Thursday, August 31, 2023

Portrait as Botanical Drawing


8/19/23 Kaila (Polychromos pencils on Derwent Lightfast paper)

In the lead-up to my grand-niece Kaila’s first birthday, I got it in my head to make another portrait of her as a gift – but this time in color instead of graphite. I admit that this idea came more as a personal challenge than as an inspired gift. Although I practice a lot of gestural portraits from Earthsworld’s photos, and I’ve even done a few slightly more finished portraits, I usually choose unrealistic colors. The main reason for that is that I’ve been daunted by the thought of mixing realistic skin tones – it’s much easier to pick purple and orange and use them as temperature and value tones. It was time to push myself: Make a full-color portrait – and of a baby, at that! (This challenge had masochism written all over it.)

This is the only blocking-in I did with graphite -- a Mitsubishi
Hi-Uni 2H pencil -- to place the main features. I don't like to use
more graphite than this because it can smudge when colored pencil
is applied over it, muddying the colors.

The most experience I’ve had with blending delicate color gradations has been with botanical studies in Crystal Shin’s workshops. She showed us how her incredibly light touch with pigment application combined with blending a staggering number of colors was the key to her exquisite work. Using what I learned from her, I decided I would approach Kaila’s portrait as if she were a botanical drawing.

Unlike Crystal, who might use more than 20 pencils to blend colors for a single floral petal, I used only 10 Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils for this drawing, plus one black Verithin for some of the finer hairs. Although I more often prefer softer colored pencils, I chose hard Polychromos because I wanted that delicate baby skin to appear as smooth as possible, which would be more difficult to do with soft pencils that can reveal even a fine paper tooth.

In addition to the color blending task, I treated this portrait as a botanical drawing in one other way. Traditional botanical illustrations are always made to highlight the specimen. While some shading is used to show the forms of petals or leaves, illustrations generally have no cast shadows and are also without backgrounds, context or anything else that might detract from the studied specimen. Treating Kaila like a botanical specimen, I could avoid the tedium of filling in the background or drawing her clothes.

I find that almost every polished drawing that I spend some time on always has an early “ugly” stage that makes me want to scrap it. But if I just push past that point, I usually get to the stage when it’s acceptable to me (and often, lately, I even like it by the end). With this portrait, that “ugly” stage lasted for a good three-quarters of the way through. Something was wrong with it, but I couldn’t figure out what. I kept pushing and pushing, hoping I wouldn’t have to scrap it after all the time I had already put into it. Then I suddenly saw that the eyes weren’t right. Once I fixed them, the rest of the drawing was easy.

As hinted in my post about Derwent Lightfast paper, I used that paper for this portrait, which was a bit of a risk because it was new to me, but I was entirely happy with the choice. The paper’s warm tone rather than cool white was an especially good choice.

Pencils and other tools used for this drawing.


  1. Wow! What a wonderful portrait! Her skin just glows and what a sweet expression.

  2. Oh, Tina, this came out beautiful!!! I love the smoothness and color of her skin and the sheen of her hair being pulled up into that tiny ponytail! They must have LOVED it!! Your choice of materials was spot on!!

    1. Thank you, Joan! I'm happy with the way it came out (after all that stress ;-) )!

  3. Awww! She just sparkles and what could anybody do but smile right back So charming :)

    1. Thank you! She is definitely a charmer in person, too!


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