How to draw plants?

How to Draw Cartoon Plants

Drawing cartoon plants: some fun facts before starting sketching!

  • Bamboo is the world’s tallest grass. The height of the bamboo can reach 100 feet or more.
  • 75% of those who are allergic to pollen also have other plants related allergies.

Step 1

This lesson will help you learn to draw plants that don’t need nutrients or water to grow! All you need to sketch is a pot (3), a stem (2) and some leaves (1).

Plants come in various shapes so you can easily choose the one you like and start from there! The plant on your left is really easy to draw so it can be a good choice if you would like to practice more!

Step 2

The bottom of the pot is made of a small circle. The body is made of a rectangle. The stem is made of a very thin rectangle or a line, it’s up to you. The leaves can be made with circles, triangles or even with an oval. It really depends of your point of view. They can be really large or really thin. No leaves will look the same.

Step 3

In this example, we will draw a plant with not much leaves on it. First, sketch the top of the pot. Then, draw the other parts using two rectangles. Next, add the outline of the stem. Don’t hesitate to make it irregular. It should also be a little larger at the bottom. Finally, draw the leaves. That’s it! A very cool image of a plant!

Step 4

Like I said in the introduction, plants can have various shapes. In the picture below, you can see a cactus (2), one funny flower (3) and a more simple one for you to practice on (4). You can always create more plants with a bizarre or (if you prefer) a more conventional shape. Just have fun!

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We had the distinct pleasure recently of attending a workshop on botanical illustrating through our 4-H Plant & Environmental Science committee. Rebecca loves to draw plants in her journals and has been honing her talents. The workshop was a fun way to reinforce skills she’s been working at on her own.

Botanical Illustrating Has a Long History

Our artist instructor shared reminders about people drawing plants throughout history. We know that Lewis & Clark took with them naturalists and they themselves kept extensive journals on their journey west in 1804.

She also mentioned that Charles Darwin drew many pictures of plant life during his infamous sail aboard the HMS Beagle.

In addition, Beatrix Potter is well known to have been a natural scientist and an illustrator of the natural world in addition to writing stories for children.

An Artist’s Advice for Drawing Plants for Botanical Illustrations

Botanical illustrators are still needed to provide detail that a photograph may not easily reveal. Cross sections are drawings because the artist can render an accurate image of the many layers of detail in the plant. So, how do you approach making a botanical drawing?

  • Pay attention to detail not the plant’s surroundings.
  • Box off quadrants of the plants and focus on drawing the shape of one quadrant at a time.
  • Notice and draw individual shapes not the plant as a whole which will lead to the best accuracy of the specimen.

Opportunities for Illustrating Plants

Need a reason to draw the plants you find?

  • Keep a garden journal and draw the various stages of growth.
  • Illustrate your leaf collection.
  • Improve your nature journaling by drawing the plants you see on a walk.
  • Collect for your nature table and draw what you find.

Rebecca has already requested one garden upgrade for this next season and she’s working it out with Dan. They are going to make a cement table top from the directions in The Family Handyman. Before the slab sets, she will draw plant designs into the cement. It’s going to make a fantastic garden table. She can hardly wait to sit out there in the warm weather to observe the garden and do her school work outdoors!

Resources for Botanical Illustrating

We enjoyed a look at some of these books. I added a few of my own discoveries on the topic. Pick them up at the library for an added bonus to your nature journaling.

  • The Art of Flowers– Botany basics and how it relates to drawing flowers
  • Drawing & Painting Plants– Great pictures and detail on how to draw plants.
  • Picturing Plants– An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration
  • Botanical Sketchbook– a master class in botanical illustration
  • The Art of Botanical Drawing– a beginner’s guide to drawing plants

Tools for Botanical Illustrating

Where art is concerned I prefer to provide the best tools we can afford. It’s frustrating to any budding or seasoned artist to work with inferior implements. I’ve also noticed the better the tools, the better the results.

