Today’s Q&A Wednesday post includes a mini tutorial on how to draw plants. Here’s the reader’s question to get us started.
I’ve been wanting to draw some bear cubs I saw playing in a meadow with their mom. I just can’t figure out how to do this meadow, with all the clover and daisy flowers interspersed. I was working on the little bear, and just sort of gave up because I didn’t know how to do a good job with the plants.
Do you have any advice? I am getting a lot out of the tutorials, but haven’t seen anything that addressed this problem.
Thanks for any help you can give.
I want to thank Pam, who gave me permission to use her reference photo and drawing to illustrate this post. So let’s begin by taking a look at both.
This is the photograph Pam took and is using for a reference.
Here’s Pam’s drawing so far.
Pam has already made a couple of wise decisions.
First, she cropped the reference photo to focus on the bear cub. By doing so, she removed a lot of area at the top and bottom of the composition.
Secondly, she started the process of developing those background greens by layering a base green over everything but the cub and the flowers.
So kudos to Pam for getting off to a good start.
As frustrated as she is, what I think Pam really needs is a little encouragement. She’s done a good job starting the flowers around the bear cub, so she doesn’t really need advice about how to draw plants.
But let me make a couple of suggestions that will help Pam finish this piece.
How to Draw Plants in Colored Pencil
In studying Pam’s photo and drawing, it’s easy to see she’s trying to solve two problems. How should she draw the background, and how should she draw the foreground?
Yes, both areas have the same flowers and grass in them. But in order to make the drawing look right, the two areas need to be drawn differently.
Drawing the background is fairly easy. There isn’t much detail. Your mind tells you there’s a lot because it knows the same flowers and plants are in the background that are in the foreground. The foreground plants look difficult, so the background has got to be difficult, too. Right?
But look at just the background. There really isn’t very much there. Just shades of green and dots of white.
So begin by putting down a base layer of green with a couple of light-medium-value yellowish greens. Pam can continue with the green she started applying in the drawing.
Layer that as smoothly as possible with light pressure, a reasonably sharp pencil, and whatever strokes give you smooth color. But don’t worry about filling every paper hole.
Next, layer a one or two medium-dark value greens over the same area. Use the same pressure.
When you have enough color on the paper, warm up a piece of mounting putty by rolling it between your hands. Then shape it like this or roll a small piece into a ball.
Press the mounting putty onto the background here and there to lift color and create light spots. Those light spots should look like blurry, light-colored flowers.
If you make too many, fill in some of them again. If they don’t look light enough, add a little bit of very light color to them. Don’t add white. That might make them too bright!
My Test Sample
The left side shows two warm, light greens layered one over the other. The right side shows two additional, slightly darker colors layered over them. Then I added more layers of one of the lighter colors.
After that, I used mounting putty to lift color randomly. This is the result.
I discovered you don’t need much of a point on the mounting putty. Using a small piece rolled into a ball also works.
Another discovery was using a small “edge” of mounting putty to make elliptical shapes. Flowers are seen from different angles in nature, so don’t make them all round in your art.
This test is on Bristol paper and is nowhere near finished, but it gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.
If I were doing this for a “real drawing” instead of a test sample, I’d do a few layers of greens, then lift color, then do a few more layers and lift more color. That would create greater variety in the blurred shapes, and result in a more natural appearance.
Here’s the reference photo cropped to show the foreground. I confess that looking just at this gives me pause, too. I can certainly understand Pam’s difficulties!
But is it really that difficult to draw?
Remember, the focus is on the bear cub. The meadow is the “stage” for the bear cub. Unless hyper-realism is your goal, these parts of the composition should not be as crisp and clear as the bear cub.
And look at that crop above. Even in the photograph, the flowers in the foreground are also blurry in appearance.
What does that mean? Drawing them in sharp focus makes more work than is necessary.
Don’t forget that Pam has already made a very good start in this area. She doesn’t have that much more work to do. (That’s why I think Pam really needs a little encouragement and direction.)
So here’s what I’d do.
First, I’d stroke some highlights into the stems and leaves with a very light yellow, cream, or light, warm gray.
