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Botanical Sketchbooks: An Artist’s Guide to Plant Studies by Lucy T Smith

Sketchbooks can be useful to artists in many ways.  How do you use them in your practice?  In this review I will give you a peek inside Lucy T Smith’s new book, Botanical Sketchbooks: An Artist’s Guide to Plant Studies. This book may change the way you think of and use sketchbooks to support and inform your work!

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


Botanical Sketchbooks: An Artist’s Guide to Plant Studies, by well-known botanical artist and illustrator Lucy T Smith (The Crowood Press, 2024), is one of very few publications focussed on the use and importance of sketchbook studies in botanical illustration. I’ll say right off:  I love this book!  Lucy’s approach to the topic is comprehensive: from in-depth discussions of materials and techniques to numerous inspiring examples of how she has used her sketchbooks for projects during the past 30 years of her botanical art career.  Throughout the book are over 300 images of her drawings and paintings that allow us to experience how she works along with abundant information in the text. It is a great read and each time I go back to it I find something new to think about and try in my own sketchbook practice.


Types of sketchbooks
Sketchbook types (Image courtesy of publisher)

The first chapter of the book, Materials, comprises a discussion of sketchbook art supplies and equipment. Lucy describes how the sketchbook she uses varies depending on the purpose (specific project or just fun), medium (pencil, ink, watercolor), and venue (studio or in the field), and how each of these influences the size and style of the book and the type of paper in it.  There follows a description of drawing materials and equipment, painting materials and plant examination equipment that are useful for sketchbook work.

Drawing equipment
Drawing equipment (Image courtesy of publisher)

Chapter 2, Methods and Techniques, includes descriptions of setting up for sketching, drawing methods (measured drawing, perspective, editing, tone), capturing colour, and pen and ink. I especially appreciated Lucy’s thoughts on erasing, editing and correcting since I tend to do a lot of all three in my own sketches and drawings! 

“The pencil eraser is an editing tool, not just something for correcting ‘mistakes’ – which is what you may have been taught at school! I employ it vigorously at all stages of my drawing, adjusting and correcting marks until I am satisfied.”


The section on capturing colour emphasizes the use of colour studies along with notes in the sketchbook to create an accurate record of colour directly from a plant specimen. Short sections on plant structure, use of photographic references and getting started conclude this chapter.

Color studies for the berries of the white beam, 'Sorbus alba'
Color studies for the berries of the whitebeam, 'Sorbis alba' (Image courtesy of publisher)


Each of the next five chapters focusses on a particular subject type: 

  • Flowers

  • Fruits, Pods, Cones and Seeds

  • Succulents, Cacti and other Pot Plants

  • Working in the Field

  • Capturing Trees Throughout the Seasons

These chapters offer introductory information such as tips for drawing, characteristics to look for, ways to approach a study, etc., followed by several specific projects that Lucy has worked on. The projects include excellent images of her sketches and measured drawings, colour matching, fine detail, botany notes and composition ideas. In the text of these chapters Lucy details why she undertook each project, challenges she encountered, and extra tips on things like including flower dissection/detail and adding colour to the drawings. 


Sketchbook page showing 3-part monocot flowers
Flowers in Threes: sketchbook page showing examples of 3-part monocot flowers (Image courtesy of publisher)

In the Flowers chapter is this study of ‘Flowers in Threes’, showing how a sketchbook can be used to investigate and compare a particular group of flowers or plants. On this page are illustrations of three different monocot flowers with parts in threes, each from multiple angles with tonal shading to show form, botany notes and enlargements.

Working in the Field is one of my favorite chapters.  In it Lucy provides guidance on dealing with the challenges of working from life in situ including weather-appropriate clothing, materials that can be easily carried, getting comfortable with a good viewpoint and photography. Her in situ sketchbook studies and observations of Nymphaea thermarum resulted in the two finished illustrations below.

Finished pen and ink illustration (left) and watercolour painting (left) of 'Nymphaea thermarum'
Finished pen and ink illustration (left) and watercolour painting (right) of 'Nymphaea thermarum'; originally published in Curtis's Botanical Magazine, Vol 7(4), 2010. (Image courtesy of publisher)

Chapter 8, Scientific Botanical Sketchbook, takes readers into the world of Lucy’s career as a scientific illustrator. Here she talks about challenges and best working practices for a scientific botanical illustrator’s sketchbook. She describes what to include, conducting research, working with fresh and herbarium specimens (wet and dry), composition, transferring drawings from the sketchbook and more.


“Drawings for scientific illustration are detailed and complex.  The term ‘working drawings’ is perhaps more suited to this type of botanical sketchbook than any other, as it can be a difficult process that demands hard work and precise concentration.”


The final chapter, How Sketchbook Studies Inform the Finished Work, beautifully illustrates the value of the botanical sketchbook. In this chapter Lucy shows us several examples of final paintings and illustrations that ‘began life as drawings and colour studies in the botanical sketchbook’. A valuable discussion of composition is included here along with examples of how sketchbook drawings can be used in multiple ways for finished illustrations.


Scientific sketchbook drawings of the flowers of a new species of 'Calyptrocalyx palm from New Guinea
Scientific sketchbook drawings of the flowers of a new species of 'Calyptrocalyx' palm from New Guinea (Image courtesy of publisher)

Lucy’s illustrations of the giant Victoria water lilies and her 23 year project comprising 250 pen and ink drawings of the Palms of New Guinea are well known to many botanical artists. Perhaps what we have not considered is that behind each of these illustrations are sketchbook pages full of detailed drawings, notes, measurements and calculations, all of which culminate in the final illustration.


Life-sized drawings of the buds of giant 'Victoria' water lily
Life-sized drawings of the buds of a giant 'Victoria' water lily (Image courtesy of publisher)

The same drawing painted in watercolor
The same 'Victoria' water lily drawing painted in watercolour (Image courtesy of publisher)

“The sketchbooks mark a passage of time and document the development of the project.  I will always look back on them with happiness and a sense of fulfilment.”

I'll say again that I love this book! Whether you are new to sketchbooks or you have used them for a long time, you will find a trove of valuable information and inspiration in its pages.


Author Biography

Lucy T Smith is an Australian botanical artist and illustrator living in the UK. A freelance botanical artist for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, she produces botanical illustrations in pen and ink and watercolour. Her work has been published worldwide, most recently in the book 'Palms of New Guinea' (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 2024). She has received many awards, including the Jill Smythies Award for Botanical Illustration (Linnean Society), two gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society, First Prize (twice) in the Margaret Flockton Award for Botanical Illustration and the Botanical Illustrator Award for Excellence in Scientific Botanical Art (American Society of Botanical Artists). She also leads the teaching of the botanical illustration programme at Kew Gardens.

To purchase this book:  Published by The Crowood Press, ISBN: 978-0-7198-4337-2, Also available internationally online and in bookshops.

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תגובה אחת

Looks so interesting, just purchased Lucy T. Smiths Sketchbooks.

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