaxing” is the biggest fib out there!), but seemed pleased with their work. I was really inspired by their fortitude and patience, and very impressed with their drawings and paintings.
As with all teaching sessions I learned an enormous amount from them; we had excellent discussions about trying to tell the difference between tonal difference due to shadow vs to a dark colour, learnt masses about the internal structure of hellebores (and their individual variations), figured out how daffodils were built, discussed how tricky it was to darken a yellow without making it green or orange, and all agreed that the state of intense concentration one enters when looking and drawing incredibly hard could definitely be seen as “mindfulness”. The main lesson seemed to be that to be able to draw, you need to be able to look; to record what is actually there rather than what your brain suggests might be there.
It was a highly enjoyable day in a stunning place, and I’m really looking forward to my autumn session at the Botanic Gardens – two days of drawing and painting autumn leaves and fruits, and (most importantly) of really looking at them and seeing how they are put together. Feel free to click on the link and book if you’d like to join us!
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