Botanical illustration tips on painting leaves - February 22nd 2013

Story posted: Friday, 22. February 2013 by Lizzie Harper

Watercolour illustration of Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). Also referred to as Flanders poppy.

I’ve been doing botanical illustrations this week, and think perhaps some ideas on how to undertake a scientific illustration of leaves might be useful.  Most of these examples are from my botanical sketchbooks (always keep sketchbooks!); although the final pieces are completed works for clients.


It goes without saying that whenever possible, you need to get your hands on the plant you want to draw.  It not only makes for a more accurate illustration, but also makes life much easier than trying to piece together a plant from various photos or other illustrations.


The first thing to do is to draw the shape and venation of the leaf.  I do this in light pencil, a propelling pencil tends to stay sharp, and a rubber is handy.

Botanical illustration pencil study of leaves

Next, it’s worth thinking about the darks and lights, and how they fall on the sections of leaf which lie between the veins.  I use graphite to do this, again, an 0.5mm HB propelling pencil works for me.

Botanical sketchbook studies of leaf tonality and detail

To get going on the leaf, you need to mix the right greens.  Volumes have been written on this as greens are really tough to get right.  They either seem artificially bright, too blue, or muddy.  I find cobalt blue, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow light; and sometimes a touch of pre-mixed green like sap green or Windsor green can work. Never use a green direct from the pan or tube; they’re just not true to life.  To tone down a green try using a dash or red or orange, I find burnt sienna is good for this.


Observing the leaf, I plot in the darkest areas first.  Once dry, I’ll work further into these areas, leaving the veins white.  Only once I’ve got a certain depth to the study will I put a pale wash on top of the whole leaf; this is usually a much paler and slightly yellower version of the green I’ve been working with.

Botanical illustration leaf washes

The next job is to work into the areas of shadow, making them richer and deeper.  Browns and blues and purples are good for this; mixed in or laid over a green.  I try to avoid using pre-mixed black, even for the darkest of areas.  Only once I’m satisfied with the tonality of the leaf will I work into the detail; perhaps adding hairs to the leaf margins, or tiny details with white gouache.  I try to let the white of the page, gleaming through the paint, provide highlights as it feels less chalk than white gouache layered on top.

Botanical sketchbook studies of leaf tonality and detail

The following pieces are completed botanical illustrations which I think have worked well in terms of depicting leaves.

Botanical illustration of a dandelion

Botanical illustration of Oak

Botanical illustration of a red dead nettle

However, I admit that painting leaves is not one of my strengths; and although I’m improving by observing, I acknowledge I have a long way to go before I get as expert as the illustrators whose work I’m including below.

Anna Knights apple

Anna Knights apple shows incredible clarity of observation on the lights and darks of the leaves.


Leaf studies by Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor's leaves are exquitiste in terms of detailing and colour range.

Julia Trickey leaf painting

Julia Trickey's study of leaves is wonderful in terms of shade and observations of the leaf damage.

Browse the gallery: Botanical Illustrations

Category:  Biological terminology   |   Comments:  1   |   Viewed:  7813

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painting white flowers and other subjects

Tuesday, 9. April 2013, 21:51:11 – jackie trinder:

Your descriptions and your pieces are wonderful! I found out incredibly encouraging that such an established artist such as you had described themselves as "wrestling" with white flowers. I have been doing exactly that with lilies this week. Great website. Jackie Trinder.