Sunday, 13 March 2016

Illustrating plants out of season - a tricky dilemma !

After a few days of respite following on from the RHS and going straight back to teaching, it was all go again with news of an exciting commission.

Exciting because it meant that I could continue working in pen and ink, a medium that I really enjoyed using for the twig drawings in my RHS exhibit.

The only problem, or should I say more of a challenge, is that part of the commission involved illustrating five plants that are completely out of season, in that they are not flowering.  In addition there was also a ladybird, grasshopper and bumblebee to illustrate, and wait for it - a timescale of just 3-4 days !!

The first step - research is the key and knowing where to look.  The internet is great, but be careful if you use images and ensure that you have permission to use them and/or they are copyright free.  The same applies in using illustrations in books.
With a challenge such as this, the key thing is to really know your plant and start to bring the elements together from various sources to produce a viable and realistic plant portrait.

I was somewhat lucky with this commission, as the brief was to produce sketch like ink drawings, this helped in two ways, I could potentially work a little faster, which helps with the tight timescale, and secondly I could be a little freer with my drawing style, but still create an accurate portrayal.

A selection of reference books on my desk.  My collection of Stella Ross Craig books proved invaluable with a project such as this.
My Francis Rose key is my go to book for checking accurate identification details.  This is my second copy as my first is in pieces, and a very treasured possession, after years of use in the field.

The above dried grass samples were not used for this project, but keeping dried or pressed specimens is an excellent way to help with future drawings.
I collected grasses, sedges and rushes in particular as they can be quite tricky to identify.

Even though time was tight, I made sure that my sketchbook was used for the initial studies and to make sure I was interpreting correctly what I was seeing.

The drawing of Yarrow taking shape.

The next stage was to trace the design from my sketchbook onto tracing paper using my Rotring Isograph ink pen with a 0.10 nib and my lightbox.

Once the design was on tracing paper, the Fabriano Artistico HP paper was placed over the tracing and to save time the last drawing was made directly with the ink pen.
This was quite risky, but it saved on time and also having my sketchbook at the side made sure that I could refer to that for any detail that was difficult to see.

The finer details and areas of tonal work were completed once the main outline was in place.

A selection of my ink pens.
Left to right:  Zig Zag 'throw away' technical drawing pen; Rotring Isograph pens; far right, an old Rotring pen, the equivalent of the modern Isograph.

Now for the completed work:

Bombus terrestris

Meadow grasshopper

Seven-spot ladybird



Red campion

Red clover


Well, 'what now?' you may say, no respite I'm afraid.  

My botanical art courses at Peter Symonds College AHED in Winchester are nearing the end of term and the Natures Details Courses start at the end of this week.

This year we are opening with the 'Sketching the Beauty of Owls' course and Beebo and Eddi will be returning.  Further courses include Spring flowers, Summer Flowers, Butterflies and Moths, the Seashore Palette and Painting on Vellum.

Further details can be found on the website.

Have a good week everyone !


  1. Dear Sarah, your blog is so amazing! I could read it for hours and never get tired of it. I have one doubt though, to trace your drawing, I suppose you use some source of light under the papers to be able to see through them, right? And what is the purpose of tracing a drawing? I think Shevaun told me the reason once but I can't remember it.
    Thanks a lot x

  2. Hello Gui, how kind of you. I'm glad you find it interesting.
    Tracing is a tricky thing. I never used to like it because when you traced, the drawing that came out on the watercolour paper was never sharp enough, it lacked the freshness of a new drawing, if that makes sense.
    Over time I have got used to it and have perfected my technique. I used it a lot for my RHS project and for this set of drawings it was just as important.
    I was illustrating these plants out of season so therefore each illustration was created from various elements of different images. So there would perhaps be part of a plant from one of my sketches, another from a photos and another from an old illustration. All these elements come together and using tracing is a way of ensuring that you get the accuracy before committing the illustration to 'proper paper'. I now use a light box to help with the process.

    Perhaps it would be a good subject for my next Facebook live broadcast !?

  3. Hi Sarah. Thank you for your answer. I understand that when you trace a drawing, you draw three times, first a sketch, then you trace the sketch and then you produce your final illustration from the trace, right? But I wonder, if the paper you use for your final illustration is too thick, how do you use the traced drawing? Sorry if I ask too many questions.

    Yeah! I think it would be a good idea for your next Facebook live broadcast!

    Take care.


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