Post by: Maravillas Boccio

When we look at the fantastic illustrations of the 17th-19th centuries, we often wonder how they were made. If we look closer, we will discover that all these illustrations have a common feature: the existence of two fundamental aspects that go hand in hand without the one weighing more than the other: art and botany, or botany and art, it does not matters The balance between these two sciences is what allows us to obtain these results that we like so much.

Firstly, when you look at a plant, you see a lot of things. You see leaves everywhere, branches without any apparent sense, flowers hard to understand where they come from and fruits that have appeared after the flowers as if by magic. It may seem like a real mess, like a chaos that we have to draw and we do not know how to face it. It is not an impossible mission.

To draw a plant you have to know how to observe it, know it and understand it. Despite its apparent disorder there is a very strict order. The vegetable world is governed by patterns that are constantly repeated. But to capture its internal organization you need some basic ideas of how plants are. You have to look at the branch, the shape of the leaves and their arrangement with respect to the stem. We must observe the flowers: how they are, what shape they have, if they are solitary or grouped, if they look up or down, how many stamens there are, every part color, etc. In the same way we must do it with the fruits, with all the strange forms they usually present, if they have horns, if they open spontaneously or not, etc. And so we can continue with the other parts of the plant, with all its characteristics. In this way, if the plants are carefully analyzed, the initial chaos will become a coherent reality, the result of a long biological evolution that will progressively become more comprehensible. Only then we will be able to find out what elements are those that define a plant and can not be missing in our drawing.

Botanical concepts

In order to make a drawing we must know that we are drawing and therefore we must know, in this case, how are the plants.

The science that studies the plant world is Botany. The part that deals with the classification of plants is the botanical taxonomy or the systematic botany. The taxonomy divides the set of vegetables into units or groups called taxa and the unit of reference is the species.

The scientific designation of the species taxon is formed by the union of two Latin names, such as Rosmarinus officinalis, which is rosemary. The first corresponds to the genus and the second is the specific one, which generally refers to some characteristic of the species, for example: luteus (yellow), acaulis (without stem), officinalis (related to the pharmacy office).

Figure 1. Anthericum liliago (lily of San Bruno). Tall grass with fasciculate root of the Liliaceae family. The leaves are long, flat and narrow. The flowers come together in grapes and are white, bright and with membranous bracts. Live in the sunny mountain meadows.


One rule to keep in mind is that any name written in Latin should be in italics.

When a plant is observed, one is fixed above all in its global aspect, which is given by its dimensions, type of branching and orientation of the branches. It is what is called the habit of the plant. When a whole plant is drawn, then, its habit is represented. Figure 1 shows the habit of Anthericum liliago (St. Bruno lily) and names different parts of the plant.

The main parts of the plant are: root, leaf, flower and fruit. As an example, we will briefly analyze the leaf in order to capture what you need to know in order to complete a drawing.

The leaf is a laminar organ of limited growth and that is born from the stem. Its main function is to obtain energy for the plant. The superior face part is called obverse and the inferior part, reverse.

The main elements of the leaf are: the petiole (part of the leaf with a cylindrical form that unites the limb with the stem), the limb (leaf blade) and the nerves (each one of the beams in the form of threads which are found in the leaf or in any other organ of a foliar nature). Often there is a main nerve (nerve that crosses the leaf following its middle line) and secondary nerves (nerves that are born in the main nerve).

There are different types of leaves in relation to their parts characteristics. According to the leaf blade or limbus, we can find a simple leaf (when the leaf is not divided into leaflets) or a compound leaf (when the leaf is divided into leaflets), and according to the general shape, lanceolate, orbicular or linear. In relation to the margin of the blade there are several types: whole, serrated, sawn, lobed, etc. Figures 2 and 3 show the main elements of the sheets.

Figure 2. Alnus glutinosa (alder). Slender tree of the Betulacea family. The leaves are simple, irregularly rounded and with a sinuous margin. The male and female flowers are separated on the same foot (monkey tree). Both are grouped in catkins of different sizes (the feminine ones are smaller and pineapple-shaped, and the masculine ones are long and hanging). It is the riverside forest tree par excellence.

Figure 3. Sambucus ebulus (EVOL). Tall grass with rhizome and robust stems belonging to the Caprifoliacea family. The leaves are opposite and composed of 5-9 leaflets with the saw-like margin and the asymmetric limbus. The flowers are actinomorphic, pentàmeres, white and gathered in inflorescence. The fruit is a black berry.


We also find a great diversity in the arrangement of the leaves in the stem. Opposites are found on both sides of the stem and verticillates are born, in a greater number of two, on the same level of the stem. They are loose when they have a certain arrangement around the stem and can not be classified as opposite or whorled. The basal ones are in the base of the plant, often in rosette if they are very close and they are radially arranged. The caulinares are in the stem.

There are some organs that can sometimes be confused with leaves. They are bracts, which differ because of their armpit leaves a flower or inflorescence. In addition, the bracts can be very colorful.

