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Colour for Botanical Artists and Illustrators by Leigh Ann Gale

As botanical artist and illustrators, colour is intrinsically important to our work. But have you ever stopped to consider why plants exhibit certain colours? Or how colour theory relates to our work? Experienced artists seem to be able to judge colour mixes with apparent ease, and in this book Leigh Ann shares her theoretical and practical knowledge.

Review by Elanor Wexler - botanical artist, junior & secondary teacher and ABA Education Team member.


Image of book cover

Many books about botanical illustration/art include a chapter on colours to include in your palette, but in this book Leigh Ann Gale takes a broader look at the role of colour within the plant kingdom and in botanical illustration as well as providing a wealth of practical advice for the artist.

The first five chapters of the book contain a huge amount of research and knowledge, written and set out in an accessible way with lots of reference diagrams and examples of Leigh Ann’s work. These chapters move from consideration of colour within nature and theoretical information about how we perceive colour to chapters that give more practical advice and exercises on the use of watercolours within botanical art and illustration.

Example of tips from early chapters (image courtesy of the author)
Example of tips from early chapters (image courtesy of the author)

I like to have a deeper understanding of the materials and techniques I am using, and this book certainly gave me that. I particularly like that the theory within the book is all linked to botanical examples and nature, making it easy to relate it to our practice.

These early chapters contain tips and simple exercises to complete, and are all set out with very clear photographic examples; indeed high-quality photographs are used throughout the book to illustrate the points being made.

Exercise by the reviewer: Variegated Yellow Archangel leaf tutorial
Exercise by the reviewer: Variegated Yellow Archangel leaf tutorial

The last section of the book – chapters 6 and 7 – makes up around a third of the volume and contains step by step tutorials which I found straightforward to follow; these could be used as daily/weekly exercises.

The tutorials in chapter 6 cover a range of painting challenges relating to colour, for example translucent or metallic/iridescent subjects. The final section of the book, chapter 7, contains a set of tutorials which run right through the colour spectrum. Having decided to complete some of these myself, I found that I had most of the specimens required in my own garden and this was another feature that made the book accessible to me.

Exercise by the reviewer: Red Poppy Anenome tutorial
Exercise by the reviewer: Red Poppy Anenome tutorial

Example of tutorial steps from chapter 7 (image courtesy of author)
Example of tutorial steps from chapter 7 (image courtesy of author)

As a teacher of art to young people, and as someone who is starting out in botanical illustration, I have found that this book combined theory/reference materials and practical tasks extremely well for me.

Colour wheels from chapter 4 (image courtesy of author)
Colour wheels from chapter 7 (image courtesy of author)

From this book I wanted to get more than a cursory look at colour theory, and it certainly explained and reinforced terminology and concepts which I can now build into my own teaching. I have found that I am going back to sections and using them as reference material both for my lesson planning and for personal projects. The book also encouraged me to get organised and to get to know my paints better through the use of colour wheels and charts.

Leigh Ann’s style is clear and packed with knowledge - it is evident that her teaching experience has informed the tutorials and examples that she has chosen to include. I would recommend this for anyone who wishes to improve their underlying and scientific knowledge of colour, and for those who like books with clear tutorials to follow in order to improve their own practice.

'Clematis x jackmanii' by Leigh Ann Gale (image courtesy of author)
'Clematis x jackmanii' by Leigh Ann Gale (image courtesy of author)

If you would like a more comprehensive guide on each chapter of the book, the following notes will provide more detail.


Additional Notes on Each Chapter:


This is worth reading (I have to admit I often skip introductions!) – it gives you a clear overview of the book structure which will help you get the most from this read.

Chapter 1 – Colour in the Plant Kingdom

This is a comprehensive overview of why plants and flowers are the colours that they are. With a scientific approach covering pigmentation and reasons for variation in colour such as climate, attracting pollinators etc, this answers a lot of those questions that are below the surface. Leigh Ann relates the content back to botanical illustration throughout, to show that a greater understanding of why plants are the colours that they are will lead to better and more accurate illustrations. Examples move through the colour spectrum and whenever time I felt that I needed a photograph to help me understand, it was there! Leigh Ann’s own beautiful artworks are also included.

