Planning A Botanical Illustration: Studies and Composition Planning  

This part of the course is going to take you through the process of planning and executing a botanical illustration as your first work towards your Portfolio. I will use one of my own recent examples to illustrate, Lessertia frutescens. You will also find several supporting documents on this page, some on basic simple compositions, composition rules and  leading up to Botanical Illustrations. 


Task 1. Select Potential Subjects 

You will begin by selecting a plant for your studies, you should make sure that you will have sufficient plant material to complete a full botanical illustration including dissections. it is also good if you can illustrate various stages of the plant and a dissection will be required. This might be plant that you have a particular interest in or something completely new. You must work with live plant material and not just photographs.The choice is yours, it might be a local wild plant, something in your garden or a potted plant. It's often possible to grow or buy potted versions, so not all of the work needs to be done in the field. Think about why you want to illustrate this paled and what is it that appeals to you.

Task 1. When you have narrowed down your plant choice to a maximum of three possible subjects, please email me with your choices so that we can discuss the best one for this illustration.


Task 2.  Photograph 

Photograph your specimens well and as soon as possible! We never know how long plant material will last and it often changes when we take it indoors, you really can't have enough reference photos because in reality you will probably have to finish the painting from reference material. You can continue the plant as it grows or matures  (for example as fruit develops). 


Photograph all parts: from the whole plant to sections of plant, individual flowers at different angles, front back side views, buds and spent flowers, leaves, from back and angles, images showing how leaves connect to stems, stems etc. Also, dissections, seed pods and roots if relevant to you illustration - don't dig out of the pot or grout though unless the root is a feature, such as in a plant where its important e.g. such as the tap root of a dandelion or maybe it have aerial roots. Use your common sense on what you need to photograph, this varies from plant to plant. It's not prescriptive and your research will help you to decide on which parts of the plant are important but it's better to have more reference than not enough.

How to Photograph

It's actually possible to take decent reference photographs with a good smart phone, such as a recent iPhone model or you can use any point and shoot camera. They only need to be good enough quality to view screen but they must be in focus, so good light is required. I also try to take many photographs of the plant in its outdoor habitat in good lighting. Indoors make sure you have good directional lighting on the subject from a lamp, which is consistently from the same side. For my photographs I used and iPhone10 XR and a Canon EOS M10. Knowing how to use the phone or camera features really helps.  

If you have a good DSLR camera and know how to take better images that's even better but you don't have to learn how to be a professional photographer to be a botanical artist.  


Case Study Lessertia frutescens (formally named Sutherland frutescens and prior to that Colutea)

I took in excess of 150 photographs of this plant! because I knew I wasn't able to take it home with me, therefore my photographic reference and sketchbook studies would be vital in completing the painting at home in the studio. A small selection of the images are shown in the slideshow. 

Lessertia frutescens in situ
Lessertia frutescens in situ

I searched several locations to document this plant and also was given a plant cutting by botanic garden at Kirstenbosch. They gave me a license to take a cutting away.

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Seed pods
Seed pods

The plant often has seed pods at the same time as flowers, which means there is little time between flowering and fruit development.

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At the same time as completing the photographs, I make detailed sketchbook studies

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Lessertia frutescens in situ
Lessertia frutescens in situ

I searched several locations to document this plant and also was given a plant cutting by botanic garden at Kirstenbosch. They gave me a license to take a cutting away.

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Task 3. Carry out Research and Make Sketchbook Studies 

Research the Plant 

To find out about a plant requires some detective work. At the same time as photographing, begin some research. Make sure that you know exactly what the plant name is, this can be complicated especially when plant are re classified. I generally begin by Googling the Latin name, and look for a plant description first, this usually tells us about the geographic range, habitat and about the morphological features but the amount of information that you find online can be variable. If your plant is a cultivar rather than a species it may be a little more complicated. Asking a grower or nursery can be useful as can the RHS plant finder. 


If it's a well known plant that's also a native you can use a good native plant publication. Having a good description of the plant is most useful to compare with your specimen, for example you might not be certain how many stamens are typical and a description can help you to confirm this. 