Composition of the sheet

A sheet can be drawn for different reasons: for a commission, to accompany a text, because we feel like it, etc. In any case, the drawing must reflect the reality. This is an idea that we should always keep in mind when we work on plant illustration.

Figure 4. Plate with three species of the Sorbus genus. The genus Sorbus belongs to the Rosaceae family. In Catalonia there are five species. They are trees with small white flowers and fleshy reddish fruits. The species are differentiated by leaves and fruits.


In order to design a leaf you have to know the plant and that is why a very intense previous work must be done: you have to study, go to the field andnobserve the plants in detail both directly and with a magnifying glass (a very useful tool to see the smaller parts). The more you know the plants, the better the drawing will be. It is essential to detect their characteristic features to reproduce them.

The drawing has to be planned a lot, since all the characteristic features of the plant must be taken into account and reflected in the drawing. It should represent the branch, the layout of the leaves and their nerves (if necessary you must count how many nerves you have), as well as the distribution of the flowers with the number of pieces and fruits, in addition to studying the texture of each part.

In addition to the technical part, the artistic part must be taken into account. Once the sheet is finished, it should be balanced. There can not be a very tight part and another empty part. If there is a main element, you must start with it and from there the rest of the elements are distributed.

Figure 4 is an example of how the illustration of a plant can be made. Three species of the Sorbus genus appear on the slide, each represented by a fructified branch. In the distribution of the different drawings its form has been taken into account. There is no central element. The three drawings have a similar weight. For aesthetic reasons, the species with simple leaves has been chosen to be placed in the middle and those with compound leaves at the ends to achieve a balance between the upper and lower parts. If we make an imaginary line that unites the fruits of the three branches, we will see that an “S” shape gives movement and creates a sensation of instability to the drawing. This gives volatility to the sheet, causing the branches do not replace and preventing heavy elements decompensate the balance achieved. The empty spaces are used to include the name of the species and the tittle of the sheet.

Techniques in the plant illustration

Traditional techniques

The main support to make plant illustrations has always been paper, with varying texture and grammage depending on the technique used and the result you want to achieve.

Figure 5. Arisarum vulgare subsp. simorrhinum (friar Cugota). Small grass of the Azaleas family located in the margins of maquis and forests rather shady. The leaves have a heart or an arrow shape. Its “flowers” are very singular; The general aspect is like a friar’s hood, which is actually a greenish or reddish bract called espata that surrounds the true flowers. These flowers meet in a herbal inflorescence called spadix that has a thick reedish ball shaped axis. The “flowers” are hidden under the leaves, so that the peduncles are shorter than the petioles. The fruits are green berries.


The main techniques are: the pen and water techniques (watercolor and gouache).

The pen is the most used technique in plant illustration. The drawing called “black” is the most used in scientific works due to the precise stroke of the pen, which allows you to add many details to the drawing. Figures 1-4 are made with a pen.

Water techniques (watercolor and gouache) are widely used in the botanical illustration with spectacular results. Figure 5 is a sheet of Arisarum vulgare subsp. Simorrhinum made in watercolor. The lower part shows how the “flowers” are actually a bract (spata) that surrounds the flowers (spadix). They are hidden among the leaves. It is a characteristic of this plant. In the upper part of the sheet there is a drawing of the spathe with the spadix and next to it a drawing of the ripe fruits with spathe rests.

Digital techniques

Little by little new technologies are gaining ground to traditional methods and illustration is not an exception. There are more and more illustrators who use digital techniques to make their drawings. The fact of working digitally has many advantages. In the first place, the workspace is considerably reduced, you need a computer and a graphic tablet or a tablet and a pencil. On the other hand, the work will always be clean and there is no problem of damaging the paper. All this does not prevent from doing a previous sketch for a digital drawing with pencil and paper as in any traditional technique.

Figure 6. Alnus glutinosa. The description of the plant can be found in figure 2.


In the market there are many applications to make illustrations. Due to the great offer, it is not easy to choose an application that suits the needs of everyone. I use two: Affinity Designer and Procreate.

Affinity Designer is a very powerful drawing application with many tools to achieve an excellent result. You can make vector drawings, bitmap or a mixture of both. Until now there was only the computer version for both Mac and Windows. This summer the iPad version came out. Figure 6 is a branch of Robinia pseudoacacia made with Affinity Designer using computer and graphics tablet.

Procreate is an application specific to Ipad. It is very simple but with enough tools to get good results. It is essential to use the pencil. Figure 7 is a sheet of Melilotus indicus made with Procreate.

To learn more about plants illustration, consult the book:

Boccio, M. 2013. Illustration of plants. Ed. Dumalis.

Figure 7. Melilotus indicus (small flower melilot). Grass of the family of the Papilionacea that grows in more or less humid meadows, often on top of brackish soils. The leaves are composed of three oblong and dentate leaflets. The flowers are small pale yellow and gather in cluster inflorescences. The fruit is a rounded legume with transverse wrinkles that at maturity is straw colored.