Exercise Plants and flowers in coloured pencil

Aims of the exercise: Choose cut flowers in a vase, plants growing in a pot or growing naturally in a garden, a park or in the countryside. Make the plant the focal point of the drawing but draw the background and be certain to relate the plant to it. Draw on A2 size paper. Before starting experiment with different methods of blending colour pencils in your sketchbook. For the drawing to help me to explore ways that coloured pencils can translate detail.

What I experienced and what I learnt from that:

Completed 07/10/12. This has been a very challenging exercise and I must admit to being extremely relieved to have finally finished it. I had to take a weeks break between the preparatory work and the doing the final drawing which also delayed things. A tremendous number of hours went into this drawing and I really have got to find a way of speeding up but despite taking so long with this exercise it has been a worthwhile experience.

I started on the 23/09/12 with trying out shading with Derwent Artist pencils, Derwent Coloursoft pencils and Derwent Inktense pencils, A4 sketchbook p.90 (please see figure 1).

Figure 1
Experiments with different types of blending with coloured pencils

I do not, at the moment, get on with the Derwent Artist pencils at all, the colours appear weak and though they layer well the end result still seems very insipid which is probably more to do with how I am using them rather than the pencils themselves. I certainly need more practise with these and will need to try different paper surfaces. The coloursoft pencils lay down good colour, and layer well while the inktense pencils appear to show the grain of the paper most, are difficult to build subtle changes in tone when dry and the change in colour is amazing between wet and dry. Smudging with a finger didn’t result in much colour moving, with all the pencil makes, but did result in a subtle change to colour and texture.

The next day I worked on understanding how the lily flower head was made up and how to draw it so that it appeared 3D. I used positive and negative shapes to help me to draw it but struggled to show the natural flow of the flower and my drawing was very stiff, A4 sketchbook p. 91 (please see figure 2).

Figure 2

I had not realised until I tried to draw one that lilies have 3 large petals and 3 narrower petals, it is fascinating what I see once I start drawing it. Next I tried to map out how the petals relate to each other. I struggled to visualise the parts I couldn’t see, particularly the positional relationship of the stamens to the stem. Following these attempts I found the book The Manual of Flower Painting Techniques by Sue Burton  p.39 helpful for understanding that Lilies are trumpet shaped flowers and how the various ellipses and central line fit into this. I also found Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project by Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan  pages 31-33 helpful with understanding better about observing and recording the foreshortening of petals.

Figure 3

Unfortunately at this point I had to take an unavoidable break from the exercise and was unable to return to it until the 30th. By this time my original flowers had died and so using a Stargazer Lily I tried to use what I had learnt from above to sketch it. I found keeping the  ellipses of the trumpet in mind very helpful but still struggled to capture the curve of the petals well and with one petal in particular I found it very difficult to understand what I was seeing, A4 sketchbook p.92 (please see figure 3). I find visually I get a block sometimes. I tried drawing a flower head from the side and found the foreshortening in this more challenging than a face on view. I over shaded when I experimented with shading the petals and ended up with too little variation in tone – a good lesson learnt as this then flattened the appearance of the petals. I tried a couple of small drawings of two different plants and found that these took me longer than the whole A2 drawing was supposed to take, A4 sketchbook p.93 (please see figure 4).

Figure 4

Not a good start, as they really were small drawings. I was also starting to worry so much about being behind with this section of the course that the hyper critical part of me was going into overdrive. To try and tackle that, as I know from previous experience that it can paralyse me, I grabbed some copy paper and just drew loads and loads of flower heads as quickly as I could from all directions. I tried not to care what they looked like and so that I didn’t start getting precious over them I scribbled over the piece of paper, both sides, until it was full and then screwed it up, threw it away and started on a new one. I actually found this extremely helpful. It really had been a very bad week and I’m not sure which did me more good, scribbling away like mad without caring or screwing them up and batting them into orbit!

Next day I started the A2 drawing using some freshly opened Lilies rather than the Stargazers as I was afraid that the Stargazers wouldn’t last for the length of the drawing. Once again I struggled physically with drawing on paper this size but did manage to find a way of working that made it slightly less painful than previously, at least initially, so that was helpful. Drawing directly onto the A2 paper, I found that as I was enlarging what I was seeing, it was only by constantly using the positive and negative shapes and relational positions that I was able to keep things in proportion to each other, otherwise it was very easy to start drawing some sections smaller. I couldn’t see the colour pencil well enough for the initial drawing so used an HB graphite pencil instead. I am really amazed how much plants move. The initial outline drawing took me about 3 hours to pin down and there had been a surprising amount of movement in that time. It was only afterwards I realised that I had jumped straight in without doing any thumbnails and had only checked possible setups through a camera. I will need to try and ensure I do not do this another time as it would have helped me to spot sooner the compositional errors I had made.