Chapter 2 – What is Colour?

This chapter really delves into colour theory in a comprehensive way. Topics covered include human and animal perception of colour, the colour spectrum and explanations of scientific terminology, colour theory and colour harmonization. This chapter has been extremely useful to me as a teacher of art to both primary and secondary pupils as I feel that we need to give young people more theoretical knowledge within their practical art lessons. Again, clear diagrams and photographs are used to illustrate each concept making it much more accessible to the reader.

Chapter 3 – Watercolours

This section was a clear guide to the language around watercolour paint, including colour terminology and manufacturer coding systems, and the meaning of terms such as ‘fugitive’ which had me confused when regularly thrown into conversation on botanical courses. I found that this chapter clarified and cleared up a lot of these terms and would be a useful reference when selecting paints. It was also useful to see how the colour theory terms related to botanical painting – eg the term tints which generally means white is added, but in botanical work would indicate water being added. There are also technical comparisons of manufacturers and brands of watercolour paint which some of you may find very useful as a guide (p60 and p68). There are a couple of inset exercises in this chapter which you could recreate, but a large amount is theory and reference material.

Mixing shadow colours (image courtesy of author)
Mixing shadow colours (image courtesy of author)

Chapter 4 – Colour Matching and Mixing

This is a much more practical chapter, looking at use of a sketchbook and colour mixing but relating back to the theory of the previous chapters. Practical tasks for collecting and organising specimens by colour gave me ideas for simple activities to try out with my school pupils, and advice about organising your palette, creating colour swatches and practicing mixes made me want to get organised and ‘get my desk in order’! It is also very useful to have swatch colour guides within the book as a reference (printing allowing). Leigh Ann has included clear guidance on mixing secondary greens, oranges and violets with worked examples, and also on shadow colours including an explanation that relates to warm and cool colours.

Chapter 5 – Using Colour Effectively in Botanical Painting

This chapter contains discussion of the many ways in which artists need to consider colour within composition when producing a finished botanical illustration. As with previous chapters, this was a very useful overview that cemented many ideas that have been introduced to me within my studies. I found the advice on dominant colours within compositions very useful. There are also references to the history of botanical illustration which help to put some of the protocols followed in perspective. Other topics covered included the use of colour for 3D modelling, and using colour to achieve spatial depth in a work. Many examples of Leigh Ann’s work illustrate her points. There are also photographs of work in progress to illustrate the techniques discussed, which can be copied as exercises. The chapter ends with a useful ‘common problems and solutions’ grid containing practical advice.

Exercise by the reviewer: Grape Hyacinth tutorial
Exercise by the reviewer: Grape Hyacinth tutorial

Chapter 6 – Specific Colour Challenges for Botanical Artists and Illustrators

This chapter has a short introduction, but then moves into full, detailed tutorials on a range of colour challenges. The pages have a yellow background colour, allowing you to easily locate the tutorial sections in the book. Some examples of tutorials included are translucency, metallic colours, shine and bloom as well as a fun activity of painting a water droplet on a leaf. I chose to try the metallic/iridescent tutorial. Instructions were clear with step by step photos and a suggested palette to use; these tutorials are all achievable in a relatively short painting session and are not overwhelming. Each one still contains a body of text that gives examples of species that would require this technique, and reasons why the plants are exhibiting this feature; I particularly like the constant references back to botany and the reasons why plants may have certain colour features.

Chapter 7 -Tutorials Through the Colour Spectrum

The final chapter of the book is again a full chapter of practical tutorials, this time moving through the colour spectrum including exercises for black and white specimens. My comments about the content of the tutorials is the same as for chapter 6. I particularly like that this could be used as a study tool (eg for weekly/daily practice), or as a reference book if you were studying a specimen of a certain colour.


Leigh Ann Gale Biography

Leigh Ann Gale is an established Botanical Illustrator who teaches throughout West Sussex and Surrey. She is a member of several florilegia and has recently been instrumental in establishing the Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens Florilegium. She is also a member of the Horsham School of Botanical Art.

Leigh Ann has published two books: “Botanical Illustration - the complete guide” and “Colour for Botanical Artists and Illustrators”, both published by Crowood Press.

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