  • Drawing pencils– not just your ordinary #2 pencil, but a set of drawing pencils ranging from soft to hard. Rebecca recently got her first set and it’s made a big difference in her ability to shade. With this being her first try with them, we went with a modest priced set.
  • Watercolor Pencils– Our favorite moderately priced sets are the Prang pencils. They have thick color and you can use them in a variety of ways. Have you ever seen Harmony Art Mom’s Watercolor Pencil 101 Tutorials? This post opened up some new ways of using the medium. It’s a must view!
  • Colored Pencils– We use Prismacolor pencils for our art projects. They lay down the color so nicely and they are worth the investment if you take care of them.
  • Pencil Sharpener– I like the Prismacolor sharpener because it is kind to the expensive pencils!
  • Watercolor Paper– Nothing beats water color paper for when you are using this medium. I find it helps to take in the water and leave the pigment nice and brilliant in the finished product.
  • Sketch Book– Rebecca loves the smaller sketch books with a hard cover and thicker pages for use with wet or dry media. The hard cover lets her sketch out on the trail which is a favorite past time for her.

Plant & Flower Anatomy and Taxonomy

Before we drew our botanical illustrations, we were given a review of plant anatomy. Understanding the various plant parts and where they come together is important for making an accurate drawing with labels.

Floral formulas help to identify what family the flower is in- is it a rose? A lily? Orchid? Flowers have a certain number of petals (corolla) and sepals (calyx) along with the reproductive parts- the stamen (andrecium) and pistol (gynecium). Of course floral formulas only apply to angiosperms (flowering plants). Do you remember the taxonomic name of non flowering plants like conifers and ferns?

More Nature Journaling Ideas

We’ve got more to say and teach about botanical illustration.

Check out these posts:

  • How to Make a Plant Journal– the directions on putting together a nature journal or garden notebook
  • 3 Reasons to Make Hand Bound Books– resources for putting together your own journals
  • Tools for the Watercolor Artist– a list of our favorite items
  • Tools for an Aspiring Nature Artist– our must have nature journaling tools

Nature Journal Calendars

If you want a small start in the world of botanical illustration, consider a set of our Nature Journal Calendars.

These are 12 calendars for the whole year that is a bundle of the individual monthly calendars.

It comes with STEM nature study support and more free printable content!

Nature Journal Calendar Bundle

Subscribe and receive a download of the Nature Journal Calendars along with more Nature STEM projects and homeschooling strategies for middle and high school.


Look for an email to confirm your subscription. Once you confirm, your Nature Journal Calendar Bundle will be on the way to your inbox!

Botanical illustrating is a great way to combine art and biology.

Of course, as children grow, their skills will change.

Not all of my children love to sketch, but they have all done it. I find that Rebecca can be very inspiring to her brothers and she will often take them out on excursions or rope them into helping her collect.

Enjoy these resources and get ready…plants are always right around the corner, any time of the year!

Sharing is caring!

Women In Science

Alice Tangerini’s botanical illustrations all begin the same way: with a seemingly simple line drawing, in which she explores a plant’s features—leaves, seed, stem, perhaps a flower or two. Next, she uses a microscope to investigate her specimen’s tiny hairs and veins, recreating their likeness in delicate lines with the pressure-sensitive pen of an architect or engineer drafter. Tangerini has adopted the tools and the vision of both the artist and scientist for her work, which is, as she describes it, “art in the service of science.”

Tangerini is the first and only botanical illustrator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she has been putting her stamp on plant science for 46 years. Over the course of her career, Tangerini has created hundreds of illustrations from over 1,000 different plant species from all over the world. Her artwork has appeared in books, peer-reviewed science journalsand museum exhibits. Prominent botanist Warren H. Wagner calls Tangerini “irreplaceable” in the field of botanical illustration.

Though some universities now offer degrees in scientific illustration—like the University of Iowa’s Biological and Pre-medical Illustration program and the University of Chicago’s Medical Illustration program—no such program existed when Tangineri embarked on this field in the late 1960s. Her entrance into scientific illustration relied on a bit of luck (and a lot of skill), resembling more of a teacher and apprentice relationship rather than today’s formal college route.

“I’d always been interested in drawing, even from childhood,” recalls Tangerini. “I grew up in a neighborhood where even the neighbors knew I was the ‘girl who liked to draw.’” One summer in between college semesters at her junior college in Kensington, Maryland, Tangerini was looking for a summer job. It was one of these neighbors who suggested that Tangerini talk to Lyman Smith, a botanist at the Smithsonian’s National Herbarium who happened to live in the neighborhood and to be looking to hire an illustrator.

