Natural History Illustration: Evolution of a lansdscape painting April 18th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 18. April 2014 by Lizzie Harper

Natural history illustration incorporates a wide range of sientific illustraion and general illustration techniques.  I realised about ten years ago that a desirable type of of natural science illustration was one that incorporated numerous species of plant and animal into a landscape, as in this wetland landscape done for Natural England.

Natural England wetland landscape illustration by Lizzie Harper

Recently I've been commissioned by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) to create a lanscape of one of their reserves, Hartslock.  Hartslock reserve has a glorious hill in it which is blousy with seven different species of orchid, including the hybrid lady-lonkey orchid which is found nowhere else in the UK.

These seven orchid species were to be incorporated into a scene of the hill, along with some key species of animals including the chalkhill-blue butterfly, grizzled skipper, white-stripe grasshopper and brown argus.  Other plants to include were the knapweed, the field scabious, wild marjoram, cowslip, and clustered bell-flower.  BBOWT are lovely to work for as they frequenlty provide me with really good reference (as in this case).

Reference for hartslock illustration

In an ideal world, I'd be able to go and sketch all the elements; but this job came in in February when there's not so much as a hint of an orcid in sight, so I have to rely on photographic reference and illustrations by other botanical artists.

First step is to try and visualise the illustration by piecing together all the different components into one coherent landscape.  This can take a while, and I normally produce about 6 different approaches before settling on two that I want to work on further.  As I do this I tend to come up with questions that need clarifying; I note these down on the sheet so I remember to email them to the client later on.

Hartslock thumbnails

Next, I draw up thumbnail sketches (very rough ideas) of a couple of the options.  These are always rough, but need to be clear enough for the client to see and understand.  In this case, the main difference between the two is the landscape (included or not) and the viewpoint of the orchids (in one you're right up amongst them, in the other there's enough of a distance so you can see the entire plant).  They have to be annotated too, so the client can see what you're suggesting goes where (and so I can remember what species is what!)

Hartslock rough 1

hartslock rough 2

I was really happy that they decided they preferred the second one, with the landscape.  It makes for a far prettier illustration, and it means there's less of a big explanse of hill to "colour in".

Next step is to draw the actual rough up in detail.  First, I draw the landscape in.  I keep the pencil lines light as I plan not to rub them out at the end; they give some substance to the illustration.  Then I put extremely faint markings on the page which suggest, in blocks, where the different animals and plants should go. 

Hartslock drawing up

Next, I draw up the animal species.  Sometimes using a projector can help with this, as you need to shrink and enlarge the butterflies and grasshoppers to fit into their space in the landscape.

Hartslock drawing up 2

Then I draw in the plants.  In this case drawing up all the orchids, and ensuring their accuracy, took a long time.  Once foreground and background are complete, I put in the middle-ground; the suggestion of distant flowers and orchids, and a bit of scrub, across the hill.  Then I scan it in, stitch it together (the illustration is far larger than my A4 flat bed scanner), adjust the darks and lights so the pencil is clear, and then produce an annotated version for the client.  They get the annotated and unnanotated version emailed to them.  The next (nail-biting) stage is to wait for feedback, and to see what needs changing before going to final.

Hartslock orchid slope rough annotated

Once the alterations are complete, it's time to break out the paints.  I use a very pale blueish wash across everything but the immediate foreground to start, and make it bolder in the sky. 

Lizzie Harper natural history illlustration of Hartslock nature reserve in progress

Then I work into the background, again using incredibly pale paints to give a sense of distance.  Less seems to be more when it comes to painting landscape, so often I'll suggest an area of scrub, or a building, rather than paint it in detail.

Lizzie Haper natural history illustration of Hartslock nature reserve in progress

Once the background is done, Ill move forward into the middle-ground.  This takes a little longer than the background as all the trees and grass need to be textured.  Paint colours remain pale, although somewhat stronger then they were for the background.  Using a certain amount of "wet-on-wet" is useful here, a way to suggest the turrets of distant orchids without having to paint each and every bloom.  The volunteer suveying the orchids is plotted in, and as you progress to the foreground there's increasingly more colour and detail.

Lizzie Haper natural history illustration of Hartslock nature reserve in progress

At this stage, the painting looks like a child's jigsaw; all the background complete, but the key species still waiting to be slotted in.  This is my favourite part of these types of painting (click for more examples of my composite landscapes); losing yourself in the intricate detail of each individual plant or animal.  Lizzie Haper natural history illustration of Hartslock nature reserve in progress

It can take ages, but with each successive species painted you feel happier and happier with the painting.

Lizzie Harper natural history illlustration of Hartslock nature reserve in progress

Finally, it's time to rub out some of the more prominent pencil lines, and to cover the background with a light yellow ochre wash.  This unites the background, and brings the foregorund into sharp focus.  Final tweaks, mostly involving sharpening areas with shadow, and it's complete.

Lizzie Harper natural history illlustration of Hartslock nature reserve

And one of the best things about this job is that the client has said they really like it!  Wonderful news, and a fabulous job to work on.

If you'd like to see a time-lapse video of the creation of this landscape, have a look at my "Landscape time-lapse" video on youtube. 

Category:  Illustration techniques   |   Comments:  1   |   Viewed:  2418

Go back to the list of news stories

Comments are off for this news article.

Watercolor Illustration

Wednesday, 11. June 2014, 22:58:06 – John M:

Dear Lizzie Harper, Thank you for showing your landscape method. Could you please share with me what type of watercolor paper you use and why it is best for scientific illustrations? Thank you. John