Value drawing in graphite is your key to success in colour

January 29, 2023

Some unfortunate offerings for botanical art study have emerged amid the surge in online educational opportunities. One of these is instructors sending their own drawings to students to trace as part of a course on how to create successful botanical art pieces. Another is speeded-up video demonstrations.

Learning botanical art should always start, not with someone else’s drawing, a photograph, or a digital image, but with your accurate drawing of a real specimen in front of you. Without this you can’t learn how to capture realism through awareness of light and shadow seen on an illuminated subject. This should be learned in black and white and multiple shades of grey before taking on the complex world of colour. If you’ve not done this you are missing out on something very special. And aside form everything else, it’s crucial to your ongoing progression as a botanical artist.

The key to success starts in black and white. That may seem to be something of a contradiction, but it’s not. Rembrandt knew this to be critical to realism. His apprenticed artists worked on drawing for two years before painting in colour!

This is where my contention about unfortunate offerings comes in . . . You can’t short circuit the process with “tuition” that has you adding colour to an instructor’s drawing or watching speeded-up videos. These “colouring-in” or “do-along” activities are more entertainment than lasting learning. They are short-term colour fixes involving somebody else’s drawing of a plant with little to no long-term benefits to personal progression as a botanical artist. Likewise, watching a speeded-up video of a plant subject being painted offers you very little—how much farther removed from the reality of a slow, deliberate, and meditative art form can this possibly be?

And as for digital devices, I am by no means opposed to them when used properly as a reference if the subject has deteriorated before the piece has been completed. When I occasionally use a digital image, it is only for reference and never the source of what I choose to paint—it’s a resource, not a source.

So, in short, learn how to draw with a subject in front of you. And as Leonardo wrote, “Determine between the various lights, which possess the highest degree and measure of brightness and similarly to the shadows which are darker than the rest and in what manner they mingle together.”  Do this in black, white, and grey before trying to understand the complexities and intricacies of colour. This will change the way you see and interpret colour.

You can’t improve by lowering the bar—ask any high jumper.