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Botanical Art Techniques - ASBA, Instalment 3 - Watercolor on Vellum Section

Are you wanting to try something different in your botanical art? Watercolor on vellum might be just what you’re looking for. In this review we explore the Watercolor on Vellum section of the book Botanical Art Techniques from the American Society for Botanical Artists (Carol Woodin and Robin A. Jess, editors; Timber Press, 2020).

Reviewed by Mary Crabtree, Botanical Artist and ABA Education Team Member


Historically, many of the masters of botanical art painted on vellum creating luminous portrayals of their subjects. Today, a growing number of contemporary botanical artists are choosing to work on vellum, however, there has been a lack of published information regarding vellum-specific techniques.

This section in the ASBA’s Botanical Art Techniques book fills that gap. Included is excellent information by Carol Woodin about the different types of vellum and techniques for getting started working on this substrate, followed by seven tutorials by well-known botanical artists.

I began writing this review while I was trying vellum for the first time. As a beginner, the description of various types of vellum and their unique characteristics was very helpful as were the explanations/exercises of basic techniques for painting on this substrate. The exercises are presented with clearly written instructions accompanied by photographs. Also included is a special section on lifting paint to make corrections.

Exercise by the reviewer: basic techniques on vellum.
Exercise by the reviewer: basic techniques on vellum.

Following the introductory section there are four Applied Tutorials and three Advanced Tutorials. Each of them shows the finished painting and a step-by-step demonstration of how it was achieved by the artist. The text is concise and clearly written and the accompanying photographs of each step are an excellent aid in following what the tutor is doing. The Applied Tutorial artists include: Jean Emmons, ‘Drybrush Lines, Washes, and Crosshatching on Kelmscott Vellum’, Akiko Enokido, ‘Painting Leaves on Vellum’, Deborah B. Shaw, ‘Painting a Dried Leaf on Vellum’, and Denise Walser-Kolar, ‘Painting Bloom on Fruit’. A broad range of techniques are demonstrated, and each artist shares their personal methods for successful painting on this sometimes-difficult surface.

As we all know, there’s not just one way to paint and the tutorials address this by including a variety of methods used by these skilled artists to illustrate the subjects in their unique styles. Often the text contains both how to do the techniques and why these methods work on vellum, providing the reader with enough information to explore further on their own.

In Jean Emmons's tutorial, where she demonstrates her method for building up the amazing color in her paintings, she says:

“Forty layers of paint is not unusual. Think of the plant as being held in fine spider webs of color. Squint. When the values look correct it’s done.”

What a wonderfully visual instruction!

Rose Leaf. Exercise by the reviewer: working on color depth while maintaining highlights.
Rose Leaf. Exercise by the reviewer: working on color depth while maintaining highlights.

Akiko Enokido’s lessons on painting three different types of leaves (camellia, ivy and hydrangea) touch on many of the botanical artist’s challenges when illustrating leaves:

  • shine

  • venation

  • color variation

  • surface curvature

Winter Rosebud. Exercise by the reviewer: texture and color on darker vellum.
Winter Rosebud. Exercise by the reviewer: texture and color on darker vellum.

Debora B. Shaw's tutorial takes us further into the vellum world by demonstrating a painting on darker colored vellum and how to tackle the challenges therein. She reminds us that:

"Each piece of vellum is unique and should be considered a part of the overall composition of your painting."

Denise Walser-Kolar skillfully describes her approach to the difficult challenge of portraying bloom on fruit. This tutorial includes great tips that can help artists tackle bloom regardless of the medium or surface.

Next is a series of three Advanced Tutorials by: Carol Woodin, ‘Achieving Deep, Rich Color in Watercolor on Kelmscott Vellum', Esther Klahne, ‘Using Opaque Watercolors on Dark Vellum’, and Constance Scanlon, ‘Painting a Flowering Cherry Tree Bough’. These tutorials are longer and more detailed and provide additional methods unique to each artist and subject.

The depth of color achieved by Carol Woodin in her Purple Potato painting is incredible and she emphasizes the slow build-up of paint needed to create such richness of color.

Purple Potato, 'Solanuum tuberosum' by Carol Woodin
Purple Potato, 'Solanuum tuberosum' by Carol Woodin (image courtesy of publisher).

The use of opaque watercolors on a very dark goat vellum by Esther Klahne is a remarkable demonstration of painting as well as composition on vellum. I love the way she has positioned the painting so that the light markings on the vellum create the effect of light shining through trees onto the subject .She reminds readers that compositions can evolve over the course of a painting and she includes excellent tips on creating a successful composite painting from separately observed specimens.

Indian Pipes, 'Monotropa uniflora', by Esther Klahne
Indian Pipes, 'Monotropa uniflora', by Esther Klahne (image courtesy of the publisher)

Lastly, in Constance Scanlon's tutorial, we see techniques for portraying a finely detailed subject, including the use of masking fluid and creating textures with different brushes.

Stock, 'Matthiola incana', watercolor on vellum by reviewer.
Stock, 'Matthiola incana', watercolor on vellum by reviewer.

This section of Botanical Art Techniques describes nearly everything a beginning or experienced artist needs to explore watercolor painting on vellum. The addition of information regarding mounting of larger pieces of vellum prior to painting as well as post-painting framing would round out this section nicely since this substrate presents unique challenges in these areas. Perhaps this can be added in future editions of the book.

As I worked through my experiments and first paintings on vellum, I often referred to the tutorials and used many of the artists’ special tips in my work. The information provided in this Watercolor on Vellum section represents a significant contribution to the body of botanical art techniques instruction.

I highly recommend that this book be on your shelf with a bookmark at the Watercolor on Vellum section!


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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2 commentaires

What brand of vellum paper do you recommend for a first step in watercolor? Thanks.

En réponse à

Hi sybiline76, Depending on where you live, you can often get a sample pack of small pieces of several different types of vellum at a reasonable price from a supplier such as Talas or Pergamena in the US or William Cowley in the UK. It’s good to try several different types to see which you personally like best. In the ASBA book Carol Woodin gives good information about the differences between the various types of vellum. Mary

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