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ISM System :Botanical Illustration Lesson

Botanical Illustration with Watercolor Activity

Audience: 1) botany and art students 2) watercolor artists and students 3) upper elementary to highschool students and their teachers.

Objective: Students will understand that the anatomy of flowers as depicted in watercolor drawings is used to illustrate written descriptions, and from the hands of an artist, is an artistic composition as well. Acting on this understanding, students will produce an accurate and artistic watercolor drawing of a plant.

Museum Web Sites:
MuseumLink Illinois Prairie Plant Guide
Herbarium Collections Photo Gallery and Database.

sketch paper, hard pencils, and eraser
tracing paper
painting paper
watercolors and brushes
tissue knife or razor blade to dissect plant material
fresh plant material (picked or purchased); or field trip to a garden, prairie, meadow, etc.

Motivation: Read to students this description of an aster species from a Drake University Web site.

“Flowering heads have from 8 to 30 (average 12) blue to lavender, or white, ray flowers that surround a central cluster of dark lavender disc flowers. Involucral bracts are long and lance-shaped, with green tips. Leaves attach individually. The lower leaves are broadly heart- or arrowhead-shaped, and have winged petioles. Upper leaves are narrowly lance-shaped and attach without petioles. Lower leaves measure up to about 15 x 6 cm, and have conspicuous teeth. Upper leaves measure up to 4 x 1.5 cm, and have either smooth margins or some inconspicuous teeth. Stems and leaves are covered with very small hairs. This species occurs in woodland settings from September through October. Native to N. A.”

Ask how well students can visualize the plant from the description. Ask in what ways an illustration, either photographic or painted, might help readers understand the text better if they are unfamiliar with the species. Discuss how accurate a scientific drawing needs to be. How can an artist achieve accuracy when drawing from live plant materials? Are there tools available, such as ruler, compass, grids to help artists be accurate?


  • Students will choose a plant and draw it with a hard-lead pencil onto tracing paper. They will measure and plan an arrangement of a plant pose onto it to fit all the parts while maintaining a pleasing composition. Use botanical sources for examples. All their erasers and corrections will take place on this sheet until their drawing is satisfactory in scale, proportion, shape, and accuracy.

  • The second step is to darken with softer lead pencil the lines of the drawing on the BACK of the tracing paper. This will act as carbon paper for transfering their drawing to final paper. They will place the tracing paper over the final paper, use a hard, sharp pencil to draw over the main lines of the drawing again, transfering a light line onto the lower paper.

  • Students may experiment with painting washes, shading, and textures with small brushes. Use scratch paper of the same weight and texture as the final painting paper. Consult botanical drawing reference sources for examples and techniques for creating washes, shading, and textures.

  • Painting begins in watercolor with small brushes and light washes. Any white areas should be unpainted white paper. Build up layers of wash. Let surface dry before adding textures. A fan or hair-dryer can speed drying.

1) If using live plant materials, it will not be possible to show all phases of the plant simultaneously (bud, bloom, fruit), and it may not be possible to show roots if the plant has been cut or is in the ground. Adapt your drawing to show only those parts visible. Pay attention to the number and types of leaves, petals, the length and girth of stems (internodes), and colors. Consult leaf type diagrams and anatomy graphics.

2) Preliminary self-assessment: between the sketch and final drawing phases, students should compare their drawing of the identified plant to a written description of their plant, found either online or in a field guide. All the basic parts (leaves, stem, bloom) should appear. Check for accuracy, scale, and proportion.This written description can be used as label copy for their display.

Publication: Mat the finished paintings and display them with labels telling the name of the artist, name of the plant (common and scientific names), medium, date, and text description. Have student(s) create a wall panel describing botanical illustration that serves as an introduction for viewers at the beginning of the exhibit.

Assessment: Students should be able to explain the purpose and characteristics of botanical illustration, how their painting meets this purpose and these characteristics, and how a botanical illustrator is both a scientist and an artist. This assessment can be oral or written.

Illinois State Board of Education Goals and Standards Addressed:
Visual Arts: Goal 25
: understand the processes and materials of art
26.B.2d: Visual Arts: Demonstrate knowledge and skills to create works of visual art using problem solving, observing, designing, sketching and constructing.
Visual Arts: Demonstrate knowledge and skills to create 2- and 3-dimensional works and time arts (e.g., film, animation, video) that are realistic, abstract, functional and decorative.
26.B.5: Common for all four arts: Create and perform a complex work of art using a variety of techniques, technologies and resources and independent decision making

Science: scientific illustration as a career
12.A.1a: Identify and describe the component parts of living things (e.g., birds have feathers; people have bones, blood, hair, skin) and their major functions.
12.A.3c: Compare and contrast how different forms and structures reflect different functions
12.B.2b: Identify physical features of plants and animals that help them live in different environments

Blunt, Wilfrid and William Stearn. 1992. The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History. Dover Publications, Inc.

Saunders, Gill. 1995. Picturing Plants: An Analytical History of Botanical Illustration. University of California Press.

West, Keith R. 1996. How to Draw Plants: The Techniques of Botanical Illustration. Timber Press.

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