Review: 02/11/21: I have done some digging, so that I am able to create a botanical label for this plant, and its name is Echinopsis candicans. It is native to Argentina and is of least concern to conservationists, with a stable population.

The above image shows my completed watercolour illustration of a cactus flower from Kew. Overall, I am very pleased with the illustration, especially the petals, but there is much I can improve on. I am not too disheartened by this however, as this was my first attempt at watercolour botanical illustration, and although there is much room for improvement, there is also much in it which I can be proud of, as it was a real challenge for me to work in a completely new way.

The centre of the flower is probably the area I am least happy with, due to the lack of accuracy and detail that I was able to incorporate into the illustration. The stamen and central parts of the flower were incredibly delicate and extremely difficult for me to represent in watercolour – in spite of the new (much finer) brushes that I purchased and used here. One big thing that I learnt from trying to paint this central section last, was that in fact I should have built it slowly up at the same time I built the detail in the petals up – as it would have allowed for the laying of base colours, which I could have then added the details on top of afterwards, maybe using a white acrylic or similar.

I found the experience of using the watercolours for the illustration much more difficult than one and ink – in part I think, due to the lessened control that you have when you use watercolours – although my second pen and ink drawing was significantly better than my first, having studied professional pen and ink illustrations. I am hoping, therefore, that my experience will be similar with my watercolour illustrations, and that practice will make perfect. I also now have the book Botanical Illustration from Life by Isic Güner, which I am hoping will further aid my progress.

(The reference image and drawing side-by-side)

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As I discussed previously, I have come to the conclusion that my project needs an outward identity – one that I can refer to it by to others, and not having to keep adding “degree project” onto the end of.

I have decided on the name: Endangered Plants Index  as it is a functional and descriptive name, which allows interested parties to instantly understand the purpose of the project.

In design for the logo, I wanted to echo the other large design element of my work: the botanical labels, and as such, I have chosen to use the Arial typeface (which is the typeface used for my botanical labels), creating a consistency between the design elements of the project.

As you can see here, I have made two versions – one with white text, the other with black. This is again a link to the botanical labels (as black and white are the two colours used in the labels), but also a practical measure, as there are times (such as when I put the label on the ruler which I will display next to the illustrations) when the logo will need to be displayed on a dark/black background.


I haven’t finished my watercolour yet, but I wanted to do an update post about how far I have got with it. I have progressed a lot since I last posted a photo of it, and have come to the point where I think it is time to stop adding details on the petals. This is – as I have said before – something that is very hard to do, as the temptation to just carry on adding detail in indefinitely is very great – especially given the level of texture that is in the petals of the flower. However, if I were to continue adding the details, it would just muddy the final effect, and I would (as I did with my initial pen and ink drawing) completely lose the definition that I was aiming to create in the first place. This has already happened a few times, I feel, but as it is my first watercolour illustration and I am using it purely as a learning experience, I am pleased and proud overall.

I know that there are several elements that aren’t perfect – I need to work on the tones (the white sections aren’t nearly as pure as they are in the photograph, due to my need to create shadow and texture with darker tones), the detailing (again, here I need to buy and use new, finer equipment – namely brushes – that will allow me to achieve much greater levels of detail with much greater accuracy than I am currently achieving) and, as I have already said, not adding too much colour or paint to a section (there were several instances when I wished that I hadn’t added such a dark tone to the painting, but this has helped me to understand why the layering of diluted layers is so crucial).

The only section left now is the centre of the flower, with the stamen, which is the most detailed and fiddly part (which is part of the reason that I have left it until last) due to the small scale.


When learning botanical illustration, my first (and main) port of call is researching the works of other illustrators and attempting to emulate the detail and precision that they achieve in their works. This is a very different way of studying artworks to what I am used to – as I am usually in an analytical state of mind – looking to analyse meaning and contextual influences to a work, artist or movement – but as a botanical illustration of a flower/plant is just as it ‘says on the tin’ (an illustration of a plant/flower in scientific detail), I must instead analyse the way in which the piece was created – the materials, processes and level of detail.

One of the first artists I found when researching botanical illustration was Lucy T Smith – an artist employed by Kew as one of their botanical illustrators ‘in-house’. Like myself (and I think this is one of the things that draws me to her practice particularly), Smith creates watercolour and pen-and-ink illustrations which, while having very different properties, are both used for scientific purposes. I am choosing to focus on her watercolour paintings here however.