When she went to introduce herself to Smith for the first time, she brought along a high school art portfolio of horse and dog drawings. The closest thing to a plant that Tangerini had drawn up to that point was the grass under the horses’ hooves. “He raised his eyebrows and said ‘I’ll just give you a try,’” she recalls now. “And that was exactly how it started.”

The next week Tangerini met Lyman at the museum for a test run. Lyman set out a dried plant specimen, a piece of bristle board, a pencil, and a bottle of ink and with a pen. Then he left. Hours later, he returned to see what Tangerini had done. “I drew a dead plant that looked like a dead plant. But exactly like that dead plant,” she says. He told her that next time she should unfold the leaves. And that was her first lesson.

She continued to work for Lyman on the weekends and during the summers, and that became her training as a botanical illustrator.

Tangerini in process. Tangerini in process.

Decades after beginning as a botanical illustrator at the Smithsonian in 1972, Tangerini still draws dead plant specimens from all over the world, some over 200 years old. But now she knows how to imbue them with new life. Her lines, careful and full of intention, smoothly flow from thick to fine, creating a sense of animation. And though one convention in botanical illustration is to add a light source from the upper left of the drawing, Tangerini’s style of using heavy line shading gives plants the appearance of emitting a light of their own.

Tangerini does not see herself as a fine artist, even though she graduated with a fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. “Scientific illustration is usually defined by the audience. You’re drawing for a scientific audience,” she explains. “I think of fine arts as that in which you work for yourself. You are deciding yourself ‘what am I doing, what do I want to present to an audience that I determine.’”

The categorical divide between aesthetic (plant portraits) and instructional (plant illustrations) representation is long-held. Instructional plant illustration dates back to ancient and medieval Herbals, which were books used by healers and apothecaries that contained information about plants’ medicinal properties and described how the plants should be prepared for medicinal use. Accompanying the text were plant illustrations, which needed to be instructional enough for a reader to identify the plant in nature, including an accurate rendering of the plant’s proportions, characteristics of the plant, and the colors of the foliage and any flowers or fruit. For healers and herbalists, the stakes were high; the wrong plant or preparation could result in death.

Tangerini follows closely in this ancient tradition, with one exception: color does not feature prominently in her oeuvre. Since most of Tangerini’s models are dried specimens, they don’t have much color when she receives them. “ is not even essential…that is not a taxonomic denominator, it does not separate species,” she explains. Someone’s interpretation of a color is subjective, so the plant characteristics that could be recognized by botanists in any part of the world are those that are taxonomically significant: plant morphology, structure, and the internal parts of the plant.

Another distinction is that, for ancient and medieval illustrators, modern taxonomy did not yet exist as a standardized system of identification. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th century—when naturalist and eugenicist Ernst Haeckel began popularizing the field of scientific illustration through hundreds of pubished artworks of microscopic plants and animals—that the type of botanical precision that Tangerini looks for became an integral part of the craft.

Historians of science like Ann Shteir, Barbara Gates and Sally Kohlstedt have shown that botanical illustration during this period offered women an alternative pathway into science. Either as independent illustrators or unrecognized illustrators for their male relatives, hundreds of women illustrators were central to taking the newly developed taxonomic language of male botanists and transferring it to accurate visual representation These women brought scientific accuracy to the botanical: Though many have faded into obscurity, their work established the foundation for modern botanical illustration.

The artist-scientist at work in 1983. Tangerini’s career has spanned 46 years at the Smithsonian’s Department of Botany. (Bromeliad Society International)

The aim for scientific accuracy at the direction of a scientist does not, however, mean that all illustrations look the same or that illustrators do not infuse imagination and creativity into their work. Tangerini is, by all definitions of the word, an artist. “We have control over media and our implements,” she points out. “I consider every drawing to be a challenge because every time I put pen to paper or my stylus to the screen I have to determine where I’m putting my lines and my shadows or dots or colors to better show what the scientist has given me.”

