Saturday, 12 February 2011


Last week was actually a two-part bonanza lesson. Fresh from our dabbling in seasonal remedies we went straight into the sharp end of the stick in botanical illustration.

Jacqui Pestell, Botanist, illustrator-extraordinaire and RBGE lecturer arrived from the Diploma class laden with reams of paper, pencils, rulers, rubbers and, yes, sticks. Placing giant pelargonium leaves in watery jars along the table in front of us, she then took us through a succinct lesson in elementary drawing techniques for botanists.

The tricks are quite simple:

·         Position plant to see front, back, stem, and joins so as to tell the most information.

·         Tell a story showing different aspects of the plant’s life cycle.

·         Prepare specimen without altering natural structure of the plant

·         Draw flower, side and full view, a section, a cut-through and seeds.

·         Use a sharp HB pencil. Keep an emery board to the side.

·         Sit straight and anchor your elbow to release the wrist.

·         Applying pressure on the pencil gives tonal gradation

·         Look at the main characteristics of the plant

·         Use a ruler to measure specimen to determine how many cms long the main stem is, where it bends and where the big leaves are.

·         Use angles of pencil and ruler to inform line

·         Look at overall shape and inner detail

Now botanical illustrations adorn most bedrooms, loos and the halls of Kew, they sometimes make it to a coffee table book and copious jars of old fashioned cold creams sport their images. By definition, botanical illustration is part of scientific inquiry, so cannot find favour in the category of ‘true’ art (let’s leave Tracy Emin out of this line of thought for the moment). We can therefore deduce that this art form must easy and so accessible to all – even a team of blossoming Herbologists…..

But from the moment Jacqui stopped demonstrating and we lifted pencils to make simple outline drawing of the pelargoniums, the class fell to pieces.  It took some of us 10 mins to draw one line, others (no names here) used more rubber than lead in their compositions. Some masterpieces covered 4 square inches and others moved to the recycling bin with alacrity.

In good old classroom style, the minute Jacqui left the room to attend to her real illustrators, the suppressed moans and sighs of frustration formed words and turned the air nearly blue, only some serious pencil sharpening, tea and positive therapy in the form of semi-hysterical laughter kept us to our task.

The results?  Remarkable for their verisimilitude, don’t you think?

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