Illustrating Nature: How to Paint and Draw Plants and Animals

Illustrating Nature: How to Paint and Draw Plants and Animals

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by Dorothea Barlowe, Sy Barlowe

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The thrill of recapturing scenes from nature can translate into a rewarding career or an invigorating pastime. Both professionals and hobbyists will benefit from this expert, step-by-step guide, which shows how to draw every aspect of nature, from lush swampland vegetation to shy forest dwellers and even prehistoric creatures.
You'll find expert discussions of a


The thrill of recapturing scenes from nature can translate into a rewarding career or an invigorating pastime. Both professionals and hobbyists will benefit from this expert, step-by-step guide, which shows how to draw every aspect of nature, from lush swampland vegetation to shy forest dwellers and even prehistoric creatures.
You'll find expert discussions of a variety of media — pencil, watercolors, oils, acrylics, scratch board, and pen-and-ink — along with practical advice on how to choose the best method of portraying a particular subject, especially for book or magazine illustration. The authors also consider the difficulties of combining artistic effect with scientific accuracy in rendering color, texture, and form. Helpful individual demonstration projects carefully guide the reader toward mastery of specific techniques.
Enhanced with over 400 illustrations and a wealth of tips and suggestions for improving style and presentation, this book is a rich and engaging resource for amateurs and professionals alike.

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Dover Publications
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Illustrating Nature

How to Paint and Draw Plants and Animals

By Dorothea Barlowe, Sy Barlowe

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1982 Sy and Dorothea Barlowe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15523-4



It is very difficult for the artist, whether he is a beginner or a professional, to walk into an art-supply store and not feel the excitement of being surrounded by tools that offer so many enticing possibilities. The colors gleam chromatically from glass counters; there are unused and coded pencils stacked in endless rows, little cases of steel-blue, silver, and gold pen nibs with their new black enameled penholders, row on row of colored inks, and pads of paper of every conceivable texture, hue, and size. Even the lowly eraser in its cardboard box has a special pristine dignity. Can we ever escape from this idyllic environment with only the things we truly need?

The needs of the nature illustrator could run the full gamut of art supplies, from simple pens and ink to complex oil paints complete with easel and other accoutrements. As you become more and more accomplished in one particular medium you will want to acquire everything needed in the way of materials in order to further your accomplishments. However, contrary to the fears of the beginner, all that is really necessary on the first lap of the journey are four new pencils—an H, an HB, a 2B and an 8H—a good 14" × 17" tracing pad, a spiral sketch pad, a kneaded eraser, and a pencil sharpener. The aim at the outset is to start sketching and recording nature as you see it, for you are really just beginning to perceive the natural world anew and to make notes of what you observe.


One soon learns that pencils are graded from 9H to HB in a progressively numbered arrangement—9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, and so on—in descending order—and then from HB to 6B. The H's are all hard leads, with the highest number being the hardest pencil, and the B's are the soft leads, growing softer as the number gets higher. An H pencil is at the top of the hard-pencil pyramid—hard, but with an edge of softness—and HB, an excellent pencil for most purposes, is a medium lead—neither too soft nor too hard (see diagram). In doing a careful drawing, the use of an HB, F, or H pencil provides you with enough control to prevent smearing during the necessary trial-and-error changes without causing you to dig into the tracing paper or sketch pad, unless too much pressure is put on the pencil.

Ebony pencils or similar types are very black and very soft and make a perfect sketching pencil for you to take with you when you go out in the field.

Another variety, known as the Wolff's carbon pencil, has much the same range of hardness as the ordinary pencil, but produces the look and texture of a charcoal drawing. It can be sharpened to a fine point in a pencil sharpener, and it is an easily controlled medium worthy of experiment. It also has the virtue of making the artwork look quite handsome when reproduced.


Pencil-crayon is another medium that many people enjoy. It has the advantage of color but can be handled with the ease of a drawing pencil. There are several kinds to be found in the art-supply store. Prismacolor pencils come in a beautiful range of colors and are soft, allowing large areas to be covered without too much difficulty. The harder Mongol pencils have an entirely different texture but they also offer a large range of colors. They are much easier to sharpen in a pencil sharpener than the Prismacolor and can readily be used for fine detail. The pencil-crayon does not necessarily have to be confined to sketching; many excellent drawings with beautiful, intricate detail and strong color have been done in the past by professional artists who find the pencil-crayon a gratifying medium to work with.


We have always used plain tracing paper for our preliminary sketches. A 9" × 12" or 14" × 17" tracing pad of ordinary art-store quality is economical, but the serious artist should acquire a vellum tracing pad of a similar size, to be used when completing final sketches. There will no doubt be problems to iron out in the rougher layout, and since the tracing vellum has a harder and less resilient surface that can withstand the physical abuse better than the common tracing paper, it is wise to use it for the final sketch. Why use two tracing papers? It is a matter of simple economics. Tracing vellum is a more expensive paper. To use it as a throwaway seems extravagant. Ordinary tracing paper, being much cheaper, is therefore more expendable. Tracing vellum also retains its dignity, so to speak, even when it has been passed from hand to hand and traced through several times. Another fine feature of tracing vellum is its ability to take ink. Its surface begs for pen lines of beautiful quality. It can be placed over an original sketch for inking if time becomes a problem, as it so often does. Reproduction of an inked drawing from vellum is not uncommon. Most printers do not object to finished art presented in this manner as long as it is mounted on a white heavyweight paper.