When Tangerini began illustrating, scientific illustrators were so small in number that an industry simply didn’t exist to supply them with specialized tools. (Her field remains small; funding constraints mean many museums and botanical gardens typically employ just one or two illustrators.) As a result, it was customary to use the tools of architects, engineering drafters and calligraphers.

Similarly, today’s illustrators have adopted tools from the field of graphic design, opting for stylus and graphics tablets over pen and paper, and using creative software like Adobe Photoshop. “Even if you can draw or paint, you still need to be able to use all these programs,” says Autumn von Plinsky, a former illustrator for the New York Botanical Garden. “It’s one of those things that broadens your career and project capabilities by getting to know them, the design and illustrator aspect.”

Yet Tangerini still prefers her vintage pens and pencils with paper. After so many years, she says, her hands are just used to doing it that way. But there’s another reason she prefers these implements: preserving the long history of her craft. These vintage tools, flexible nips and pens, allow her to achieve the style in which she wanted to follow when she started: engraving. “I still look at old engravings to see the line work — it’s beautiful,” she says. She has acquired many of her tools from other illustrators and can’t be found in the market anymore. “I acquire their tools because to me it’s like a history. A little history of drawing that is slowly vanishing.”

On top of her illustrating duties, Tangerini now curates the botanical art collection in the NMNH and the Smithsonian’s Catalog of Botanical Illustrations. But what she loves most about her work is still the process of reconstructing a dried specimen on paper. “Figuring out in my head how I represent this dried dead plant in a way that I feel will look aesthetically beautiful on a page that I can design myself … it’s very rewarding,” she says. Sometimes in this process, she finds some tiny detail that even the botanist couldn’t see. “I’m putting it under the microscope to draw it. I have to really look at it, because I have to do an interpretation of something that is dried and try to make it as though it is living.”

It is through this act of reanimation—in the noticing of undiscovered details and determining the best ways to represent them on paper—that Tangerini finds the lyrical in the scientific. As she puts it, “that in itself is an expression of myself.”

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Dec 3rd, 2016

Botanical Art: Drawing a Garden

by Phuong Tran

Lynne Munden Frailing & Botanical Art

Grow your art as you grow your garden

Botanical art student Lynne Frailing enrolled in the Botanical Illustration Certificate program so that she could draw her own garden. Commuting from her home in Virginia Beach to take classes at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Frailing, a real-estate agent by profession, is passionate about both art and flowers. During the 2016 Virginia’s Historic Garden Week in Hampton Roads, Frailing had an art show at Fort Monroe, doing a demonstration of botanical painting in watercolor. She was also featured by PlantPop, a horticultural film studio that tells stories about people and plants, in this documentary on botanical art:

Despite her busy schedule, Frailing makes time to grow her art with as much care and deliberation as she tends her garden, where she collects irises, peonies, begonias, and also many native flowers. Half-way through completing the program, Frailing is already planning for her final portfolio, consisting of five monochromatic drawings of flowers she grows herself. The drawings are in black and white, focusing on depicting the value and form of the specimens, a common practice among professional botanical illustrators. “I want to make a record of my own plants with my own drawings,” she said.

From left to right: Frailing’s ink study of an iris, a fig leaf, and a flower bud.

She has been drawing since she was seven years old, when her teacher taught her how to draw a tree, which opened up a whole new world of visual perception to Frailing. She draws whenever she can, creating sketches of the world viewed through her own eyes. Soon enough, drawing became second nature to her — she draws as a hobby and also as work. She and her husband are both artists, and Frailing had worked for 12 years as an art instructor at public and private schools around Norfolk before making a career switch to be a real estate agent. “It’s a part of our brain that is not accessible by language but it is great to explore our visual sense as long as we have it,” said Frailing.

Not only is Frailing a seasoned artist, she is also a Master Gardener who got her certificate five years ago from a program in Portsmouth. As someone who is deeply involved with the gardening community in Portsmouth, she had organized outings for the group to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden before. One day in 2014, she was looking up botanical illustration programs in Virginia and it turned out that the one offered at our Garden is the closest to her home. Having always enjoyed being at the Garden in the past, Frailing quickly signed up for her first introductory class and officially enrolled in the Botanical Illustration Certificate Program. That’s when her artistic and gardening pursuits finally came together.

