Drawing and painting plants

Muriel Rose describes the many pleasures in observing and painting the great variety of plants to be found in both town and countryside.


Have you ever set out on a sketching expedition with all your materials, full of enthusiasm, only to find that nothing in that particular place is interesting enough to spark you off? So in the end after a lot of walking you come back tired and disillusioned without anything to show for your wasted time and energy. I am sure we all have at some time or other, but instead of going on looking for that exciting view or perfect composition, how about just sitting down, in the field or wherever you happen to be, and drawing plants?

If one has a garden there are of course plenty of plants and flowers there to draw, but I must say that I find the wild flowers – even weeds so much more interesting to sketch because of the lovely twisted patterns they make, whereas the majority of cultivated plants have stiffness about them. I would also much rather draw or paint flowers growing naturally than arranged in a pot, however beautiful the arrangement.

We are fortunate in Great Britain in that for most of the year there is something flowering. Even in winter I noticed a lovely yellow splash of Ragwort growing on the garden wall in spite of frost. I try to encourage a few wild flowers such as Foxgloves, Balsams, Willow Herb, even Hemlock, to grow in my London garden, as they are always useful for one’s work, as well as being a reminder of the country. One has to be careful though, because they do tend to take over once established at the expense of the cultivated plants.

Often there is a mild day in winter when one can go out sketching with a minimum of materials, perhaps to a local park where there is usually something growing that would be interesting to sketch if you live in town. One does not have to travel out into the country to find wild flowers; there are the patches of waste ground where they flourish, railway banks and allotments which have been the inspiration of quite a few painters in the past.

All the basic materials one needs is a large sketchbook – I like one 20” x 14” and a small one 7” x 5” for notes and small details. A good cartridge paper is best; a rough surface is not suitable for this rather delicate work.

For drawing I like a fine black biro, though you may be happier with pencil or chalk. A green and red biro is also useful, but a brown one would be even better, and yet in my experience this seems impossible to find, unless one buys a whole set of coloured biros in order to get the one brown pen! One can obtain various fine nibs for the Rotring pen, together with brown and other coloured inks, but these have to be filled and cleaned out, and something simpler is called for I feel.

Most felt tipped pens are not fine enough, although the colour range is wonderful, and there are plenty of browns, greys and a subtle sludgy green. If you have these make sure that they are the spirit based variety, then you can put a wash of colour over them without all your careful drawing disappearing!

There are over two thousand native species of flowering plants in Great Britain, plus about six hundred others. During the ice age most existing vegetation was destroyed; for a time we were joined to the Continent and as ice disappeared northwards the plants returned. But with the formation of the Channel we were cut off from Europe, so no more plants could spread, the only new ones being brought here by man, either accidentally in cargoes or intentionally for horticultural purposes.

Now, with pollution, so many are disappearing, so let us record our flowers whilst they are still here.

I was fortunate as a child to spend a lot of time at my father’s home in East Bergholt, Suffolk, and remember the cornfields full of poppies then, such as Constable, Monet and Renoir loved to paint. Later, at school in Wiltshire, a keen teacher took us tramping over the downs at weekends looking at wild flowers and exploring earthworks. Then the war, and instead of being at the Slade as planned I was in the Land Army! As a would-be painter the life is ideal. I enjoyed every minute of it, watching the seasons change, and discovering more wild flowers in the Wiltshire countryside of chalk downs, water-meadows, and clear trout streams.

Evening primrose. Pen drawing 20” x 15”

According to the soil, so the flowers change. There are many varieties of Campanula on the Chalk Downs, together with Greater Knapweed and Carline Thistle, all very attractive to draw, whilst in the water meadows all manner of Ranunculus family, from the Buttercup to Marsh Marigold, (Shakespeare called them Marybuds), along with the Yellow Iris or Flag, sweet-smelling Queen of the Meadow, (or Meadowsweet), Water Forget-me-Not, and many varieties of lovely rushes grow, and the beautiful pink and white Balsam, which shoots out its seeds like a pistol, is beating pollution and spreading along the riverbanks where other plants have died out.

On the wilder beaches you might still be lucky enough to find Sea Poppies and Wild Anchusa, Stonecrop and Thrift, whilst in the woods there is a wealth of material – Wood Anemone or “Wind Flowers” among the Bluebells, Wild Arum and mosses, and where the trees have been felled those marvellous patches of magenta, where the Rosebay-Willowherb or “Fireweed” has grown. In contrast are the wild moors of Cornwall golden with gorse and tawny grasses, or the heathers and bracken of the New Forest, the North of England and Scotland.

