Education Forum 

A Teacher’s View 

By Margaret Saul 

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 12, Issue 1


Here I present a list of practical tips that I regard as useful for botanical artists and teachers. Another reason for this contribution is to entice you to respond by contributing more tips, or commenting if you strongly disagree. Send these to for circulation among botanical art teachers through the Teachers’ E-mail Forum, with a possible inclusion on this page in the near future. 


1. First observe under natural lighting. If your plant subject flourishes in direct sunlight, then before collection take observational notes and photograph it under these conditions. When viewing in such outdoor situations realize that illustrating definite cast shadows could lead to visual confusion when not sensitively manipulated in the artwork. 

2. Lighting convention. As one who has illustrated texts for many botanical publications it should first be understood that I fully appreciate the convention re the angle and direction of the main light source – positioned to enhance surface form and texture and to maintain clarity and consistency across a composite plate. However I encourage students not creating work for science publications to consider other interesting possibilities, and not to let this convention constrain their creativity. On a more practical note, if you are naturally left-handed you may really prefer not to work within the shadow of your drawing hand caused when light is directed onto your subject from the left. And while the western concept of the light leading in the direction one reads - from left to right - may at times be relevant for landscape formats it may have very little bearing on some portrait formats where there is more vertical movement through the composition.

3. Without light there is no color! Lighting is important to consider not only when observing surface texture and form but when observing color of, for example, a leaf or petal. Be aware how dull the color of a delicate leaf or petal appears when taken indoors and positioned flat against the drawing surface so that no light transmits through it. Instead, hold the leaf or petal away from the drawing board to see color as seen in more natural surrounds. 

4. Natural lighting indoors is tops! If possible position the drawing table with its length at right angles to a window. Position yourself at the table so daylight illuminates both your subject and your work surface. Obviously without adequate daylight it is necessary to have a desk light directed onto your work surface and a second light directed specifically across your subject. The substitute for daylight is the incandescent ‘daylight’ bulb. 

5. No shadow – no strain. A cast shadow interrupting or confusing the working surface increases eyestrain. To ensure the working hand does not cast a shadow, a right-hander needs lighting to come from the left and a left-hander, from the right. Avoid strong overhead lighting as this may cast the shadow of your head across your work. 

Desk Set-up 

1. Light up your art not your face. Avoid unnecessary eye fatigue – do not face a bright window while at your desk and check that your desk light (or that of a fellow student) does not shine into your eyes. 

2. Art desk & chair. An ideal workstation is a bench about hip height; high enough to stand at comfortably during composing stages or while working larger drawings, and with foot support (a bar that can be positioned to suit leg length) that accommodates a comfortable sitting position when finer work is required. An art chair that has adjustable height with back support and swivels is just the ticket. Chair height should promote good back as well as arm posture, allowing elbows to extend at right angles for most work. 

3. Slope that board! At art school I learned the value of using either a vertical board on an easel, or a well-sloped drawing board on a desk when sitting to do finer work. Sloping the board ensures there is much less perspective distortion inhibiting your view of your drawing as you work – this has been a revelation for some of my students. Test this phenomenon for yourself: read a newspaper page positioned flat on the table then see how much easier it is to read when the top of the page is sloped upwards towards you so the distortion in the letters has been lessened.