Frailing’s stem study of lilies, graphite under watercolor.

Frailing’s study of a sycamore leaf, watercolor on Arches acid-free hot press paper.

If you are unfamiliar with the Garden’s various programs for adult learners, you may benefit from this brief overview. While we take pride in the beautiful gardens that we nurture, we are also dedicated to the people who love and support us. We want to help people expand their knowledge and grow their expertise, because we believe that learning is a life-long pursuit. With the multitude of adult classes offered here, you can develop your flower arranging skills, explore the natural world through art, or sample the best in horticulture and landscape design.

The Botanical Illustration Certificate Program is one of many programs we offer. You can take classes in botanical illustration either as a candidate for the certificate program or simply as an interested individual. We will provide a thorough foundation in the classical approaches and disciplines of this botanical art form. Classes are taught by experienced botanical artist instructors, who are committed to their students, whether they have a background in art or not. There are different levels of classes, from introductory to advanced. As part of the class, you’ll have the opportunity to appreciate works of other accomplished botanical artists, watch instructors do demonstrations and experiment with different media — from graphite, to watercolor, to ink.

Botanical Illustration Instructor Hazel Buys gives the introductory class a demonstration on how to transfer a sketch using tracing paper.

A wide range of botanical art resources are available to the students taking the class.

“Botanical illustration, as its name suggests, has a long tradition in both the sciences and arts,” said Hazel Buys, botanical illustration instructor. “It originated from the need to accurately depict plants to the level of genus and species — for scientific records and botanical identification. Yet, as a form is a way of expression, botanical illustration is not just drawing mechanically. Slowly, your own artistic expression will come out.”

As part of the botanical illustration class, you learn to draw and paint all parts of a plant, from leaves and roots to buds and blooms. Even a simple leaf can reveal a great deal about the botanical artist.

Botanical Illustration instructor Hazel Buys’ sketch book. Botanical illustration can be described as slow art. It takes time, patience, and meticulousness to produce a precise, exact, and expressive depiction of a specimen.

Like plants, growing your art takes time. The Botanical Illustration Certificate program requires a minimum of 240 hours to finish, meaning that students may spend between two and three years in the program before they graduate. For Frailing, that will mean over 300 hours before she completes the program, including several hours of taking botany classes for botanical artists, attending electives of her own interest, and developing her final portfolio. That doesn’t even include the time she spends in her car commuting from Virginia Beach.

While it is true that botanical art students like Frailing spend the majority of their time working individually on studying and depicting a specimen, they also do a lot of sharing. There’s a deep shared interest in plants. They enjoy identifying the plants together and talking about what they grow in their own yards. Sometimes, they take a walk out in the Garden after class to simply admire all the beautiful blooms around them. “It’s a very good atmosphere in the class,” said Frailing.“We have lunch together. We are deeply interested in flowers and art. It was a lot of fun.”

“I would encourage people to take a class at Lewis Ginter,” said Frailing. “It’s an old art form, found all over the world. You can get a better look directly at the plant. The photograph is not going to catch the details that you put into your drawing.”

Frailing’s botanical art featuring her Gerbera daisy collection, watercolor on Arches acid-free hot press paper.

I want to help you get started with botanical drawing. I will share with you the most common reasons that stop people from starting to draw, and I’ll give you tips on how to overcome these road blocks.

Often people think that accomplished artists are born with a natural talent to draw. I am here to tell you that if you have the desire to learn how to draw, and you commit to the time it takes, I can show you how.

What stops people from drawing?

Perfectionists often fear mistakes and are very critical of every mark they make. They think they will ruin their paper so instead of drawing they simply find reasons not to get started. Some people have a fear of a blank piece of paper and don’t know how or where to begin. Others start with a large set of colored pencils and can’t find the basic colors needed to get started. I am going to help you overcome this hurdle so your drawing experience is joyful and beneficial, and your drawing practice is infused with a newfound freedom.


I’ve been teaching botanical drawing for over 15 years, and I find the following techniques successful for getting started.