I use a variety of sources, online, books and botanic gardens and herbariums, most botanic gardens are helpful if you contact them. You don't have to do this but it really does help. Edinburgh and Kew in the UK have very large herbariums with specimens from all over the world but so do the biology departments of Universities, often collections are digitised online. Many botanical artists, such as those at Kew have to work from dried herbarium specimens to make black and white illustrations, such as those used in Curtis''s Botanical Magazine and at the Smithsonian herbarium specimens are an important resource for the botanical artist. How much research you do is up to you. Some artists do very little but I recommend doing enough to give you a good understanding of  you subjects. 

Herbariums online- here are just a few 


Kew: over 7 million specimens! Just type in the plant name in the search to see if they have the plant 

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh - over 3 million specimens

Smithsonian Institute - also has botanical artwork illustrations

New Zealand 

Australias Virtual Herbarium

Chinese national Herbarium - you'll need google translate 

RHS Plant finder - great for cultivated plants too


Thats just a few and there is a wealth of information about plants online if you know where to look 


Other Illustrations and images 

Look for  illustrations of the plant, the website is useful for this purpose

Here is the link for the results for Sutherlandia frutescens - note that I had to search the previous name


 There are many resources with illustrations of plants,  this will also give you an insight on how other artists have illustrated plants in the past, which can help you to formulate ideas about composition early on in your planning process. 

Sketchbook Studies 

From your research, reference and plant specimens you should be able to make comprehensive studies of your plant in a sketchbook or study page format. Some plants require more work than others. This work should include line drawings, watercolour sketches, notes, measurements of all plant parts as well as colour samples. You can complete the work at the same time as carrying out the research. Such studies do not need to be perfect there are two main components to sketchbook studies:

1. To collate sufficient visual and written material from the plant and and research to enable you to understand it. For example you should understand all of the plant parts and how they fit together 

2. To carry out sufficient practice, paint areas of the plant to enable you to know how you will approach your final painting, you don't need to make a perfect painting but merely to work out colours and techniques for the final painting. 

Case Study: Lessertia frutecscens 

The photographs show my study pages, which were completed in a Stillman & Birn 8 x 10 inch zeta sketchbook.


  • You can see colour samples, where I worked out which colours to use, I painted these on the paper that the final painting would be on as colours differ on the paper because of the paper properties and base colour.  I paint swatches of each primary colour and of the mixes made with them. 

  • Sections of the plant were drawn and some parts painted. All all parts were measured  (prior to this I had made detailed measurements of the herbarium specimens) This shows how the plant grows in terms of leaf arrangement on a stem and flowers, its very important to understand the morphological structure of the plant. 

  • I included a dissection and deconstructed flower, this enabled me to understand all of the flower parts and the arrangement of the reproductive parts within the flower. 

  • I made drawings of the developing seedpod and the fully developed seed pod. In addition a dissection of the seedpod revealing the seeds as well as individual seeds. 

  • I worked out my approach to painting for all parts, this is a plant with fairly small parts with lots of tiny leaflets and flowers, it's very easy for such parts to become lost or flat looking so light and shade is all important. You can see have I looked at the effect of light and shade on the tonal drawings of the leaflets, bottom right,  which a a deep 'v' shaped profile. The light was coming from the upper right. Light and shade was also important on the flowers and this was something that I would need to be extra mindful of in the final painting. Light and shade and variation in colour is how we create separation between parts so that the don't merge into one another. Colour is changed by light, often in the light the colour is less saturated and cooler, nearer to the centre colour is more saturated and in the shade it is less saturated but darker in tone, often it is warmer too, but the effect of warm and cool can vary depending on the light source. 

  • I discovered that the best approach to the flowers, which are a bright orange/red was to use an underlying yellow in places, this makes red more vibrant. In the small leaflets I used an underlying pale blue,  also in the seedpod an underlying blue was used on the shiny areas. No allover washes were used at all and much of the work involved painting small areas, then building colour using dry brush on a dampened area. Thereafter fine detail was added using a small miniature brush. 

At this point I felt I have enough information and reference material to enable me to undertake the painting of the plant and the next stage would be to develop the composition.  

