Thursday, January 30, 2020

Drawing Plants with Accuracy

1/28/20 Exercise completed. The most accurately drawn produce I have ever
attempted! We were instructed not to do any shading in this exercise --
only vary the line weights to suggest depth.
During the long, dark winters, I like to sink my teeth into a meaty, challenging class at Gage Academy. This year, I’m trying 10 weeks of botanical drawing, taught by botanical illustrator and painter Kathleen McKeehen. With an emphasis on learning to draw plants with scientific accuracy, it’s still an art class, and McKeehen balances precision with individual expression.

The first week, we learned measuring techniques with twigs and branches
as our subject. 
The first class focused mainly on learning to take precise measurements of specimens to draw them at exactly life size. The techniques were not too different from others I’ve learned in drawing classes – holding up a pencil or ruler to estimate an angle or gauge proportions, for example – but I’ve never measured a drawing subject with this degree of precision before. It felt tedious and time-consuming at first, but I got the hang of it fairly quickly.

It’s important to note that although McKeehen stresses measuring for accuracy, she encourages us to take measurements after making tentative lines by observation only. It’s not a mechanical connect-the-dots method, she said. We’re training our eyes to see by drawing first, measuring to check how accurate we are, and making corrections as needed. (This was a huge relief to hear, as I’m not interested in learning methods of mechanically reproducing something I’m looking at; that’s easy enough to do with software or an old-fashioned projector.)

Before measuring the artichoke, we made a few gestural
sketches from observation to try different views.
This felt like "normal" sketching to me.
By the second class, we applied the measuring methods we learned to an artichoke. It was fascinating to understand how the structure of so many botanicals – a pinecone, tree branches, the center of a sunflower, an artichoke – is based on the Fibonacci mathematical sequence (which appears in other natural structures also, not just plants). A few days ago, an artichoke was nothing but a bunch of petal-like leaves that get dipped into a mayo and lemon juice dressing. But as soon as I understood the spiraling pattern that the Fibonacci sequence creates, I could see it! The bracts (as I learned they are called) are not random.

For the first several weeks, we will be focusing strictly on line drawings only. It was hard for me not to add shading to the finished exercise (top of post), but that will happen soon enough. The class is very challenging in a way that I have not experienced before, and I’m enjoying it immensely. It feels especially satisfying to make studies from life, not photos.

(By the way, this is not the season to be drawing artichokes . . . holy cow, was it expensive! I was going to buy two so that we could each have one as an appetizer when I finished the drawing assignment, but I told Greg we are sharing this one!)

I made a rough drawing of the artichoke on tracing paper
while taking precise measurements to check.
Once I has happy with my rough drawing, I
traced the final lines to another sheet of tracing paper.
Then I quickly transferred the drawing to
good paper to finish it (top of post).


  1. Forget artichokes - cheaper to draw a fir cone. :)

  2. This is the time of year for such exercises. I do wish instructors would stop talking about 'training our eyes.' Training an eye is like trying to train a camera to take better photographs. BUT, if you realize that you're actually training your brain (visual cortex) to be able to estimate lengths and angles, it's easy to understand why the try-measure-correct approach is the right one since that's how we train our brains to do everything.

    1. I think she used the term colloquially because her explanation made it clear that we were really training our brains.

  3. Sounds like an interesting class. I don't know if I would have the patience to do all the measuring.

    1. I didn't think I would either, but once I learned the method, it didn't take as long. I get it over with quickly so that I can move on to the fun part!


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