  • The use of a step-by-step approach allows you to build on basic skills one at a time. Continue to practice one skill until you’ve mastered it, and then move on to the next.
  • By practicing one technique at a time with only the goal of relaxing and slowing down you can avoid worrying about what your drawing looks like.
  • It is important to feel comfortable with your materials right from the start and learn all their characteristics and nuances. I recommend a simple set of materials like this Beginner Art Supply Kit.

  • Some of the first skills to practice are basic toning with one consistent light source and building layers upon layers of colored pencil. You will be amazed how pleasurable the act of building layers of tone and color feels. Drawing with a consistent light source gives you a clear understanding of where your shadows and highlights belong.
  • Once you are comfortable with toning and light source, work on creating three-dimensional form on a natural specimen. I always recommend using a real subject from nature and avoid copying a photograph or someone else’s drawing.
  • When you begin to draw from nature, you will inevitably be faced with the challenge of perspective. Perspective is a complex subject and is best studied by first learning to translate round forms into ellipses. A good first subject to practice is a daisy. Measuring correctly on an imaginary picture plane allows you to translate the three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional surface.
  • Most importantly, allow nature’s beauty to guide you in combination with these basic techniques to avoid that overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next. By closely observing and then drawing what you see, you will learn about a plant’s structure as you draw.

Get Started!

  • Schedule yourself a 30-minute time slot. Find 30 minutes to have quiet time to draw.
  • Purchase a getting started kit with just enough colored pencils and a small pad of paper to begin.
  • (I do recommend splurging on a really good pencil sharpener such as this one. You’ll need a very sharp pencil to render sharp details and saturate color.)
  • Start small and begin with a practice tone bar.
  • Next move up to one simple subject such as a small branch or a small nut or fruit.
  • Practice toning slowly and carefully and begin to layer color on top of form rendered with light and shadow in neutral tones.
  • Consider my Botanical Basics program: short 30-minute lessons to help you get started. You will be amazed how you can develop an understanding of basic drawing skills in a brief amount of time.
  • As you continue to develop your drawing practice you’ll enjoy a relaxed feeling, like meditation. Most of all, just GET STARTED and enjoy the process of drawing slowly and studying nature close-up.

Botanical Illustration 1: Basic Drawing Techniques

  • Next class: To be announced
  • Cost: $675.
  • Enrollment limited to 20 students.
  • To be notified of next course, fill out this form.
  • Questions about the course? Email [email protected]
  • Refund policy

Have you …

  • … always wished that you could be more proficient at drawing?
  • … been looking for an opportunity to unwind by finding a new avenue to express yourself creatively?
  • … simply not enrolled in a drawing class because of a lack of opportunity or your busy schedule?

About the course

This six-week online course for beginners (eight including the introductory week) teaches you how to use plants as the subject of art with easy approaches and many visual examples. Because you take the course online, you can access it whenever you want and complete the lessons at your own pace.

A physical distance from other students allows you to express yourself creatively without comparing your work to those around you, fostering confidence and your own individual style, while still providing an opportunity to interact with others online through a discussion forum.

Botanical Illustration I: Basic Drawing Techniques is designed for beginning artists of all ages and from all walks of life — from current students, to those who haven’t taken a class in a very long time.

Topics include:

  • How to observe and approach subjects for drawing.
  • How to creatively transfer what you see to paper.
  • How to use the elements of line, shape and space constructively to make a composition.

Participants will read very straightforward lessons on six different topics in botanical drawing and observing the natural world. You will advance your own skills through practice and assignments, and reflect critically on your experiences in journal entries shared with your instructor and with other students via an online forum. The deadline for submission of all assignments will be on the Friday of each week.

To get the most out of the experience, you should expect to spend 3 to 4 hours per week on the lessons and assignments. The course is offered through Moodle, an easy-to-use online interface that you’ll view through your personal computer’s web browser, or print out to use elsewhere. No additional software is required, but you will need a scanner to submit your assignments.

You do not receive Cornell University credit for taking the course. Rather, you will receive a certificate of participation from our Office of Continuing Education. If you are enrolled in a university undergraduate or graduate program and want to get credit for the course, please ask your faculty advisor to work with you to agree on a number of credits, and the certificate will be evidence of your completion. Typically, students interested in this approach consider it as individual study. Others take it for life enrichment.


