Flower Drawing

Jennifer Andrews describes her methods of portraying plants and flowers in all the seasons of the year.


Let us toss away once and for all the ideas that flowers are purely pretty things, to be arranged on paper in stiff attitudes and forced designs, as dead as stuffed birds or as foolish as circus animals. Flowers are as living and growing as we who attempt to catch their essence. They can be pretty, they are also wild, vital, fierce, breathtaking, dramatic – the drama of a just open stamen, fiery gold against pale petal, of blue light stabbing through purple anemone, of dark bud falling across white flower, or hairy case poised on a poppy bud, of hogweed bent in torment, caught in the clutches of giant bindweed. The path of discovery is endless, each discovery is a surprise and each surprise can give point to a drawing if we let it. Perhaps this is the reason why I do not arrange my flowers in the jar in front of me, or plan out my page, apart from considering how the plant grows and if it is a falling or trailing growth, I go to any lengths, whatever the difficulties, to make it fall in a characteristic position.

I use a piece of Oasis wedged into a bottle neck, Blue Tack, Plasticine, wet moss or rag in a plastic bag to hold the stem – there is nothing more foolish than a drawing climbing up when it should fall down or vice versa. It is essential to have seen the plant growing to make a drawing with authority. Before taking it indoors, sketch it and examine just where it leaves the soil or how a spray joins the main stem. Faithfulness to the character of the plant cannot be too strongly emphasized. Observe the quirks and the small irregularities which give each its individuality. Catch these and you will have a worthwhile drawing. I have seen a carefully made study of Japanese anemones spoilt by the placing of too many heads, too regularly spaced on each stem. They were anemones and yet not; their individuality had been ironed out.

Resist those stiff bunches in florists’ shops unless you are sure you know what they were like before they got there. Then, once in the jar or vase on your table, let them help you as they settle down, open and close and finally drop. Do not write the play for them; they will unfold it before your eyes if you will let them. But it must be added that this free placing of the subjects does not make for ease or peace of mind. If you are lucky it works. Mostly, you have to work at it, thinking ahead all the time in order to avoid confusion. With any drawing it is best to sketch out a margin before starting, at least half an inch from the paper edge. I am guilty of not doing this and of letting a leaf or just one more bud that I cannot resist come in danger of spilling over onto the board itself. This bad habit gives my framer some headaches!

Japanese anemones. Watercolour 14” x 14”

Flower drawing is a race, a race to catch the bud before it opens, the flower before it drops. This sense of urgency is no bad thing and after a hectic summer there is something almost eerie about the stillness of seed heads. Many flowers move only slowly and are good tempered in water. Some droop almost as soon as they are picked but immersion up to the neck or totally in a pail of water will work wonders.

I am a great believer in hot or warm water which seems to provide the answer for one of my favourite subjects – poppies. Place them in a fairly hot water as soon as they are picked. If at the end of the day they are flagging, cut half an inch off the stems and replace in hot water. By morning they should have taken on a new lease of life. Somehow I cannot bring myself to burn the ends nor does it seem necessary. A paper cone will prevent a bud from opening, but once you remove it, be poised for action!

Make use of the fridge. Put the flowers in a jar of water and cover them with a plastic bag, fixing it in place with a rubber band so that it stands away from the freezing compartment. Buds or flowers can be kept in this way for a week or two at least. A too open flower will close conveniently over-night in the fridge and open for you all over again the next day. Even a cool dark corner may serve this purpose.

Poppies. Watercolour 15” x 11”

It is easy to be so preoccupied with the colour and texture of a flower that one forgets that it also has three-dimensional form. A poppy bud is a solid object. Be aware of this solidity in your drawing before you are aware of the hairy texture of the case. A hellebore, even when open, retains its rounded form, a perfect cup shape. Observe this correctly and the details of colours and markings will have meaning. Forget the form and the petals will look like a dress without anyone inside. It takes courage to pull the brush around and across the form instead of endlessly stroking along the petals. But once you have done this, your flower will start to be an object in space instead of merely a collection of blobs of colour. A head of lilac for example is a cone shape. Model the cone with every small flower which makes up the head.

Hellebores. Watercolour 11” x 9”

Leaves are the downfall of so many drawings. Shut the veins right out of your mind until you have established the direction of each leaf, how it stretches towards you or leans away. Once the twists and turns are decided, suggest the veining, never making it more important than the form of the leaf. Make use of the darkness and heavier textures of leaves to throw up the more delicate flowers. A glossy leaf tucked in behind a pink rose is sheer joy. Tuck it in, then, with all the strength you can muster and you will be repaid by seeing the rose stand out from the page.

Never neglect the back views of flowers. In the garden, after all, half the heads will be turned away from you and the ones that face you are all the richer for the background of those that look away. Take the back of a scabious. The strong blue green sepals contrast with the shaded mauves of the petals now furthest from you. This play of dark across light, strength against fragility, gives excitement to a piece of work. For me, a back or three-quarters view has a drama all of its own and to draw it presents a challenge.

What do you do in the winter? My answer to this question used to be “design work” or “sort out the studio” (to throw away a few sub-standard works is no bad thing). But now it is different; I have discovered winter drawing. It was of course out there all the time against the rain and snow if I had only looked. With so many leaves gone, the ones that remain can really be seen.

Winter drawing. 15” x 10”

There are those dead daisies in the garden border which you might have cut down had you not found something else to do, their leaves blowing out like flags, shining olive brown in the November drizzle. The heads still sit proudly, flat crowns in shades of sepia and raw umber. Sorrel seems indefatigable, stems on fire, curled leaves of flame all the richer after frost.

“Tall nettles cover up, as they have done. These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough. Long worn out and the roller made of stone”.

The world of Edward Thomas, our world too, so much so that we take tall nettles for granted. But in winter, look again. Now they curve over with all the grace of a ballerina, clusters of old flowers worn to filigree by wind and weather. Leaves hang by a thread, their serrated edges showing like dragons teeth against the clear winter sky. Stiff grasses cross and re-cross the endless tracery. Bindweed, your enemy in June, is now forgiven as you find a sharp green snake twisting up one teasel and down the next or draping itself along the bare hedge with unmatched elegance. Brown hogweed stands sentinel about the countryside, a few seeds still unbelievably poised for flight. And with the winter drawing I have discovered the hole in the leaf, that jagged window to a world beyond, as thrilling and mysterious as the discovery of a sky-light between the rafters of a gloomy barn.

Faced with a flower and an empty sheet of paper, one is inevitably overcome by a wave of panic and near despair. Surely it is presumptuous even to try to capture such beauty, such transience. Wlifrid Blunt in The Art of Botanical Illustration has a few words of comfort – “The colour of many flowers is so dazzling that at best it can only be approximated in paint”. So take courage, feel the subject, but with attention to the basic construction, and put brush to paper in a spirit of adventure. Learn something about your model. One of the best incentives to further work is to finish a drawing feeling that you could make a better one next time.