It’s likely that if you enjoyed nature as a kid, you grew up reading those plant field guides with impossibly intricate botanical illustrations in them. If you would like to recreate that illustration style for nostalgia, and perhaps to draw your houseplants, you can learn the style from botanical illustrator Elena Brambi in her 90-minute class.
To follow along with her painting, all you will need are your watercolours and some hot press paper. Let’s get started!
Step 1: Outline
For the outline, there’s no need to do anything beyond the simplest indication of the seed pod’s shape. The details will come later.
Step 2: Underlayers
Underlayers help you plan what colours to use later, and they shine through slightly in the end for better lighting effects. Let’s start with a pale yellow because that’s the colour underneath any reddish fruit. Leave space for highlights.
Lightly apply purple to the shadow side of the seed pod, then use just the slightest bit of ultramarine to tint the highlighted area. Reflected light on fruit is not usually pure white, although it is very close.
Mix the yellow and purple to create the brown that you’ll use on the leafy parts of the fruit. Since the same yellow and purple are in the underlayer of the fruit, the image is already cohesive as a whole!
Step 3: Adding Depth
Use the same brown you just mixed, with less water, and shade the leafy parts. Use a sturdy brush like synthetic or sable to keep the lines crisp.
Step 4: The Fruit
Now, add some orange paint to the fruit. It helps to wet the page a bit first so that the blends come out smoother. Keep leaving the highlights blank, and watch the picture start to look three-dimensional already!
When you’re ready, drop in some darker orange to add more shading values. Let’s move on for a bit so that this paint can dry.
Step 5: The Stem
To give a botanical illustration more context, it’s wise to include the plant’s stem. Mix green into some of the brown from earlier, and you’ll have a nice realistic colour for the stem.
Step 6: Return to Shading
From here on out, the shading will involve dry brushing. This doesn’t mean that you should work with a completely dry brush and paint that isn’t even activated, but it does mean you are aiming for a slightly crumbly effect. Dry brushing gives you good control over gradients and blending while still laying down the colour at a high saturation.
Leave some highlights blank to showcase the sheen of this seed pod, and add dark orange to the rest of the area.
As you layer on more paint, you can gradually transition from orange to red by first mixing the two colours and then using red exclusively. With each layer, you’ll cover less ground, and therefore increase the range of light values in the piece.
Step 7: Subtle Texturizing
With dry brushing, you can add subtle texture easily by applying different amounts of pressure. By adding slight streaks of red, you make the seed pod look more tangible and structured.
Another thing you can do to even out the shadows is lift pigment with a clean brush. Use light scrubbing motions anywhere you want to lighten the colour and reveal some of the underlayers.
Step 8: Final Details
Now, take a step back from your piece and see what else it needs. I decided to shade along the stem with some brown to make it more consistent with the lighting angle of the rest of the picture. I also added more brown to the leafy parts on the end of the seed pod to give it more dimension.
Another thing I did was add just a tiny bit of a dark, cool red to the darkest areas on the seed pod. I wound up lifting it off for the most part, but some added colour was nice to have.
In the end, you’ll have a nice botanical painting! Remember to have patience and not add too much paint at once. If the picture doesn’t come out the way you picture it the first time, give it another go after a break and you’ll see an improvement. And if you’d like to learn from the best, check out Elena's 90-minute class!
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