The above watercolour is of Nepenthes attenboroughii completed in 2016, and the level of detail achieved is just astounding. For me, the most life-like areas are the leaves, which although clear that it is an illustration, also have the very clear structure and three-dimensionality that can only be achieved by a real, 3D object. Although I am used to shading and creating the illusion of three-dimensionality in my work (portraiture requires that you create the illusion of the human form on a flat page), doing so without overwhelming the overall work with colour will be challenging. I fear that the biggest challenge will be learning (as I did with pen and ink illustration) that less is more with shading – although the multitude of colours will no doubt aid the portrayal of structure on the page. It is very clear to see how the colour has been built up in ever darker layers – this allows you to build up the areas of light and dark very carefully and deliberately – slowly building the shadows and detail of the structure over time, and not overwhelming the painting the vibrant colours instantly. The head of the flower is also a key example of this – as the structures here are tiny – with each tiny flower having to be recorded and their structure and three-dimensionality conveyed to the audience – without it being a clouded and bland mess. This could only be achieved through the application of several, progressively less dilute, layers of paint – allowing areas of light (the ‘base’, flat areas where the structures of the flowers are not) to remain pale, while the flowers themselves having colour slowly built around them – delineating their structure and allowing the viewer to take in every single one, if they so desired.

The brush work and brush-strokes here are also exquisite – the minute details are recorded accurately and without mistake on the page – and where you are able to see the brush strokes (as they explain the shape, texture and structure of an element of the plant – for instance the surface of the leaves), they are absolutely tiny and do not confuse the surface – rather are placed with absolute precision. This is also a key area for me to work on – to start with, purchasing new, much smaller and finer brushes, but to practice painting the minutia with absolute precision, and being able to convey texture and shape with my brush strokes much more effectively. In my work currently, I am attempting to achieve this, but it unfortunately looks a little heavy-handed, due to the size of the brush and my inexperience.

It is important to note that this painting was a commission and to used for scientific purposes – as this allowed Smith more licence with the background detail (the imagery in the background would never be included in a scientific illustration as it confuses the clarity of the illustration – although I like that you are able to see where the plant comes from in the painting – it allows the viewer greater understanding of the plant than could be achieved without).

So, in summary – my two main take-aways of technique from this painting are:

  1. Shading and building structure with colour – this is something that will come with practice, as building layers of dilute colour is not a watercolour technique that I am used to using (in the past, when using watercolour, I have always just added the colour and vibrancy that I wanted to the page, and then added smaller details in darker colours – as can be seen in the two images below), but is one that I will have to get to grips with in order to be a successful botanical illustrator.
  2. Brushes and brush technique – I desperately need to purchase smaller and finer brushes, that I am able to control with greater accuracy and create much finer detail with in my work – in order to accurately and faithfully record the minutia of detail in an endangered plant.

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It was always my plan to learn watercolour botanical illustration in addition to pen and ink illustration – as it has the advantage of conveying the living majesty and details of a plant – for example, it’s colours and small anatomical details that get lost in a herbarium specimen.

In order to do this, I am using the Beginner’s Guide to Botanical Flower Painting by Michael Lakin, as a starting point for how to build up the colours (rather than launching in with vibrant ones), how to draw flowers from sight accurately etc. I have also ordered a range of other books via Interlibrary Loans, but as of yet, none have come in.

As a reference image for my learning watercolour botanical illustration, I have chosen this image of a cactus flower that I took when I visited Kew in September. Unfortunately, as with my first pen and ink drawing, I forgot to capture the name of the cactus in particular – however, it is a good plant to practice on – particularly due to the variety of textures and colours (particularly the whites) visible.

For this drawing, I haven’t attempted to draw to scale – as I have no way of measuring the original size of the flower – therefore I focussed purely on the accuracy of my drawing instead – attempting to capture every detail of importance (of the flower only) – no matter how small. I have since learnt (from watching the start of this video by Lucy Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=3No8SaxkxL8 ), that drawing the outline directly onto the paper is not the best idea – as this means that you will be left the pencil outline once paint is applied. It is instead a much better idea to do your drawing on a different piece of paper, trace that onto the watercolour paper, and then carefully outline your drawing with a very small amount of dilute paint oil a very fine brush, removing the pencil outlines as you do so, so that no pencil lines remain.

I then (following the guidance of the book) started to mix the colours that I would need – starting with the outer petals. This meant finding a base colour (which, fortunately for me was the same shade of Crimson Hue that I had in my watercolour palette), and then diluting it several times over, to provide the dilute paint from which to build the layers of colour up from.

Finally I was able to start painting – which first involved glazing each individual section and petal with clean water – thus creating a kind of barrier for the paint (when applied) to sit within, and hopefully to prevent bleeding of colours from one area to another, which would obviously ruin the accuracy of the image. The following images show the process of my adding and building the colour:

The final image shows the stage of the painting which I am currently at – trying to build shadow, texture and structure through the application of steadily darker hues. This is also now where I am finding the short-comings of the brushes that I have currently – they are not nearly fine enough to allow me to create the level of detail needed in the illustration, and really, to continue, I will need to purchase some more, much smaller ones. In spite of this, however, I am pleased with the progress that I have made so far – although it is far from perfect, it is much more detailed than anything I have painted before and much more accurate too.