No Really, That's How I Do It

Divine Detail 

By Annie Hughes  

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 17, Issue 1 


I’m sure we are all aware that botanical art is by its nature a very detailed and somewhat complex way of painting. For me it is not just painting a particular plant or flower that has caught my eye, but it is the telling, in a 2-dimensional plane, of the whole story of a 3-dimensional subject with a life and character all of its own. This is precisely what draws me to it. 

Having experimented with various media over time, I have settled on the look of watercolour, though being at times a difficult and unforgiving medium, the beauty and joy it can deliver are worth every painful mistake. 

My choice of materials has developed over time, and at this point, is simplified and works well for me. 

Paper: my latest is Fabriano 5, 300 gsm. It is very white and great for white work. I also use Arches, hot pressed, 300 gsm, lovely paper, but a bit creamier in color. 

Paints: I use Winsor & Newton paints, with my favorites marked with (F): cadmium lemon (F), aureolin, Winsor orange, scarlet lake, quinacridone red (F), permanent alizarin crimson (F), raw umber, burnt umber, burnt sienna (F), warm sepia, cobalt blue, Prussian blue (F), indigo (F), olive green, Old Holland Indian yellow brown lake extra (F), and Scheveningen blue. 

Brushes: This is something that has always surprised my students! To me brushes are a tool, to be used, not nurtured like a baby. I use inexpensive nylon brushes, sometimes in appalling conditions, having always a few in reserve with fine points. I do use sable, but find them a bit soft. I have quite a few, my favorite being W&N Series 7 miniature, and of course the all time special, my magic brush, W&N Artisan short flat bright No. 2, excellent for removing paint. 

A sketchbook. Many a painting has had its beginnings from a quick sketch done on holidays, or outings. 

Other materials: magnifying glass, artists’ masking latex, dip pens, tooth brushes, white gouache, and inexpensive $2 round palettes. 

Getting Started: 

After finding my specimen, it is first photographed for growing habit and lighting, then it is quickly sketched and sometimes colour recorded where I can. 

Once in the studio, and with the specimen, I will do a detailed drawing. It may take two or three attempts, ‘til the right composition is achieved. This is the time to work out problems and to try different approaches until I am happy with the result. 

Though impatient, I do take particular care and time at the drawing stage, as I like to call it the “Planning Department.” I tend to develop my artworks like this: 

Accuracy now will pay in the long run. Look, observe, familiarise yourself with your specimen and record well. I take great care with the angle of leaves, how they attach to the stem, are they receding or coming forward, thickness, surface texture, venation and any blemish. The same applies to flowers, with the addition of transparency. 

Get to know your specimen, work out how it grows in its natural habitat. Growing in the wild, or as an established plant or tree, leaf colour and size and sometimes flowers are different than in small samples. 

A rudimentary way of obtaining a permanent record of a difficult leaf is by taking a pencil rubbing (where possible) with a soft lead pencil, this can reveal a lot of important detail. 

Next I use a fluorescent yellow pen to mark any highlights on leaves, etc. This will help me later as I refer to my drawing throughout the painting. This last drawing is used to transfer to my art paper, with help of a light box. On all drawings I record the location where the specimen was obtained, dated, so I can calculate when I need to go back for any seed that I may want to include in my painting, and any other information relevant. 


As my first tutor said, “…with colour, close enough just won’t do.” Being the next important stage in botanical work, this phrase has remained with me and for that reason I pay great attention to it. 

Colour matching is an important part of my previous work and I use my colour strips to test and test again. 

Pieces of the same art paper I’ll use in the final are cut into about 10 by 1/2cm. strips. Colour is mixed to appear as close as possible to the specimen. Paint a spot onto the strip, dry, then place the paper on top of specimen. It is surprising how drying can vary the appearance of the colour. Try again as needed. 

When the right colour is achieved, I use a larger strip of the same art paper and record the “recipe” of the pigments used for the colour match. I’ll do the same for all other colour mixes I match to specimens. This is very useful when the painting has to be finished at a later date, sometimes even a year later. 

This same strip is used to test things like stems, leaves, textures, seed pods, stamens, etc. or any complicated part of the plant. As with the drawing, this strip is used throughout the painting for testing. Labeled with date, location specimen is drawn from, etc., these are stored at the end of painting, with all drawings, photos and a digital scan of the work. 


Being a rather impatient person, I need to work fast, but have to have control! I have managed to find a happy medium in a base of wet-on-wet, finishing with small amounts of dry brush. I work on a flat surface as I tend to saturate the paper with water, and working upright would be impossible. With a background in textile design, I used many techniques to achieve a particular look. These have proved to be very valuable for my present work. The most valuable one acquired is the use of large washes and how to produce them fast. 

Once the area to be painted is wet but not pooling, colour from the palette reservoir is taken quickly all over the surface, avoiding all highlights. At this stage I will sometimes add other colours to darken areas, a contrast colour that later will become a blemish, or a contrast colour to the base of a petal, and so on. I also add serrations to leaves, but, as soon as they start to dry, it’s time to leave well enough alone. Don’t be tempted to touch! I know it’s difficult, but you must, or you’ll end up with a disaster. 

As the work is progressing, to check for accuracy again, I sometimes may lay the specimen on to a sheet of transparent film and place it directly on top of the painting. This gives me a rough idea of depth and relation of leaves and flowers to what is painted.

If the specimen looks at home, I’m on the right track. This technique is dependent on the subject and size of it. When painting a Gymea Lily, it was 1.30 meters tall (over 4 feet), extremely heavy, full of nectar with very staining green pollen. I had to cut sections of it to paint at close range. 

Details that I find interesting and like to include in my paintings are blemishes, discolourations, and bug holes and if possible the culprit, as it seems to add to the veracity of what is being portrayed. 

Veining I tackle in a number of ways. If the leaf is large and complex, it is worked in sections, taking care to maintain tone. If the leaf has very distinct and prominent veins, I may use artists’ masking latex, applied with a dip pen, after the 2nd wash of local colour is dry. Apply a 3rd wash, allow to dry, then remove the latex by rubbing with your finger. Touch up and finish with dry brush. 

If venation is not too prominent, I paint the whole area complete with highlights and any shading. Then, with a pointed damp brush, sometimes pressing it between my fingers to a chisel point, I start by removing the centre vein, blotting with tissue as I go. Side veins are done likewise. This is my preferred method, as it allows for mistakes to be made and rectified easily, just by painting over and starting again. 

Stems are another treat for me. I just love the detail in them. When painting plants that twine, make sure you establish whether they twine clockwise or anti-clockwise, it is important and specific to species.

Now, the work appears to be finished, but there is the usual question, when do you know it is finished? My way of taking this stage is by placing the work with a mount, at the far end of my studio, next to the specimen, if still alive, and looking at it from a distance. Study the work, decide whether it needs anything else. Is it well balanced, could it benefit from another leaf, maybe another bud? Do I need to darken certain areas, are the highlights too prominent, do they need to be toned down, is the composition pleasing? 

If it all looks good, and I think we all know instinctively when that is, then, I think champagne would be very nice.

  • Field sketch with colour sampling, notes on details, etc.
  • Rubbings provide a permanent, fast record of reality.
  • Creating colour strips for spot on matches
  • A direct comparison of plant to paint is very helpful if the specimen’s size and makeup allows it.
  • Using masking fluid allows control of venation colour and size.
  • Camellia, watercolour on paper, ©Annie Hughes 2010