  1. Observation of Art in Nature
  2. The Use of Line in Drawing
  3. The Use of Shape and Space in Drawing
  4. One week break
  5. Depicting Perspective and Foreshortening in Illustration
  6. Using Light to Add Dimension to Botanical Illustrations
  7. Composition and a Creative Approach to Drawing

View full syllabus

What students have said about the course:

I find this really rewarding – I feel I’m rediscovering an old long forgotten way to relax and lose myself in something that does not cause stress!

I am sad that this course is coming to an end. Reflecting on the highlights, I would have to say that I enjoyed the whole process of slowing down and actually looking and seeing a plant or flower or leaf at such minute detail. It was difficult to get started at first on many projects, but once I did, time just melted away, and I loved it. It has helped me to overcome any fears that may have kept me from drawing and art in the past. For me, it was monumental in giving me a good swift kick in the pants, and I will definitely continue this process…As far as any improvements in your curriculum, I cannot think of many, except that I would like to continue and paint with watercolor and colored pencils. Your exercises were all very insightful.

A leaf I was unable to draw a month ago is now depicted in a drawing I submitted with pride. I hope you share my pride because it reflects your success as a teacher. … Somehow you managed to connect with me (and my classmates) despite the distance and hardware. You turned a computer experience into a classroom experience—as intimate and as personal as a classroom with walls.

Quieting our busy minds and just drawing is exactly what helps me accomplish what I want. I found myself getting so concerned about the outcome of the drawing that I never learned anything and I was making the same mistakes over. Now that I have been taking this class I have learned how important it is to just draw and pay attention to what we see, not what we are drawing.

Botanical Illustration: Cheating doesn’t exist


When I chat to people who are just beginning botanical illustration, I quite often get questions about whether or not certain things are “cheating”. This annoys and upsets me. Everyone should be encouraged to draw and paint, and to use whatever tools are available to them.

There seems to be a strange idea that various shortcuts , tools, and techniques which are incredibly helpful to a botanical illustrator are somehow “cheating”. I want to try and dispel some of these ideas. By so doing I hope to encourage beginners to draw and paint plants and flowers without any unnecessary feelings of guilt or shame. (For more on drawing for the absolute beginner, check out my blog.)

Hornbeam Carpinus betulus

Drawing around things

Quite often, students and beginners are challenged by trying to record the shape of a leaf or flower. So they draw around the object, then fill it in.

I have no real problem with this, it provides a pretty decent map with elements in good proportion to one another.

If they do this then they can concentrate on the internal structures and the veins and patterns of a flower and leaf.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a teaching technique as it doesn’t help teach you to translate a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional object, and because drawing round an object doesn’t allow for structural elements like foreshortening or curved surfaces.

However, I’m not going to forbid it either. It can be useful for flat objects, and in my time I’ve been known to draw around fronds of a fern to figure out how they relate to each other, when recording the structure itself was doing my head in.

Scaly male fern Dryopteris affinis

So is drawing around things cheating? Well, it may be of limited usefulness, but no, it’s not cheating.

Using photos

Photographs are an incredibly useful resource. I have no issue at all with people using them for reference, or to work from.

A photo does some of the hard work for you, flattening a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional one. It records darks and lights onto a surface in a way that may be easier than trying to plot these differences by looking at a specimen.

Photos have their drawbacks. The colours on a photo may not be true to life. It’s much easier to figure out the structure of a plant or animal if you have it in front of you, than if it’s flattened. This is because a real plant or flower can be turned. It can’t be looked at from another angle. Alas, a photo cannot be.

One other really important point about using photos is you must get permission of the photographer before using the photo. If you don’t you’re infringing their copyright. This is not only a bit rude, but also illegal.

I frequently use photographs (see my blog on this for more).

Without photos there’s no way I could complete an illustration of a plant which wasn’t in flower. Photos back up my sketchbooks. They add to information of plants I gather from text books and other illustrators’ works. I have metres of catalogued photos of plants that I’ve taken, and I refer to these constantly.

