Botanical Illustration - Tips on painting sketchbook-style studies of leaves - May 4th 2013

Story posted: Friday, 3. May 2013 by Lizzie Harper

Watercolour sketchbook illustration of an autumn leaf

I've been working on a series of three scientific illustrations of invasive plants this week, for Summersault Communications.  The accompanying article will explain how to identify the plants and why they pose a threat.  I am fortunate in that the commissioning art director has asked for the images to be in my botanical illustration sketchbook style, which is my favourite way to work.

Having been asked by various people (including some members of the Botanical Art for Beginners group) to explain some step by step processes, I thought I'd break down the stages involved in painting a single leaf of a sketchbook study.  Instead of scans, I've relied on photos, so apologies if the resolution isn't brilliant.

Initially, I draw the plant in pencil line and in this case am highly aware of where the accompanying text and other elements of the layout will fall.

Line drawing on Japanese knotweed by Lizzie Harper

Then I apply areas of colour. The first step is to mix a green.  For the bright , flat green of these leaves I used sap green mixed with cadmium yellow light, yellow ochre (to take the artificial edge of the colour away), french ultra-marine, and a touch of burnt umber.  I use pans of Windsor and Newton watercolour, and top them up from tubes of the same paint when they run low.

I tend to favour sable brushes, Winsor and Newton series 7 or similar, and probably a no. 1 or no. 2 size.  Today I was using a no.2.

I decide on a light source, and, observing my reference material closely, plot in areas of green in the darkest parts of the leaf.  I do this for one and then for the opposite side of the leaf.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 1 in painting a leaf

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 2 in painting a leaf

Next, I water down my green and work gently into the edges of these mapped regions of shadow, softening them and giving colour to the rest of the leaf.  I make sure the lightest areas remain white.  Whenever I make a colour paler I do it by dilution with water as I find that adding white changes the colour completely and often muddies it too.  There's certainly a place for white when using watercolours (adding shine, mixing the blue of a forget-me-not or the yellow of a primrose), but I avoid it when making colours paler.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 3 in painting a leaf

Next I work into the remaining light areas, leaving the palest regions and veins white.  I apply a very pale version of the same mixed green to the rest of the leaf.  It's important to see the regions of dark and light both within the detail of the leaf and on the leaf as a whole.  One side of this leaf is much darker than the other; this needs to be remembered.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 4 in painting a leaf

The next step is a very light green, with some additional cadmium yellow mixed in.  The different areas of light and dark need to be unified into one leaf, and this wash helps to do this. The veins are still left white.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 5 in painting a leaf

I enjoy the next stages since they help bring the leaf to life. I find the darkest darks and work into them; in this case with a mixture of vandyke brown, french unltramarine, purple, and a touch of sap green.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 6 in painting a leaf

It's sometimes a little alarming and stark to look at the illustration at this stage, but as before, subsequnet work will soften the brutal edges of the shadows.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 7 in painting a leaf

Once these shadows have been blended in (again, with a more watery version of the same dark colour), it's time to unify the whole leaf.  I tend to do this with a wash of yellow ochre, mixed with a touch of green.  This wash has to be very wet and quite pale, and covers the whole leaf (including the veins).  Those of you with keen eyesight will see the leaf having its ochre wash applied is not the same as the one I've shown thus far.  Apologies, I forgot to take a photo of that one at this stage.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 8 in painting a leaf

Once the wash has dried I may work a little more into the deepest shadows, or add a tiny touch of colour (something light and bright like cadmium yellow) to the veins.  Then it's on to the next area of the sketch, in this case the inflorescence and fruiting spike.

Lizzie Harper watercolour step 9 in painting a leaf

The final illustration looks rather different to these photos of work in progress because it's a scan, not a photo, but hopefully you'll be able to spot the leaf I discussed on this detail of the larger image.

Botanical illustration of Japanese Knotweed in a sketchbook style by Lizzie Harper

It may sound like a long winded and arduous process, but it gets quicker with practice.  This whole study was completed in 5 hours, so it's not impossible to earn a living from painting in this way.  Not easy, but not impossible.  And just to show that no matter how hard I try, I still have a squalid paintbox; here is mine right after I'd finished the Japanese Knotweed illustration.  And they suggest keeping your yellows pristine, if only...

Lizzie Harper's watercolour paintbox

Browse the gallery: Sketchbook Studies

Category:  Biological terminology, Botanical Illustration step by step, Illustration techniques   |   Comments:  2   |   Viewed:  74366

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"Clean" paint box

Friday, 3. May 2013, 11:51:44 – Pat Zanger:

I love the ubiquitous "they" who insist on clean paint box, or, in my case (in oils) palette! Daughter has a sticker, spattered with paint, on her door which reads: "Creativity is not a pretty sight." (Your watercolors, however, are simply stunning!)


Friday, 3. May 2013, 20:38:24 – Deb Montgomerie:

Lizzie, thanks so much for all of your leaf demos. I am struggling to paint leaves right now so I appreciate you sharing your knowledge.