Likewise the different seasons each bring their own flowers, as we all know, so one need never run out of material. Much as I love the spring flowers I really think May, June and Autumn produce the most interesting shapes for drawing and one should do as much as possible before haymaking, because so many flowers vanish then in the meadows.

In summer look for the trailing plants of the Vetch family, Bindweed twining up the stalks of corn and the beautiful decorative plants like Fools Parsley, Burnet Saxifrage and Hemlock with their umbel type of flower, and Honeysuckle and Wild Roses in the hedges.

Hedgerow flowers. Watercolour 18” x 14½”

The Autumn is particularly good because of the lovely climbing plants that festoon the hedgerows – the Larger Bindweed, Old Mans Beard (or Travellers Joy), with its fluffy seeds, Wild Clematis and Hops, and all the berries – Spindleberry, Rowanberry, Rose Hips, Blackberry, Haws, Honeysuckle Berries and Woody Nightshade – all so colourful, but I must say that I find it sad when the sun has no warmth in it and the skies are pale in anticipation of the on-coming Winter.

Do not neglect the common weeds and grasses, even Docks can be beautiful, such rich colour, also Sorrell. Then there is Field Pennycress, Charlock and Shepherds Purse, Hoarycress – what delightful names our wildflowers have – not forgetting the Dandelion with its delicate seeds.

Lilies. Pen drawing 20” x 15”

There are about one hundred and seventy different varieties of grasses in Great Britain and a particularly pretty one is Common Quaking Grass, found on chalky soils in South of England. If you can make notes of some of these grasses they can be added to your wild flower drawings later to fill in spaces. There are also tiny creeping plants, mosses, and roots too that can be useful in foregrounds.

How you approach your plant drawing – what materials you use is up to you. I can only say that I like my biro on smooth paper, with sometimes touches of watercolour and opaque white. With regard to brushes I use a fine 00 sable, medium sable and a large flat brush for backgrounds. You may want to make a detailed drawing of one plant or you might prefer to put together a number of plants and grasses, making a pleasing design as you go.

Your paper can be white or tinted; pastel colours or grey-greens and ochres make a pleasant background, and the new watercolour paper which comes in pastel colours, would be ideal. The use of tinted paper will obviate the problem of painting a background around your plants, which can spoil one’s careful drawing if not just right.

Foxglove. Pen drawing 20” x 15”

I mentioned that I like a large sheet of paper, better too big than too small, as it is nice to leave some space around the drawing, and most plants tend to grow upwards. For foxgloves and tall flowers you will certainly need a large upright sheet to give them their feeling of height, so start right at the bottom of the sheet.

Draw out the main plants first, if you are doing a group, and fill in the background later with the patterns of grasses, trailing plants, ferns, etc., The straight lines of the grasses will stabilize the twisting forms. Every painting needs straight lines; if I find that a landscape is not pleasing me I find that it usually improves with a horizontal line somewhere!

Accentuate the rhythm of the plant growth; everything in life has rhythm, so concentrate on the main rhythm lines and curves and leave out any that detract from these. Aim at drawing the roundness of the stems and seed pods so that they do not look flat, and if the leaves are spikey, make them look more so!

Things to notice particularly are the beautiful patterns of the veins, the way the leaves grow in different ways up the stems – some opposite, some alternately, some in a circle, or others shooting upwards from the roots. Note how the petals grow differently; some separate, some joined like the bindweed, or a tube like the snapdragon, and aim at getting the proportions right.

Fuchsia. Watercolour 19½” x 14”

If you wish to colour your drawing, colours like rose madder and cobalt for purples, and vermilion for poppies will be necessary; also a spot black added to some colours (to make for instance sludgy greens) is useful, and you will need some white body colour for opaque colours.

You will discover how many shades of white there are – greenish whites, pinky-whites, lemon-whites, and notice how some petals are transparent, (poppies for instance), whilst the forget-me-not is a completely dense blue.

Do not overdo the painting; otherwise your drawing will be lost. Leave some parts the natural colour of the paper and if you do have to paint some background or shadows behind, (sometimes with white or pale flowers this is necessary), make it simple, and use your large flat brush for a light wash in some areas. If you must have a background, an old brick or stone wall gives a sympathetic one.

