Technique

Every artist paints differently and there is no right or wrong way to go about botanical painting. 

Heidi’s process is methodical and focused, as necessitated by the art form, but changes in small ways for each piece. 

Here are some of the key elements of her process.

Sketching

The first stage is pencil sketches. This is the “courtship” at the beginning of the relationship between artist and plant. It sees the artist looking very closely at particular elements of the plant:

  • the overall structure and character of the plant
  • stem formation
  • leaf attachment and formation
  • flower and petal arrangement
  • how the reproductive elements are formed.

Heidi works through different angles of the plant, thinking about how it might best be set out on the page to maximise the comprehension of the plant form. 

A very rounded fruit, for example, will need to be shown in its fullness as completely as possible. An interesting or complex seed formation might be worth displaying. Leaves which intertwine should be clear in how they overlap.

If the plant remains in a garden or outdoors and cannot be collected, Heidi sketches and photographs in situ. This can sometimes be a little challenging, depending on the conditions. 

A delicate, tiny desert flower which cannot be removed without dying may require the artist to lie on the ground (usually in some discomfort) to sketch, for example. And many plants do not travel well, once picked or cut, so are best drawn in their natural environment.

Heidi starts her work with extensive and detailed drawings of the plant. She often returns for more plant material once the composition of the piece becomes clearer. 

She will take material back to the studio, where it is more straightforward to examine the plant closely and start to design the painting. She uses this preparatory period to develop a feeling for the plant, whether by observation alone, or through dissection of flowers or fruit, sketching, and colour selection.

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  • The completed piece
  • Lower fruit finished, branch still to go
  • Lower fruit centre finished, skin to complete
  • The lower fruit's seeds completed
  • A start made on the lower fruit
  • The graphite tonal shaded drawing - great for confidence!
  • Completed harmonic painted shadows
  • Shadowed painting on the left, tonal drawing on right

A sketchbook will also include colour swatches, as Heidi selects and mixes the hues that mimic most closely the colours of nature for stems, leaves, branches and flowers. The base pigments that make up the plant colours form the palette for the painting, mixed together in different shades as the painting progresses. Heidi selects her colours using half-pans, but once painting begins, paint from tubes provides a greater range of density for applying different tones.

These days, photographs can be very useful when a plant has wilted or died. But the limits of photographs are that they can distort scale, colour and pattern, and never tell the full story. When painting fragile specimens, Heidi will take a large number of photographs in a race against time, to ensure there is sufficient information available when the time comes to paint particular aspects. The painstaking nature of botanical painting often means plants do not survive for the time it takes to complete a painting. But far better and more reliable are the sketches and colour selections made at the beginning of the process, with the live plant in front of the artist.

Botanical expertise

Heidi seeks the advice of botanists or gardeners in understanding the plant form and reproductive elements to ensure accuracy in the depiction. Books, specialist magazines and reliable sources on the internet can also add value at this stage.

Composition

The composition stage is vital and requires a fresh mind – it is the foundation on which a painting is built. No great painting can emerge – regardless of technique – without a composition that is both attractive and representative of the plant. It’s important, too, that the form of the piece matches the habit of the plant – a graceful plant with gentle curves should be reflected as such on the page. Spiky and tall is best reflected in a linear, strong form on the page.

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  • The completed piece
  • Stem and leaf yet to complete
  • Working on the stem
  • Starting to build up colour on the stem
  • Completing the head
  • Final washes to deepen the head colour
  • Building up colour on the head
  • Painstaking washes begin - around 30
  • Stabilising the colour graduations
  • Starting the colour washes
  • Completed shadowing work
  • Shadow work
  • Shadow work mostly completed
  • Tonal graphite drawing - provides courage to the truly fearful!
  • Tonal drawing and traced outline on watercolour paper

Drawing

The sketching must end at some point, at which stage the final drawing emerges from a mass of lines. Heidi draws on rough paper, not on the final watercolour paper, to avoid creating ruts of lines that aren’t final, attracting paint to the wrong spots. Some artists draw straight onto the page, however.

She traces the final drawing and transfers it, using tracedown paper, onto the watercolour paper.

Heidi then shuts out acetate sheets to fit around the shape of the painting to protect the unpainted areas, and in addition uses more sheets to cover areas not being worked on. This minimises the transfer of oils from the hand onto the paper, and smudging or splashes, while at the same time allowing the painter to see the piece as a whole, as compared to the use of tracing paper or other non-translucent papers. However acetate should not be left in contact with the watercolour paper for an extended period, as it is not non-acidic.

Tonal shading

In more complex paintings with multiple elements, Heidi traces a second drawing onto rough paper, and uses graphite to set out in rough terms the deep, medium and highlighted tones of the painting. This creates a clearer direction for the painting which she relies on to preserve highlights.

Finally - beginning to paint

Heidi often uses a technique of grey shadow painting as an under-wash, where the central blue, red and yellow hues being used for the painting are mixed into a grey paint. Heidi starts by painting the complete picture with this grey in the shadowed areas, to build up a 3D 'map' of the painting. This helps ensure the painting will stay on course to reveal highlights and lowlights when colour is applied.

The base pigments selected in the first session which make up the plant colours form the palette for the painting, mixed together in different shades as the painting progresses. Heidi selects her colours using half-pans, but once painting begins, paint from tubes set out in blobs around the edges of a palette and mixed in the centre (a trick learned from Billy Showell) provides a greater range of density for applying different tones.

Heidi builds up the washes, reserving areas of light, into sufficient density to reveal the shape and form of the plant. Also reserved are areas requiring finer work, and a finer brush, such as leaf nodules on branches or flower centres.

Dry brush work achieves the finishing touches, including damaged areas, to reflect reality.



More information

For some other helpful thoughts on how to approach botanical painting, click here for Heidi’s top ten tips for botanical painting.

And you will find a list of Heidi’s favourite botanical painting supplies here.  

The naming of plants follows strict botanical nomenclature conventions. The system is explained here.

There are some tips for working in the garden here.  

Some thoughts on working in the studio are here.