Education Forum

Drawing Basics, Beginner Level

By Margaret Saul

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 13, Issue 3


I thought many of you might be interested in reading excerpts from the proposed ASBA guidelines for botanical art teachers. These are guidelines being developed to assist students in attaining drawing proficiency prior to learning to work in color.

Drawing Basics, Beginner Level 

Drawing is viewed initially as a linear application, not as tonal rendering to illustrate form or volume, which is often included in a drawing syllabus after students have gained proficiency working in line. At completion of the basic level of instruction the student should be capable of creating an accurate drawing of both natural and manmade objects or structures in pencil line. 

Skills attained at completion of drawing basics

  • Knowledge of drawing materials used and a developing proficiency in use of materials and equipment 
  • An understanding of the drawing process 
  • Appreciation of drawing concepts and drawing modes 
  • Increased powers of observation (positive & negative shapes, angles & relationship) 
  • Able to apply compositional considerations and processes (when composition is included in the program) 

Drawing Concepts 

  • Picture plane or viewing plane – A perspective drawing concept that sees the student view a three-dimensional (3-D) subject as a twodimensional (2-D) “contour” or map, assisting the drawing process as students first transpose the 3-D form into flat shapes. This instruction is facilitated using a plastic “viewing plane” and dry eraser pen. 
  • Perspective – overlapping of elements within a subject and the distortion of the natural dimension of shapes or forms, as affected by their position relative to the viewer’s eye-level when surfaces recede into the distance at varied angles from the picture plane. 
  • Atmospheric perspective – distortion of values (and colors) where contrast against the general background diminishes as the more distant parts of the subject recede from the picture plane. 
  • Outline – a predominantly abstract element applied to establish the placement of an image of a subject on a page. 
  • Value contrast – helps to create the perception of depth within a picture (as in atmospheric perspective) and to define edges in different surfaces or structures. It can also be applied to further enhance the composition by creatively manipulating the distribution of lights and darks (values) throughout the picture. 

Drawing Modes 

A student can benefit from understanding the purpose of the following drawing modes as explained below – 

  • Gesture Drawing – linear expression of the perceived character or attitude of a subject. Quick, first impressions encourage the student to first look for the main movement or attitude of an object (growth habit of a plant). It increases drawing confidence as students learn to see the broader view of the underlying relationship between various points and angles in and around the subject; develops a freer flow of line and ultimately a keener sense of expression. A gesture drawing is a useful foundation or map for a detailed contour drawing. 
  • Contour Drawing – establishes the outline using the concept of the “Picture Plane.” A Plexiglas display panel (approximately letter size) and a dry erase pen allow students to draw the subject directly onto the plastic as it appears on the Plexiglas. Here students are made aware that a 3-D subject can first be viewed as a series of related lines and flat shapes and that the picture plane is equivalent to the flat drawing page. Contour drawing onto a drawing page is a deliberately slow application and can be most useful when applied to refine the initial line work in the gesture drawing. 
  • Drawing Blind or Blind Contour Drawing – the drawing starts at one point and continues very slowly without lifting the pencil. Looking at the drawing page is not advised as this interrupts the mindset required. It provides some idea of the type of concentration needed and degree of observation required for successful observational drawing.. 
  • Memory Drawing – After studying their subject by working through the various approaches to drawing mentioned above students are usually surprised by what they recall in drawing the same subject from memory. Drawing from memory helps students judge how well they are observing and how observational drawing helps store observations to memory and in so doing allows them to thoroughly appreciate the character of their subject. 
  • Drawing In Depth – This facilitates (i) observation and drawing accuracy by requiring that all botanical structures are illustrated in outline only and (ii) a developing appreciation for sensing depth and (iii) how to enhance the perception of 3-D in the final art work. This sense of depth is developed from an appreciation of perspective but also that of value contrast created as the student manipulates the lightness and darkness of various lines. This begins the process of learning to appreciate the importance of the concept of value contrast (in the initial stages as line) based on the concept that prominence is enhanced by major contrast with the background and recession is enhanced by minor contrast with the background. Varying degrees of lightness or darkness against the background (in this case value contrast in the line work) are created after the initial drawing is completed. The concept of “drawing in depth” can be fully appreciated by observing the effect of varying values in a series of graphite lines on white paper and then similarly, white pastel lines on dark paper. Those lines applied with a heavier hand pressure become more prominent than the paler lines due to their major contrast with their background. 

The next article in this series will continue in the area of drawing basics with a focus on various drawing techniques to assist the development of drawing proficiency.