You can also enjoy yourself with your coloured biros and felt pens on top of the watercolour too, and use other materials like wax crayons for texture.

I think you will enjoy yourselves sitting quietly observing the flowers, and not only the flowers but the insect life that is always there – butterflies on the Buddleia, Goldfinches on the Thistles and Cosmos, and all the other insect life, some of which, you may be able to add to your drawing. Look inside the Foxgloves, at the beautiful spotted pattern in them, and watch the bees opening them and disappearing inside, buzzing contentedly as they work.

Some of the flowering trees too, if they have low branches, are worth drawing – Hawthorn, Cherry, Laburnum and Acacia, Horse Chestnut (the flowers of these are quite a challenge), not to mention catkins and pussy willow and so. In Autumn use your brown inks and tawny colours to draw a hedgerow of brambles and golden leaves.

Try experimenting with Japanese rice paper; treat yourself to a Chinese brush or two. These are fat with a beautiful point and must be soaked in warm water before use as they are waxed. Practise brush strokes with these on large sheets of newsprint or lining paper, find out how, by using different pressures of the brush, you can obtain completely different brush strokes. When you feel you have more confidence you can progress to rice paper, because painting directly with the brush you cannot make mistakes. Damp the paper and wash in the paler colours, adding the finer details later.

When you come to mounting your work, use neutral colours such as dark grey, olive green, brown, maroon etc. If you have a good mount cutter, oval or round mounts can look well with plant studies in a simple rectangular or square frame.

You may wish to keep your plant drawings as they are, making notes of where they came from and keeping them in portfolios, because they can be used later in many different ways. They make interesting foregrounds for landscapes, or can be made into lithographs or etchings, used for embroidery design, pottery decoration and decorative painting to mention a few.

Throughout the ages plants have been a source of inspiration to artists all over the world, from the beautiful ceramic decoration of the Middle and Far East on to Italian and Spanish majolica. Here in England in Victorian times we saw the lovely twisted designs of plants in the textiles and wallpapers of the William Morris Movement, and the potter William de Morgan who used beautiful coloured glazes inspired by the Middle Eastern Pots. When in London, do visit places like Leighton House in Kensington and look at these lovely things inspired by plants, and of course the Victoria and Albert Museum.

They were used in the earliest manuscripts of India and Persia and by the Japanese and Chinese in their brush drawings on scrolls of silk or rice paper. Later the Dutch painted them with infinite care of observation of details and the Italian masters often introduced them into their paintings.

In France, Germany, England and Ireland, monks painted flowers, birds, and animals into their intricate designs for illuminated manuscripts. Later, when printing was invented, the engravings of herbs and formal flower drawings became possible, and later still when lithography followed they were able to print many beautiful plant drawings in colour.

One learns odd facts when involved with plant drawing: for instance that there are strange plants like Sundew with sticky leaves to catch insects, and Wild Arum or Cuckoo Pint which catches insects by its smell, but they are released when its flowers die and go on to pollinate another Wild Arum. There are plants like Common Dodder which actually lives on other plants.

I was told that there are some 10,000 varieties of grasses in the world, but only 170 grew here. Amongst wool waste, which is put on some fields here as fertilizer, comes seed from as far afield as New Zealand and South America, picked up in the animals coats. Keen botanists go searching for these seeds to raise rare grasses in their greenhouses!

One lady student I met had studied with a Japanese Professor in Thailand painting Orchids only in the Professor’s garden where he grew them especially for his classes. That must have been quite a colourful scene to paint in itself – those lovely ladies in their beautiful dresses painting in a garden full of orchids! Seeing a film recently on television about Orchid growing in Thailand made one realise how exotic and marvellous these flowers must be en masse.

Here in this article I have only had time to write about our own flowers, but when one thinks of the variety of flowers from the East to the West coast of America, for instance, in Europe the Alpine flowers, or the flowers in Spain and Italy, etc. (which one would have to paint in Spring before it became all burnt up) – to mention only a few, one could go on for ever finding new flowers to draw.

If, here in England you have a garden, then you can grow your own grasses and seeds (or if not, collect them) and keep these to draw indoors when it is really too cold to go out. You may care to join a plant drawing class, or go on a plant drawing holiday. Your local Wildlife Group will take you to places such as nature reserves which you might not otherwise see – and I hope that you will spend many happy days among the flowers.


This article was originally published in the October 1979 issue of Leisure Painter


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