Friday, November 5, 2021

An Illuminating Botanical Drawing Workshop

Prunus serrulata Lindl leaf (Japanese ornamental cherry).
I used museum putty to stick the leaf directly onto my
drawing paper, which made it very easy to draw because
the leaf was at the same angle and size as my drawing.

Only a few weeks before the global pandemic became a thing, I had the good fortune of taking a weekend botanical drawing workshop in person with Crystal Shin. This remarkable botanical artist showed us her painstakingly delicate techniques in applying colored pencil to achieve stunning hues and luminosity. Last weekend I took advantage of another opportunity to learn from her, this time on Zoom, and with a focus on one of my favorite subjects: autumn leaves.

A huge benefit of Zoom is the ability to watch her demonstrate techniques with a video camera pointed right over her hand. I recall the frustration of the previous, in-class experience when we all crowded around her desk, taking turns peering over her shoulder – sometimes literally breathing down her neck! In these socially distanced times, that scenario wouldn’t even be possible, so I was grateful for the Zoom opportunity.

Compared to the previous workshop I had attended, she spent more time discussing color and color theory – how a hue is relative based on placement and context, temperature, glazing, and – one of my primary interests – optical mixing. She also discussed different ways to achieve a range of values using analogous and complementary hues. As examples, she showed paintings from masters and explained how they used analogous or complementary colors to increase emotions or enhance their compositions.

My working palette

While we typically think of the autumn foliage palette as yellow, orange, red and brown, Crystal surprisingly blends in ultramarine, indanthrene, lavender, dark purple, various greens or even pink to capture subtle nuances. As she pointed out hues she could see in her leaf samples, I marveled at how highly honed her color-eye is! (It must be like a wine connoisseur detecting all those “notes” and “bouquets” in a merlot that I’m tasting, and I’m thinking, “Huh? I don’t taste any butter. . . maybe I didn’t cleanse my palate enough.”) I became motivated to practice seeing more subtle nuances of color.

Since fallen leaves retain their vibrant colors and shapes for only a short time before they dry up and crumble, she recommended that we take multiple reference photos of our model leaf while it was still fresh. She showed us photos she had taken of leaves under varying lighting angles, direction and intensity to increase the contrast or heighten the drama.

Although we did have the opportunity to send her images of our work in progress for live feedback, it wasn’t quite the same as a “real” classroom setting where she frequently walked around to offer suggestions and answer questions on the spot. While some students chose to work on their drawings during the Zoom sessions, which Crystal encouraged, I opted to focus on simply studying her demos that were ongoing simultaneously. Both live and prerecorded, the demos gave excellent views of how much pressure she was using, how many layers she was applying, and which colors she chose for various effects. I took advantage of her live attention during those demos to ask questions specifically related to what she was doing at that moment. It was immensely helpful in understanding her methods.

One thing she demonstrated was particularly illuminating to watch: To avoid a hard, visible outline around the leaf, she “pulls” color away from the edge with a slightly rounded pencil stroke to show the direction of the leaf’s edge as it starts to curl away as it dries. (You’ll see in my finished drawing how I attempted this.)

My first fragment of work

I chose a Japanese ornamental cherry leaf (prunus serrulata Lindl) for my workshop project. Since my attention was on the demos instead of working on my drawing during class time, I didn’t get much done the first day, but I worked out the basic local color palette. Submitting this tiny fragment of work (at left), I asked for suggestions on which hues she would use to develop the leaf’s form. Based on her suggestions, I tested some blues, purples and a little pink. (Ultimately, I rejected the blues because they became too green in my mix, but a couple of purples were ideal for shading.)

The fragment of my work shown is an example of her working method: She applies color to one small area, leaving the rest of the drawing blank, developing the color palette to about 80 percent of completion in that one area before moving on to another. This method surprised me, as I tend to apply one color evenly throughout an entire drawing, then move on to the next layer. The advantage of her method is that she is able to see how the cumulative palette is working, and she can make adjustments in successive areas if needed without having to fix the entire piece. Since each area is only 80 percent complete, she still has room to make adjustments when it is near completion to make the drawing cohesive. That was very eye-opening to see and do!

Following her method, I worked on about a quarter of the leaf, then a second quarter.

Feeling confident about the palette, I worked on the second half at one time.

Technical notes: Unless an instructor recommends a specific brand, I tend to choose tried-and-true materials in classes so that I’ll be familiar with them when learning new techniques. This time, though, I felt wild and crazy: Why not use both a pencil and a paper that I haven’t used much? I chose Derwent Lightfast pencils, which I have lately come to appreciate and wanted to give a serious workout, and Stonehenge hot press.

Lightfast pencils are very soft, and I found myself sharpening constantly to retain the necessary sharp points. In fact, I sometimes used a sanding block (also recommended by Crystal) to get an even more refined point for some details. For a piece like this, I think I still prefer Faber-Castell Polychromos, which has a much harder but highly pigmented core. (Faber-Castell is, in fact, Crystal’s favorite brand, along with Caran d’Ache Luminance and Prismacolor to fill in colors that are missing from F-C’s palette.)

Stonehenge hot press paper, which has a light tooth, is a dream to work on with colored pencils. I prefer both it and Stonehenge Lenox Cotton over Strathmore Bristol Smooth, which used to be the paper I reached for when I made a refined graphite or colored pencil drawing.

Shown in this post are a few phases in my drawing over the course of the four days I worked on it. I’ll show you the finished drawing tomorrow when I talk about some other thoughts I’ve been having about botanical drawing and how it relates to urban sketching.


  1. What a great post, Tina. I wish I could attend a workshop like this. Your leaf is wonderful and makes me want to break out the Polychromos and give it a try.

    I chuckled when I read your comments about taking photos in advance due to the short lifespan of a fallen leaf. I've just done an oil painting of one and by the end I was working more from memory than from reality because the maple leave had curled so much.

    1. Thanks, Larry! I think you're painting leaves like an urban sketcher, too. ;-)

    2. By the way, Larry, this workshop was on Zoom, so you CAN attend! If you're interested, email me, and I'll send you the info to get on Crystal's mailing list.

  2. Wow, did you capture that beautiful leaf! I’m looking forward to learning more about your new process, definitely eye openers!

    1. Thank you, Cathy! I learned so much from Crystal!

  3. You did a wonderful job capturing the autumnal colors of the leaf. Her class sounds like it was awesome and that you learned a lot. I think you were right to watch her demos closely rather than follow along while working on your own piece. You seem to have absorbed a lot of information!

    1. Thanks, Joan! This blog post was my way of taking notes so that I wouldn't forget what I learned. I got so much out of her demos!


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