Photos allow you to combine different stages of a plant’s life, you can add a rosehip to a painting of a rose without having to wait for four months for the rosehip to develop and ripen. Sure, it’d be lovely to wait for the rosehip to appear, but with deadlines and the understandable desire to get a painting “done”, it’s often a luxury we free-lancers (and beginners) can’t afford.

Rosa rugosa

Is using photos cheating? If you can’t get your hands on the actual plant itself then what better resource than a photo? No, in my opinion using photos is not cheating.

Using projectors

In my studio I have an extremely well-used and invaluable piece of kit. It’s called a “Design master II” projector, and I can’t begin to tell you how many hours of my time it’s saved. You pop an image into the top section of it, and can shrink or enlarge the image which is projected onto the table below. Draw around the image and hey presto! Done.

I find my projector especially useful when I’m building up composite landscapes. If I’ve been given a list of 35 species to pop into a habitat, it’s invaluable. Getting them to scale would take months if I couldn’t shrink and enlarge them.

Woodstock water meadow

Using a projector may not be something many beginners do. Often when I mention this tool, people often ask me if it’s not “cheating” to use it.

David Hockney explores this question in his fascinating book; Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. In this book he examines how many of the great masters used whatever optical tools they had available to construct their paintings. Artists such as Caravaggio, Jan Eyck, Vermeer, Ingres, Warhol and Cezanne used mirrors, the camera obscura, projectors, and lenses to help them with their work. (See the Guardian’s book review for more.

Hockney regards the artists who used these tools as rather intelligent, and so do I. Why would you choose to eschew a technique or tool that simplifies your life and saves you time?

So no, I do not regard using a projector as “cheating”.


Another useful technique which is sometimes labelled as “cheating” is the use of tracings. Again, I want to assure anyone who traces their work that this is totally acceptable, and something that almost everyone within the botanical illustration community does.

There are different reasons for tracing. I use it if I’m illustrating butterflies or beetles. Although there are individual variations between butterfly wings, if you get one side of a butterfly drawn up, then trace and flip the trace to complete the illustration, you’ve found a good time-saving technique. Once drawn up, you can re-examine the minute differences between the two sides and edit your drawing accordingly.

Deaths head hawkmoth Acherontia atropos

Many botanical illustrators will draw up their subject, then use tracing to transfer it to the final surface they’ll be painting on. It means the working drawings can be kept away from pristine fresh paper, and that any mistakes can be fixed at an earlier stage.

Is it cheating? I can’t see how. It looks like good management to me.

Sweet orange Citrus sinensis

What is cheating?

The Oxford English dictionary defines cheating as: “Acting dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage.”

I can’t see how using helpful tools, modern technology, and tried and tested techniques can be seen as “dishonest” or as getting anyone an “unfair advantage”. Everyone has access to these things, and should be encouraged to use them as they see fit.

Is using a magnifying glass or dissecting microscope “cheating”? It’s another use of lenses. Is working from dead birds stored in the freezer “cheating”? I’m not sure how doing this differs from using a photo (except that it’s easier to get your hands on a photo of a bullfinch!)

Bullfinch illustration with reference

Why do I get cross when people talk about cheating in art?

My main problem with the use of the word “cheating” is the effect it has on those starting out, on beginners.

If paralyses them. They’re often so afraid that they’re doing it wrong. They fear they’re cheating, that they’re going to be frowned on.

They may not be sure of what is, or what isn’t seen as “cheating”, and simply don’t utilise straightforward approaches to creating art as a result.

I do not believe there is any such thing as “cheating” when it comes to drawing. Whatever tools are available, use them. Whatever techniques seem to help you, practice them.

The only way you hone and improve your drawing and painting skills is by putting in the hours, and by drawing as much as possible. To sustain you you need to feel passionate and inspired by your subjects, encouraged and supported by those teaching you, and you need to feel confident that whatever approach you use, you won’t be chastised for using it.

So please. No more nonsense about cheating. If you love drawing and painting, do it. Use whatever tools you like, enjoy yourself, learn from doing it. And if someone accuses you of cheating, just remember, sharing techniques with Vermeer, Hockney, and Caravaggio puts you in rather good company!

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