Send your completed sketchbook studies and some of you reference photographs (maximum of 6) to me once complete 

Preparing the Composition 

When you have completed your study page this should give you some understanding of how you might compose your painting or drawing because you should now be well informed about the subject. There are a number of ways of deciding on the best composition, I am including a documents to accompany this section with tips and exercises on composition, the exercises are not assessed but intended to guide you with producing your own composition. Here are some key points to consider:

1. Understand your Plant your study page should mean that you understand your plant but now you need to consider which parts you want or need to include. For a true botanical illustration you must tell the story of the plant and should include as much relevant information as possible. This means that you need to understand the morphology of your plant and how it fits together. You don't have to make strict botanical illustrations though but should be mindful to include sufficient aspects of the plant to create an informative, accurate and aesthetic representation of the plant.

2. ​Orientation make sure that the orientation is typical for the plant, for example is it a tall plant that grows upright? - if so it needs to be a portrait shape, whereas if its a sprawling plant, it might be better as a horizontal landscape format - let the plant lead your decision. Think carefully about how the plant might fill the white space. In the example of Lessertia frutescens shown in the example, the plant has upright growth with branching stems but I didn't want a stiff looking composition, so I decided on two branches positioned in a way that fills the space in a complimentary way, whilst staying true to the growth habit.


3. Positioning multiple component parts  You can use guidance such at the Rule of Thirds, where the space (paper) is divided into a grid of two equally spaced horizontal and two vertical lines. the points where the lines cross can be key focal points. Also, staggering components is important to make an attractive composition. 


4. The white space is just as important as what you paint on it, never cramp a painting and work with paper that is larger than you need - remember you can cut it down later but you can't make it any larger. Decide where parts are going at the outset and don't just cram in dissections as an afterthought - this can work but can also lead to badly balanced compositions. Also consider the white spaces within your composition, avoid holes in the centre and stand back and view from a distance, 'holes' can be created by white flowers in the centre too so extra care needs to be taken. Avoid what we call 'kissing parts' this is where one part meets another in such away that it creates odd white spaces within the composition. Always check for 'kissing parts' and consider the option on moving to miss completely or to pass behind or in front so that there is no confusion about what belongs where. 

5. Odd or even numbers?  When deciding what to include you need to balance the number of component parts, odd numbers, such as 3 and 5 blooms are generally better than even numbers for the key features of a composition,  although two components does work, so it's not an absolute rule, there are no absolute rules, there is only guidance and you will always find exceptions. Keep in mind that you always have to be botanically true to the plant, going back to point no. 1 - if your research is sufficient this shouldn't be a problem. If you are wondering why odd is better than even, its because of out binocular vision, we naturally pair, so for example 4 flowers creates less visual stimuli than 3 or 5 - this is called the Rule of Odds. That does not mean that everything has to be in odd numbers - it only relates to the primary features of a composition, so perhaps 3 main flowers with two buds is good because the buds are secondary. Also, do not include too much repetition, blooms should be at different angles to create interest. 

6. Colour and Tonal Balance are important considerations, think about how the composition is 

balanced in terms of weight. View it from a distance to see if it looks balanced or do some areas appear too bold and others too weak, this is a particular consideration with pale flowers that have dark leaves, the flowers will be your key focal points so you don't want them to look lost, you will need to strategically play with the arrangement to create a balanced composition.

7. Review and Revise Always take time to do this, redrafting is nearly always necessary so don't rush into a painting without due consideration. I can redraft a complicated lay out 20 times before being satisfied and even then have been known to re start it if something crops up that doesn't look right. 

One of the biggest mistakes artists make is to rush into a painting with out sufficient thought and planning, so allow time if you don't it may be more luck than judgement but often lack of preparation is usually clear to see with errors, particularly in more scientific work. 


Herbaria specimens
Herbaria specimens

Herbarium specimen at RBGE are very useful for measurements and information. At Edinburgh they had three books on my plant, including Type specimens

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Herbarium specimens
Herbarium specimens

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Sketches and Notes
Sketches and Notes

Rough sketches and notes made a the RBGE herbarium, from preserved specimens

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Herbaria specimens
Herbaria specimens

Herbarium specimen at RBGE are very useful for measurements and information. At Edinburgh they had three books on my plant, including Type specimens

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sutherlandia sketchbook 1.jpg
sutherlandia sketchbook 2.jpg