16 June 2015


This will be a series of blog posts under the name of "Illustration Project".

As I work as a freelance illustrator, I thought it would be a good way to inform you on what I do, how I work on specific projects and what materials I use.

The first one I want to introduce was a wedding invitation card illustration. The couple wished for a very specific arrangement of flowers, with a total of twelve different kinds of plants to be featured. All flowers are representative of different countries, which I found a really neat idea! (Though it did make the composition quite challenging...)
These were the flowers in question. To get an understanding of each specimen, I started with some rough studies in pencil. These sketches were based on various reference images and were meant to help me learn how to draw each one of them from imagination for the actual bouquet illustration.

...possibly I kind of went overboard with these, but yeah. The next step was finding an arrangement for the flower bouquet itself. I worked on first sketching out simple geometric forms (here the previous studies came in handy, as I had a sufficient understanding of the dimensions of each flower to mash them all together without further photographic references) then added details once I had the general composition sketched out to my liking.

When drawing a bouquet, or flowers in general, it really helps to remember that they are geometrical objects. Their petals are arranged in a certain way, they have varied textures and thickness, are in some cases resilient, in some cases 'just hanging' downwards. Many how to draw flowers instructions focus on the colors and patterns, but when going for realistic drawings as in botanical illustrations, it's important to approach flower like anything else one would draw: An object in space, with height, width and depth.

The brown tint was added in Photoshop for better visibility, as the real sketch is a more smudgy pencil mess. After approval by the client, I went on to trace the drawing with my light table. Using a very hard (4H) pencil with as little pressure as possible, I recreated the sketch on watercolour paper. As these lines were eye-hurtingly light I could barely see them, much less take a picture of them, we'll have to skip that step. 

On the new sheet of paper with the nearly-invisible pencil drawing, I then added some first layers of colour. Mostly cool-toned greens, blueish and grayish shadows and hints of scarlett for the flowers. Hints of colour, I repeat, HINTS. My four year old nephew was visiting at the time and he felt a great need to help me paint as I didn't seem to progress at all. I declined his help and kept on layering shades of colour all over the flower bouquet to get a general idea about the lighting and forms involved.

At this point, it helps to ignore the pencil outlines of the individual flower drawings and focus more on the overall shadows and lights.

Some real colours happening! This may seem excessively slow, but while working fast with watercolours works really well for certain styles of illustrations, the hyper-realistic colours and details in botanical illustration are much easier to achieve if one takes it one baby-step at a time. It's easy to ruin an illustration by being impatient, so I took my time while listening to an audiobook...

...or two. Maybe three. Good times.

While adding the 'real' colours (as opposed to just shadows) I focused primarly on the cooler tones in the beginning. Even colours like red have warmer (orange) and cooler (pink) varieties, and while it is possible to make any existing colour on an illustration warmer, it's much more difficult to make it colder afterwards. The warm hues will always shine through, no matter how much blue-ish shades one layers on top. 

As visible in the image above, I was focusing on the big show-stealing flowers in the center first. I had to get them right or the whole illustration would seem off, as they would be what catches the eyes in the end. I did continue to layer greens and blues for shadows all over the bouquet, though, to profit from the drying intervals.

Don't forget that not only the individual flowers, but the bouquet as a whole is an object in space! So all the usual rules of painting perspective apply: The flowers and leaves in the foreground of the illustration have sharper edges, those farther at the back soft edges. Warm colors dominate the foreground, while the background is more cool-toned even at the end. This helps to trick the eye into seeing the flower bouquet illustration three-dimensionally.

When I came to this point, I knew (finally!) that I was on the right track. I had colours more or less everywhere, some focus points in red and blue, the acacia and gold rain to break up the overall composition so it wouldn't look to strict, and lots of white flowers to contrast with the shadows. 

In botanical illustration, most work doesn't lay in the details the viewer sees immediately (like filligrane leave patterns or flower petals) but in getting the basic structure and colours correct in the beginning stages. So, from that point on, changes get more difficult and one can just hold on thight, keep on layering and hope for the best! (and keep some white guache on hand for rescue missions!)

After some more time (we're talking hours, not minutes, if you weren't sure) I got to scan the illustration in 600 dpi. There was lots of tweaking in photoshop involved, as most of the nuances got lost during the digitalization, and the client had wished for some really high-saturation, colourful "slightly kitschy" variations. 

(Also, the illustration is made on A3, while my scanner can only go up to A4, which meant some doctering to combine the two halves of the illustration after scanning.)

One of the finished digital versions. 

To optimize the illustration for printing, I went in with my graphic tablet and did some overpaint-layers (set on multiply, normal, soft light and other settings according to colours) to bring together some of the elements that fell apart due to scanning. 

I - and more importantly my client - was very happy with the result and the illustration will now function as invitation card and for other decorative purposes at the client's wedding. 

Hope this gave you some insight into a veryyyy sloooow botanical illustration process. Take your time, prepare well and have a good audiobook on hand!


  1. Really beautiful illustration your clients couldn't be anything but pleased. This post was so helpful and had so much valuable information not just for drawing flowers but attacking any drawing project