Education Forum

Notes on Composition 

By Margaret Saul 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Number 36


An artist seeking to understand and to clearly illustrate what they view as their subject’s specific botanical character is that which keeps this art unique. What ensures it will endure is the focus the botanical artist places on expressing their sense of wonder or excitement that is triggered by the elements of design emanating from their subject and that develops through a deeper creative involvement. Therein, in my view, lies the workings of a botanical artist: on one hand creating a descriptive work that remains true to a subject’s character and on the other creating art through an effective composition of visual design elements. 

A sense of design can be intuitive in some. As teachers we understand the difficulties experienced by novices not only in developing observation skills but also in appreciating design (and dare I say – visual expression). Interestingly, I have found on occasion that students trained in other forms of drawing or painting enjoy a greater sense of visual expression but find observation more difficult than students whose interests center on gardening. Conversely the “gardeners” often seem to have fewer problems with the demands of botanical drawing but do like logical explanations on ideas that cannot always be easily explained. I liken these two types of students – those seeking the objective and those seeking to be creatively motivated as representing the two diverse aspects of botanical art, aspects that present a challenge for teachers to ensure instruction not only accommodates the objective but also the expressive – through their teaching of “composition”. 

Varied Approaches in Teaching Composition

I recently sent an e-mail presenting three questions regarding “composition” to teachers who are listed in the ASBA Teachers’ Registry. These were questions regarding the priority they gave to this subject, their method of presentation and the effectiveness of their instruction – gauged by how well their instruction was received. The teachers who were able to respond at such short notice were Helen Fitzgerald (Australia), Marilyn Garber (Minnesota), Anita Sachs Jansen (The Netherlands) and Mindy Lighthipe (New Jersey), all of whom feel strongly that “composition” should be included in botanical art instruction. 

Classes in composition designed by Marilyn for the Minnesota School of Botanical Art and classes at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) present composition as a separate subject through 15 hours of formal instruction, a tidy way of teaching a complex subject. The classes at the NYBG, designed by Lauretta Jones and referred to by Mindy are relatively new to that institution’s botanical art program. Anita who notes she is the only teacher of botanical art in her country can give only a small portion of her time to teaching and her students cover much of this subject through homework exercises. Alternatively, both Helen and I prefer to integrate instruction in composition throughout a teaching program in association with the objectives of each class. In my case I prefer to develop an appreciation for composition (visual expression) throughout the 140 hours of core subject classes starting with classes in drawing basics at the Brookside Gardens School of Botanical Art & Illustration where teachers introduce the new students to the principle of balance, focal point and awareness of negative space. Marilyn presents composition at her school as a required subject for its certificate course and it is offered after “Drawing II” in the form of lectures, picture analysis and exercises, with instruction culminating in a finished picture. The NYBG offers this instruction as an elective. Whatever approach is used all teachers referred to in this article endeavor to develop in their students a sound appreciation for composition. 

Creative Teaching Methods 

One interesting exercise Helen Fitzgerald has designed to emphasis the importance of composition is to have her students develop compositions using paper cut outs of monocot-type shapes such as elongated leaves (in a gray) and variously-sized rounded shapes (in one contrasting color). She noted that using typical dicot shapes could also be useful. While explaining a particularly relevant aspect of composition as part of the lesson she demonstrates how shapes could be arranged within a certain framed size on a blank sheet of paper. Students are then free to try various arrangements for themselves with occasional guidance from Helen. She says students enjoy the ease with which they can adjust or change their compositions. Such results are not quickly achieved by using media such as graphite and color pencil. Helen also notes that through this exercise students can instantly see a range of results around the class thereby increasing their awareness for other design possibilities. 

A fun and useful group activity I designed for botanical drawing classes when I began teaching in the late 1980’s takes the form of shadow play produced with the aid of an overhead projector and a variety of relevant shapes – elongated and curved leaves, stems, circular shapes and variously sized flower buds cut from lightweight pasteboard – that are projected in silhouette onto a projector screen. Students take turns moving particular shapes around to further develop an idea initiated by the teacher, and though reticent at first they soon relax as creative solutions begin to flow. This provides opportunity to discuss design elements such as, (i) the page format, (ii) open composition where the subjects appears to extend beyond the picture and closed composition used for more formal arrangements, (iii) balance, movement, negative space etc and (iv) challenges in maintaining unity as more elements are introduced to create further interest in the “picture.” (A scenario not unlike those experienced by botanical illustrators when a botanist they are working with requests more drawings for an illustrative page in a science journal!) This group activity can also demonstrate the restrictions sometimes placed on creative verve when confronted with a required sequence in the placement of significant structural elements in order to illustrate the true character of a plant subject.