Since our work is usually for publication, we have as a general rule used illustration board for our final art. It is easy to handle and accepts whatever medium we choose, if we select the right surface. When bought in large 20" × 30" or 30" × 40" sheets, it can be cut to whatever dimensions are needed. Illustration board comes in two major surfaces. The term "hot pressed" is often used by manufacturers to denote a smooth surface. This rather high finish makes a perfect surface for pen-and-ink. The pen will easily skim across the surface of hot-pressed board, whereas it might have a tendency to catch on the medium-or rough-surfaced board classed as "cold pressed." The rougher-surfaced, more absorbent cold-pressed boards are most often used for watercolor or gouache. When we "throw a wash," that the board is porous enough to accept the wash of color without having the wash lie on the surface and form puddles is of utmost importance. Of the rougher-surfaced boards, the medium finish is the one you are more likely to choose for color work if your aim is nature illustration. It allows you to paint the very finest of details without being hampered by the more pitted surface of an extremely rough board. However, if your technique has a tendency to be freer in concept, you might do well with the latter. As in all things concerning art, experimentation plays a large role in what you finally settle for in your personal equipment.


There will be some occasions when illustration board will not fit the particular needs of the project you are working on. There are a goodly number of suitable papers, not the least of which are the bristol boards. These are not boards in the true sense of the word but, rather, finely surfaced papers. Of all the bristol board makers we have found that Strathmore produces the best paper for our purposes. This beautifully textured bristol board may be purchased in sheets that range from one-ply to five-ply. The "ply" is really a single sheet of paper. As each ply is added and laminated to the previous one, the bristol board becomes thicker. Strathmore is of unusually fine quality and it comes in both high- and medium-finish (kid or vellum), but it grows progressively more expensive with each additional ply. A number of professionals use this kind of bristol board. Its many advantages include a durability under the stress of correction, an aspect discussed in more detail later on.

If you are just beginning to practice with pen-and-ink or with color, there are many brands of less expensive bristol-board pads that are available in any art store. The pad gives the beginner a more comfortable feeling; it is, in a sense, a statement in itself that if one drawing fails, there is more paper waiting, and somehow it is less disheartening to begin again. The surfaces of the bristol-board pads are not as finely textured as the Strathmore papers, but they are adequate.

One disadvantage of using color on bristol-board papers is that they have a tendency to buckle when wet because they are not firmly laminated to board. This can be disconcerting, as it will cause a puddling of washes even though the surface may be kid finish and therefore porous. It is wise for the artist with a commissioned color assignment to use illustration board to forestall this.

After a while, you will find that you will be able to recognize all the different textures and surfaces of papers and illustration boards, and will be able to choose the one that works best for you by fingertip touch.


If you lean toward black-and-white illustration, there is no more satisfying technique to begin with than pen-and-ink. The complexities of woodcuts, etchings, linoleum cuts, et cetera, should be laid aside until mastery of the pen is well established. With the pen you can learn distribution of the dark and light content of a drawing, which is a prerequisite of all black-and-white art. Another factor to be taken into consideration is the economy of reproducing finished black-and-white art if it is for commercial use.

A number of waterproof black inks worth experimenting with are on the market. Along with these, many companies produce a wide range of colored inks. A beautiful drawing can be achieved by the use of a brown or sepia ink, but it might not have the qualities necessary for reproduction if a linecut were required by your client. The uniformity of color is sometimes uneven, and printer's plates made from your drawing would no doubt lose some of the most important detail. However, for the artist not concerned with reproduction, experimentation with colored inks might lead to very pleasant results.

In this age of exciting new devices we hesitate to say that we find it preferable to stay away from all mechanical pens in illustrating natural-science subjects, except for the technical demands of representing geological formations. Working with a quill pen may seem a trifle old-fashioned, but nothing expresses your artistic emotion better than that little nib, transmitting through your arm, just what you feel about line drawing. The mechanical pen has only one voice, so to speak, a straight, even, unvarying line. It is unequaled in its usefulness for mechanical drawing, but the nature illustrator has a story to tell of textures and roundness, and he often needs a varying line to express these qualities. Of course, this is a personal preference. The individual artist will determine where his own affinity lies. As in most things, trying different tools will bring forth your own likes and dislikes.

To start, we would recommend one small crow-quill penholder plus another larger, more versatile one (Gillott's, perhaps), along with a variety of flexible and nonflexible pen nibs, such as Gillott's mapping pens, long-shoulder crow quills, rigid extrafine pens, Hawk quills, to name just a few. The Osmiroid sketch pen is a very convenient fountain pen worth trying for outdoor sketching.


The artist's palette for natural-science illustration very rarely strays from the colors of his subject matter. What liberty he is permitted is generally confined to background color. When working from specimens, the objective is to reproduce only the colors that nature has generously provided.

