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Botanical Art Techniques - ASBA, Instalment 1

Botanical Art Techniques: A Comprehensive Guide to Watercolor, Graphite, Colored Pencil, Vellum, Pen and Ink, Egg Tempera, Oils, Printmaking, and More. Wow! What a title!

This book is from the American Society of Botanical Artists, edited by Carol Woodin and Robin A. Jess, and published by Timber Press, Portland, OR, USA, in 2020. At over 400 pages, it is packed full of information and tutorials by more than 50 well-known botanical artists. Due to the size and scope of the book, we will be reviewing it in sections to be posted on our blog over the coming months. This is not a book to teach you how to become a botanical artist step by step, but rather a volume to dip into to study how leading artists approach a particular aspect of botanical art and to apply the techniques and ideas to your own work so that you can improve your skills as you pursue your own style of drawing/painting.

Below, Pamela Taylor reviews the opening sections of the book entitled "Getting Started" and "Part 1: Drawing Botanical Subjects in Black and White".

Review by Pamela Taylor, botanist and botanical illustrator, founder member of ABA and Education Team member.


Getting Started

Before the sections on botanical drawing and painting techniques, the ‘Getting Started’ section has some very useful information. There are tips on how to prolong the life of cut flowers depending on the species and suggestions for containers to hold specimens in the correct position for painting.

The importance of respecting conservation status is emphasised in the section on wild plants in the field, which also outlines the basic kit and preparation needed for field sketching. I particularly enjoyed the double page ‘Working in a Backcountry Location’, describing how the botanical artist, Miskolc Ishikawa, works in the Borneo Jungle.

Every artist has their own way of working which could make guidelines for setting up a studio challenging. This problem has been skilfully overcome by giving us a glimpse of 4 different artists’ studios. Whose studio is this?

Beverly Allen's studio (image courtesy of the publisher)
Beverly Allen's studio (image courtesy of the publisher)

Basic Botany for Botanical Artists is by Dick Rauh. Very briefly he outlines essential information to make informed botanical drawings. The diagrams are clear, but a lack of consistent numbering of the figures means that it is sometimes difficult to relate the text, which is rather heavy with botanical terms, to the images. Considering how important understanding the structure of the plants that we draw is, and how comprehensive the rest of the book is, I was surprised that this botany section did not contain more detail.

Part 1 - Drawing Botanical Subjects in Black and White

Graphite Skills

Basic Graphite Skills are explained clearly and in considerable detail by Heeyoung Kim. Beginning with basic equipment and detailed photographs of how to hold your pencil and position your hand for drawing, Kim demonstrates how to make different lines in pencil. I enjoyed trying them out on a piece of rough paper as I read the section. Unfortunately, inconsistencies in the layout mean that it can be difficult to tie the captions up with the illustrations in some places.

The section on how to depict light and shadows on basic shapes is detailed and contains much useful information but I would have found the section more enticing if suitable botanical subjects such as fruits had been used instead of the cone and sphere.

Throughout this section, the light source is to the left of the subject. As a left handed artist it would have been helpful to have mentioned that the light source could be to the right to avoid left handed people working in shadow!

Images from Heeyoung Kim's tutorial (images courtesy of the publisher)
Images from Heeyoung Kim's tutorial (images courtesy of the publisher)

The three tutorials on how to draw flowers, leaves and fruit are by different artists, who explain their preferred method of measuring and studying their subject in order to draw accurately.

Heeyoung Kim, in the tutorial on drawing flowers, uses geometric shapes as an aid to position the petals correctly. The variety of approaches mean that you can try out different methods or combine them in your own way to apply to the particular subject that you are depicting.

In places the numbering on the images is so faint it is difficult to read and the layout can make it difficult to tie images up with the relevant text (these are recurring problems throughout the book).

These tutorials are followed by a range of artists explaining how they approached a given project, including subjects as diverse as a Magnolia twig, a Sequoia cone and a Strawberry plant. How to imply colour with graphite is beautifully illustrated by Katy Lyness in her still life of Ginger, Pear, Raspberries, Garlic and Grapes. An interesting detail is that the number of hours taken to complete the final drawings is included.

Ginger, Pear, Raspberries, Garlic and Grapes by Katy Lyness (image courtesy of the publisher)
Ginger, Pear, Raspberries, Garlic and Grapes by Katy Lyness (image courtesy of the publisher)

The variety of material presented in this section on Graphite Skills means that any botanical artist, whatever their experience, will find new ideas and different approaches that they will be able to apply to enhance their work.

Pen and Ink Skills

Images from Basic Inking Techniques by Esmée Winkel (images courtesy of the publisher)
Images from Basic Inking Techniques by Esmée Winkel (images courtesy of the publisher)

Maintaining and using technical pens to make lines and how to shade using stippling and hatching are explained clearly by Esmée Winkle. Her explanations of why it is so much easier to make lines in certain directions are particularly enlightening. There is also a useful paragraph on how to correct mistakes.

The merits of technical pens versus dip pens are considered and in the following tutorial examples, as well as the hours required to complete the project, the types of pen used are included in the materials section.

The diverse tutorials show the wonderful range of styles and effects that can be obtained when working in ink.

I particularly enjoyed reading the editor’s comment about how when Derek Norman was drawing the Pitcher’s Thistle it did not turn out quite as originally intended - something most of us have experienced! Joan MacGann’s amazing drawing of a Cactus with all its spines has to be seen to be believed!

Pitchers Thistle by Derek Norman (image courtesy of the publisher)
Pitchers Thistle by Derek Norman (image courtesy of the publisher)

The sections on scientific botanical dissections and illustrations in ink are by Esmée Winkle and Alice Tangerini. They explain the steps involved in making a scientific plate for an academic publication. This includes dissection, working from herbarium specimens and microscope work and is a fascinating insight into the specific requirements of this discipline. Although not every artist will produce full scientific illustrations, many of the steps and skills can be applied to make any botanical drawing clearer and more accurate.

White Fragrant Water Lily by William S Moye (image courtesy of the publisher)
White Fragrant Water Lily by William S Moye (image courtesy of the publisher)

Through the variety of tutorials the versatility of pen as a discipline in botanical art is demonstrated. How science and art are brought together by botanical artists is beautifully illustrated by the final drawing of White Fragrant Water Lily by William S Moye.

We hope that this has given you a taster of what this

extensive volume contains!

Look out for the next instalment which will look at sections of the book covering coloured pencils and watercolour on paper.


American Society of Botanical Artists (ASBA)

The American Society of Botanical Artists was founded in 1994 by Diane Bouchier and “has grown from an organization of 200 to over 1900 individual members and from 5 to 40 institutional members from around the world.” Its mission is to “provide a thriving, interactive community dedicated to perpetuating the tradition and contemporary practice of botanical art”.

To purchase this book: (shipping to US only), also available internationally online and in bookshops

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