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Botanical Art -- the Process

Updated: May 28, 2019

Here I am going to write about what is involved in creating a botanical art painting in watercolor. My next post will be about what it was like to be in the fast and dynamic environment of the Museum School, studying drawing and painting, for 6 1/2 years. Stay tuned!

"The Certificate in Botanical Art and Illustration" from the Friends of Wellesley College Botanic Gardens is an intense and very challenging study of botanical science and art done over three or more years.

Starting a botanical watercolor painting requires spending a significant amount of time observing and carefully studying the plant/flower/tree in question.

Then I match and mix colors while the plant/flower is very fresh, for accuracy. I look for subtle differences between pigments. The colors are recorded in detail on strips of the same watercolor paper used for the final painting. Each paint sample is labeled with the manufacturer's name (I use Daniel Smith, Winsor & Newton, M.Graham, Holbein, and Schmincke--all top-quality, lightfast pigments), and then I add the name of the paint, and the pigment number(s). Pigment numbers are important to learn and keep track of, as you generally do not want to mix too many pigments together and dull your colors; bright luminosity is desired. Also, watercolor darkens a bit as it dries, so keeping the color "up" is important. After colors are mixed, they also are recorded on the paper strip, with their information, so it's easy to go back to make changes to a painting, or even to paint another similar one in the future.

Then a very detailed drawing is made...a long, slow, intense process. Not only will this drawing be used for tracing an outline of the subject to watercolor paper, but also it will be an important reference point, as many plants/flowers change as you are drawing them! They wilt; they rise with a new watering; they just "go by;" they turn towards a different light source. Photographs for later reference are helpful, although working directly from the subject is the focus. I am always grateful when a plant stays relatively still!

From there a tracing may be made, to transfer the drawing onto watercolor paper, and then to document light and dark areas. Transferring onto watercolor paper is generally done one of two ways: with tracing paper--the drawing is traced, the tracing is turned over and all those lines are laid over with more pencil, then the tracing is reversed and laid on watercolor paper, and the original lines are re-traced, transferring the underlying pencil/graphite onto the watercolor paper. Then you can go back and indicate greater light and dark values on the drawing or on the tracing paper. Or, the drawing is placed on a light table, and 140 lb. hot-press watercolor paper is placed upon it. The drawing shows through and can be copied onto the watercolor paper on top. (The latter does not work for 300 lb. paper, as it is too thick).

After all that work, we're ready to paint! Well, maybe not. Slow down! There is still more careful drawing to be done on the watercolor paper, with a very light hard pencil, recording all sorts of fine detail. In places graphite from the pencil will need to be lifted with a kneaded eraser, to avoid picking it up with the wet paint brush.

And then...a very light mix of watercolor is made. Here it must be said that a good painting cannot be accomplished without the very best of materials: pencils, erasers, tracing paper, watercolor paper, paints, and brushes. Top quality makes a world of difference; it's essential.

Watercolors like this are built up of multiple thin layers of paint--gradually, very gradually. Each layer must be completely dry before the next is applied. It is a painstaking, very time-consuming process, fraught with risk.

It is important to follow safety precautions: Water containers are short and sturdy and not placed close to the painting, so there will not be water turning over on a painting you've just spent thirty hours working on, nor will dirty water splash on your painting as you are cleaning your brushes.

I use three water containers. It is important to keep paints clean and clear, and that includes the water. The first thing I do when cleaning a brush is wipe it on absorbent paper, then I swish it in the first jar of water, which picks up most of the pigment; then I go to the second jar to get a good cleaning. This process helps me not have to get up constantly to change the water I'm using. The third jar of water is always absolutely clean, as I might use it for lifting.

Once, I had a very heavy, stable cup of coffee on my table. There was no way it would turn over. Really. However, I swiped it off the table with my arm. It landed upright, on the floor, and sent fountain-splashes upward...onto my painting! Watch out! With that third jar of clean water, I was able to dilute immediately and lift up most of the paint and cover a couple of other little spots with paint and flower buds. Live and learn. While working on a painting, it is helpful to cover the parts not being worked on with clear plastic...for now obvious reasons!

Two other times I left a painting in progress on my table, with the plant subject hovering over the painting. In the morning I found sap had fallen and spattered over the entire thing. This happened with two very different plants, even as other plants had been very well behaved. Fortunately, I was able to lift all the sap with a wet brush, which took a very very long time! Suppose it hd hardened and could not be lifted? I would have lost about 25 hours of work.

I have a horizontal stand for six brushes. They are fabulous Kolinsky sables for the most part. Three are labeled, as they are so similar. Closest to me is my prime brush: Raphael 8404 #4; next is the same, but it's older, and labeled "water." I use that when I want a clean damp brush to move pigment. The next brush is a Rosemary Series 33 #4 Kolinsky sable; it's an older brush I now use for "mixing," as I don't want to stress my prime brush for that. Next I have two Winsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes, #1 and #3. I use them for some detail work, although the tip of my prime brush is nearly always good for that. The final brush is a Princeton Dakota bright, 6300B #2. It is not sable; it has a stiffer bristle and is used for lifting. Yes, some paint can be lifted out. It's a careful process and not always successful, but it is possible. I keep these brushes in careful order and can pick one up quickly, almost without looking.

There is a lot of time and precision involved. Exacting! And often, a lot of speed, as well as slow patience. Being so immersed in nature is an amazing experience, looking so very closely and being surprised again and again, trying to bring it all to life on paper, to share that experience.

And I've barely begun to describe painting...!

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