Natural History Illustration in Pencil - 6th September 2013

Story posted: Friday, 6. September 2013 by Lizzie Harper

Pencil doesn't seem to be a very fashionable medium for scientific illustration, or indeed for illustration as a whole.  I think this is rather a pity as highly rendered pencil illustrations can be not only stunning but also a true joy to work on.

I always use mechanical pencils, preferring pentel P205 0.5mm HB or H leads above all else; and a soft eraser rather than the one built onto the end of the pencil.

I love pencil for quick line drawings, and habit sketches of plants.  The way you can alter the depth of the line by applying varying pressure, and the crisp but visually forgiving feel to the line please me a great deal of pleasure.  Also, if you mess up, you can rub it out which you lose the luxury of when working with pen and ink.

Lizzie Harper pencil drawing of honeysuckle plant

Honeysuckle habit drawing in pencil

Pencil is also my preferred medium for working out both thumbnails of compositions and roughs which are submitted to clients before work starts on a final piece (for more on this, look at my blog "Natural History Illustration:When it goes wrong and what to do about it").

Lizzie harper pencil rough of meadow brown and ringlet butterflies

Pencil rough of Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies.

There have only been two clients who have comissioned me to work in pencil, and I loved both jobs.  The first was Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust when they were setting up the London Wetlands Centre.  There were a series of "notes" on species you could see, one of which was the greater reed mace.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration of Greater reed mace

Lots of people call this the "bullrush" but a bullrush is a true rush, and a far less showy plant.  I particularly loved working more and more into the dark seeedhead, trying to convey that thick brown velvety texture it has.

Separately, an exhibit about the threats faced by water voles, and how WWT was trying to encourage them, called for pencil illustrations.

Pencil natural history illustration of water vole swimming by Lizzie Harper

Here, a water vole makes the only evidence most of us encounter of them, the distinctive "plop" as they swim away to safety.

The other client who comissions pencil work from me is Rodale Publishing.  I've worked on various titles for them over the years, including the Vegetable Garden Problem Solver by Fern Marshall Bradley, and Homegrown by Marta Teegan.  This week I start working on a new project with them, The Rodale 20th Century Herbal.

Lizzie Harper pencil illustration of cucmbers

These cucumbers appeared in the vegetable book.  I absolutely loved the tonality of the cucumbers themselves, and my weakness for tendrils is evident (see also my blog Botanical Illustration step by step - Painting a Sweet Pea - July 26th 2013).  Compositionally this one works well too, and I was pleased with the way the drop shadows brought out the different tonalities.

Lizzie Harper natural history illustration of a Japanese beetle

With this beetle, it was the shine on the thorax that I liked, and the way pencil lends itself readily to showing the striations on the elytra without getting in the way of the way the lights and darks fall on the wing cases.

Pencil scientific illustration of moth by Lizzie Harper

Here I think the medium of pencil works well for the marbled patterns on the wings, but is also the easiest way of showing the fur on a moth's body.

Lizzie Harper harvesting artichoke pencil illustration

This illustration shows how well pencil adapts to showing hands, which are notoriously hard to draw.  It's so much easier to depict the gentle shade from a knuckle to a finger with pencil than with pen and ink or pure line (which I did for all the Alan Titchmarsh "How to Garden" series of books).

So as a means of drawing, and hopefully as finished illustrations, I think pencil is a grossly under-valued medium for natural history illustrations.  Here's hoping for more brave souls like Rodale and WWT soon!


Category:  Illustration techniques   |   Comments:  3   |   Viewed:  8386

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Fabulous Post!

Friday, 6. September 2013, 11:53:09 – :

Hi Lizzie - I love, love, love this post! What beautiful illustrations. I love pencil and just finished a piece in pencil for an upcoming exhibit. I really enjoy finishing a pencil drawing with my kneaded eraser to emphasize highlights. Your moth here is just wonderful (love the fur!) Carol

About pencil....

Friday, 6. September 2013, 17:49:31 – Pat Zanger:

I agree that pencil is/ has been much underrated at a final medium. Even I thought that too until I had an intense conversation with my figure drawing teacher (thank you, Benoni!). You can get so many lines, shades and textures from a simple pencil (I like the softer ones, 6B).

About pencil....addendum

Friday, 6. September 2013, 17:51:50 – Pat Zanger:

*as a final medium. (Sorry! Too tired to proofread properly before posting...)