By and large, the palette is muted, and earth colors such as ochers, siennas, umbers, olive greens, sap green, and alizarin crimson come into use much more frequently than the more brilliant colors of the spectrum. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, as in botanical and bird illustration.

We most often work with gouache or designer's colors. These offer an exquisite range of hues. Because they have such a finely ground pigment, they may be used either as a free watercolor wash or for dry-brush watercolor. This allows for a buildup of layers of color and thus for ultimate control. Winsor & Newton and Grumbacher have a full range of these colors; so do other manufacturers.

If you are just beginning to collect pigments we would like to suggest the following colors: alizarin crimson, * brilliant carmine, brilliant purple, * burnt or Chinese orange, burnt sienna, * cerulean blue, chromium oxide green, cobalt blue, * deep or burnt umber, * flame red or vermilion, * deep green, * light green, medium green, * lemon yellow, * mountain violet, olive green, * orange, * raw sienna, * raw umber, * sepia, turquoise blue deep, * yellow deep, * yellow light, and yellow ocher. * You should have a good permanent white and a tube of ivory black or jet black as constant members of the paint box, and possibly an additional tube or jar of a nonbleeding white that could be used for correction, should the need arise. A similar palette is suitable for oils.

Gouache or designer's colors are admittedly on the expensive side and have a disconcerting habit of drying in the tube. To extend their life a bit, it might be helpful to find a tightly lidded tin box to keep them in. It might be helpful, too, in order to avoid having the tube caps dry on the tubes to smear a bit of Vaseline on the threads as a lubricant before you cap the paints. Colors such as Hooker's green and Hooker's green light watercolor added to the above list will prove invaluable for painting foliage and can readily be mixed with designer's colors. If expense is a consideration, the list can include only the colors marked with asterisks as the nucleus of the full set that you eventually will have. As you move along to new and varied projects, there is little doubt that colors will be added to meet the specific needs of that work, or even to suit your experimental fancy.


The best palette for laying out gouache or designer's colors is a plain white porcelain tile. This is sometimes a rare commodity in art stores, but is well worth the effort to try to obtain one. Plastic palettes with wells and compartments are more easy to come by and very useful at times, but certain colors have a tendency to stain them permanently. A porcelain tile or compartmentalized tray will wash absolutely clean.


An artist's tools are the most valued possessions in his studio. It is all very well to believe that the "real" artist can work with any kind of brush or paint or drawing paper, but this notion is for the most part myth. A fine set of brushes, of the best quality that can be afforded, are as necessary in the studio as a surgeon's instruments are in the operating room. Brushes whose hairs fall out or split apart for no apparent reason should be avoided. It simply does not make good sense to attempt to work with an inferior tool when your full concentration should be applied to the painting at hand. Winsor & Newton, Grumbacher, and Simmons are our favorite brush makers. We have long enjoyed using the Series 7 watercolor brushes of Winsor & Newton, and have had excellent service from all we have ever owned. Winsor & Newton also produce a slightly less expensive brush, the Series 707, that has proved quite satisfactory. For nature illustration we would recommend #00, #0, #1, and (for larger areas) #2 brush. Most art stores carry better-quality small sable brushes that come to a fine point, and those are what to look for. The clerk will usually provide a jar of water so that you can test your intended purchase. Wet the brush thoroughly and shake it. The hairs should form a single symmetrically even point with just that one quick shake of the wrist. If, however, the hairs separate or there is a long central hair or two, either go through the process again to give the brush another chance (sometimes new brushes have resinous material on them that the initial wetting does not remove) or discard it and go on trying brushes until you find one that is up to standard. The brush is one of the most important items on your list of supplies, and though the prices may seem high, in the long run a good one will be worth all you invested in it.


Workable fixative, a useful item in the studio, can be used to "fix" pencil sketches as well as to isolate background colors and keep them from "bleeding" through any additional painting. Be careful not to spray too heavily, as this might cause the surface to become too slick to hold the additional color. Myston, a Grumbacher product, is one spray fixative that can be used in this way. It will also protect the finished painting and lightly intensify the colors.


You will find that it is often the small things that are significant in the art studio. Kneaded erasers are a must. The often used gum eraser has little place in the field of illustration. It leaves bits of shavings on a drawing that can be very hazardous. Some positive means of getting rid of its residue is required, and the artist cannot afford possible accidents, such as smears or color loss, because of its use. A kneaded eraser, on the other hand, can be manipulated into different shapes that help the artist to erase a very small area as easily as a larger one, and it can be comfortably employed for general cleanup on a finished piece of artwork.

Along with a steel-edged ruler and a small set of transparent triangles and curves, you will want a proportional divider. This last could be your most expensive investment, but every studio that deals in nature art should have one as a permanent resident. It is a simple measuring device that helps preclude errors in proportion that we may sometimes overlook in an otherwise accurate drawing. Any reliable art-supply store will have a variety of such dividers for you to choose from in order to fit your budget.


Excerpted from Illustrating Nature by Dorothea Barlowe, Sy Barlowe. Copyright © 1982 Sy and Dorothea Barlowe. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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