I used Inktense pencils for the smaller areas such as flowers, leaves and vase, and I used Coloursoft pencils for the larger areas such as table, background and shadows, as I felt using the water brush on the larger areas could have made them look patchy. The flowers and leaves had multiple layers of pencil with a waterbrush gently washed over each layer. This building up of layers took a very long time and initially I was finding that between thinking, planning and layering time it was taking me at least an hour to do an individual petal or leaf. I realised that I was becoming overly pedantic and tried to relax a little more and just try to enjoy exploring how to capture the detail and textures with the pencils. It was at that point that I started to enjoy the drawing much more and enjoyed and got better at judging the change in colour between dry and wet. I concentrated on the plant first as that was changing all the time. I had previously made a colour chart of the Inktense pencils, showing the colour both wet and dry, and found this invaluable for helping me to choose the colours as there is such a difference in colour shift between wet and dry. The colour can be rubbed out to a certain extent when dry, although a ghost of the mark is left, and how strong that ghost is depends on the colour used and the pressure used to make it. Once the waterbrush has been taken over them the colour becomes permanent once it is dry, although recently wetted colour can be lifted by rewetting to a certain extent and some colour can be lifted when dry by going over with a rubber, lightening, but not removing the colour. Despite using what I had learnt in my sketch book, I overworked the first petal that I did leaving too little variation in tone, and was careful to try and not make the same mistake with the remaining petals, and to remember to leave some of the paper white to show the lighter areas and help to have some life in the petals. I was also too heavy handed  with the left hand stem and needed to try and lift colour to rectify that. I found as the drawing progressed I was better able to pick up on the subtle colour changes within the plant and then actually needed to emphasize these on the drawing to bring more life to it. I purposely did the vase pattern fainter so that it did not fight for attention with the flowers. Initially, I had a checked tea towel under the vase and had sketched it in for the initial drawing and on one of the petals on the vase had started to record the reflections of the pattern in the vase, however, on one of my many stepping back from the drawing I felt it competed too much with the rest of the setup so rubbed it out and just kept the bud. The exercise had suggested stopping from time to time and placing the board a couple of metres away so that I could see the drawing afresh and I found this really useful throughout the time I spent on the drawing.

By the time I completed the flowers and vase I came very close to leaving the background blank, despite the exercise stressing the importance of relating the subject to the background. Pain levels had reached, by this time, such an extent and I had already taken so long that I literally couldn’t face trying to take the drawing any further. By the next day I managed to feel less of a wimp and had managed to get my sense of humour back and started working on the background. I kept it purposely plain as I wanted the shadows to play a main part in it. I initially used two shades of blue with a circular motion to give a variable but quite smooth background and then hatched the shadows in using three colours for them. This stage again took a long time. I was, however, very pleased to complete the drawing (please see figure 5). When I looked at it in daylight the next day I could see that it was actually quite insipid and that I needed an increase in tonal variation throughout the drawing. I used the colours a little more bodly to increase contrast within the plant and a little on the vase, then reworked the background with a deeper blue, this time using hatching. I also reworked the table, increasing the range of browns I used, before finally reworking the shadows with the same blue that I had used for the background. I felt that the drawing was now looking less insipid and it was surprising the difference the darker colour behind the flowers made and that overall I had made an improvement. I felt that there was still much that could be improved but I couldn’t work out how best to do this at this stage, and hopefully as my skills improve I will get better at understanding what I need to do. Rather than continuing to fiddle I decided to call the drawing finished (please see figure 6).

Figure 5
Initial completed drawing

Figure 6
Completed drawing after changes


Things that I feel have gone well: I feel that the drawing is reasonably accurate, the Lilies appear reasonably 3D and there is a sense of depth to the drawing. I feel that I did manage to improve contrast when I reworked some aspects of the drawing and I think that the colours I have chosen work reasonably well with each other. Things that I feel need improvement:  I need to become bolder with my use of media. The drawing still lacks contrast, and though better than originally, it would benefit from a wider range of tones. My composition could be much improved. Drawing the vase and flowers larger so that they filled the paper more and so that there was less expanse of table would have helped, also doing more with what was on the table surface would have helped. I kept the background reasonably plain because I wanted the shadows to be part of the background, but also because I did not know how to include a background so that the flowers were not overpowered. I need to continue to look at as many still lifes as I can to see how various artists have tackled this, and the tonal range required to do this successfully. Originally I lit the arrangement from the right but I couldn’t see my drawing well enough so I had to have an overhead light on as well. This gave a better spread of shadows but using two light sources made it difficult to work out the direction of the shadows so I used just used the overhead light in the end. A stronger directional light from the side, however, would have helped to increase contrast.

Looking at the drawing objectively I can see that overall it is a very boring drawing, poor compositionally and tonally and with a lot more bad points than good. I am however really pleased to have completed it and I feel that that is an achievement in itself, as it took real perseverance to get to this point. I found working with the colour pencils very slow, and perhaps A2 size paper, colour pencils and me do not go together well at this stage, I need to become much more skilled and freer at using them so that I can bring more life and depth of colour to my drawings in this media and to become less pedantic using them. I need to continue to work at developing tonal control and compositional skills. I have found a very helpful website on coloured pencils at www.penciltopics.co.uk which I am looking forward to exploring further. The gallery is inspirational and shows well the stength and depth of colour that can be achieved with this media. When I look through half closed eyes at any of the drawings in the gallery I can see the structure of the drawings in light and shade whereas if I do the same with my drawing there is much less contrast and it is very hard to see the structure. This is an aspect that I really need to try and get on top of and the only way is to keep practising and keep looking at as many drawings as I can and how they have tackled this. Hopefully at some point some of it will rub off. I also need to start exploring other papers and how these respond to the media.


Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project, Rosie Martin and Meriel Thurstan

The Manuel of Flower Painting Techniques by Sue Burton


This entry was posted in Part 2 Observation in nature, Project 5 Drawing plants and flowers. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Exercise Plants and flowers in coloured pencil

  1. Jane says:

    Chris, your blog is very good, I have enjoyed browsing, and I am very impressed with your drawings!

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