Then I’d layer the lightest green Pam has used so far over all of the middle ground and foreground. Use light pressure and sharp pencils with whatever stroke works best. A lot of artists recommend circular strokes, but I also get good results with carefully applied directional strokes. Work around the flowers and the bear, but glaze green over everything else.
Then continue developing the plants that have already been drawn. Darken the shadows, work on the highlights, and pay attention to the edges. Use light pressure and sharp pencils.
The shadows don’t need to be real dark, so alternate the darker green with one of the lighter greens you already used.
Finally, finish the flowers by working on their shadows and highlights.
A Word of Caution
Don’t get too detailed with these parts of the drawing. They should look real, but they shouldn’t draw attention away from the bear cub.
To make sure they don’t, do most of the detailing described above around the bear cub. As you move away from the bear cub, soften the details and don’t add as many.
If the foreground looks too busy after you’ve finished, glaze one of the base greens over it to soften the edges.
There’s One Way to Draw Plants
There are two keys to remember when it comes to deciding how to draw plants in a composition like this.
First, study the reference photo. How do the plants look? Are they in sharp focus or are they blurred? How much detail to do you really see?
Second, decide how you want to draw the scene, and determine how much of the detail you need to draw to get the look you want. In most cases, draw only as much detail as necessary to create the look you want.
Pam made a good start on this by cropping her reference photo first. That left a lot fewer plants to draw.
Now all she needs to do is layer color and add just enough detailing to finish the scene.
Got a question? Ask Carrie!
Carrie, I found your recommendation here to be particularly helpful, especially for the flowers in the distance. I forget that the eraser/putty can be such a helpful tool, that it has more uses than correcting mistakes. Thank you for that reminder.
I’m glad this article was helpful to you.
You are right, of course. We tend to think of mounting putty and erasers as tools to fix mistakes, but they are also great drawing tools.
Thank you for this tutorial. I struggle with landscapes and flowers but want to get better.
Landscapes can be difficult to do, but I’m excited to here you want to improve on them. Have you tried sanded art papers, yet?
Thank you, Carrie.
I have tried sanded paper for animal portraits and like it a lot, but haven’t tried a landscape on it. I don’t have any at present but will get some and try. I presume a tinted paper would be a good idea, rather than white.
I’ve done several landscapes on sanded art papers, with good results. I’ve used Fisher 400 (400 grit, August in Kansas,) Clairefontaine Pastelmat (Anthracite, Spring Storm,) and Lux Archival (Blazing Sunset.) They all work wonders. I’m currently working on a landscape on 240 grit Uart (very coarse) and am thrilled with the results.
The Lux Archival is white. All the others were sand paper color, but I have assorted colors of Pastelmat.
Personally, I prefer white but that’s because I like starting with an umber under layer, then glazing color over it. That method works best on white paper.
However, I can see the advantage to using colored papers, too. Spring Storm is on dark gray Pastelmat and it turned out very well.
Thanks for the information, Carrie. I think I will get a trial pack of Pastelmat, or similar, which will contain different colours. I will let you know how I get on.
I’d love to hear what you think of the Pastelmat. I bought an assorted 9×12 pad to try. It cuts down to smaller sizes quite easily.
I have a question. I use plastic & wooden rulers toi draw straight lines when necessary and oftentimes they leave this ”gunk” on the paper I’m drawing on. I have tried wiping them off with both isopropyl alcohol and mineral spirits but this ”gunk” [which I’d guess is a combination of colored pencil wax/oil, lead from drawing pencils and maybe some eraser material] is tough stuff to get rid off. It’s real gummy & dirty leaving terrible marks that don’tb want to erase cleanly. Any thoughts on this? Thanks! P.S. – I recently got declared cancer free after my year long [plus] battle with colon cancer. God is Good!
I have no suggestions for cleaning your rulers.
But I do have a suggestion for drawing straight lines. I keep index cards around for drawing straight edges when I don’t have access to a ruler. Any type of paper that’s thick enough also works. It’s cleaner and when it gets dirty or ragged, you can trim the ragged or dirty edge and keep using it.
Good idea but I often use rulers.especially when drawing houses or other buildings so I can keep things pretty well measured correctly.