No Really, That's How I Do It

Geometric Composition and Painting Acorns

Helen Allen

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 2


Geometric compositions are an excellent way to display a variety of similar botanical specimens. I have a collection of acorns, picked up in Richmond Park very close to where I live in Ham, Surrey, on holiday in France and Central Park, New York. I initially chose acorns of a similar size in a variety of stages, fresh and dried. Cupules have very different scales forming patterns and textures, and are useful for identification.

Each peduncle, having a character of its own, began to give an extra dimension to the page design. 

Wanting nine “elements” on the page, I arranged the acorns in three groups of three. This could be a very boring composition, I know that equally spaced elements that all look the “same” require a bit of thought. The pattern needed to be broken. I threw in a pair of acorns of the same size, almost black, and then a very large acorn and a pair of cupules. It was a little bit like playing chess, moving the acorns around until there was harmony of color, shape and form, disunity in size and unusual negative spaces. 

The main rule of geometric composition and randomly placed or scattered compositions is that the spaces between the objects should be smaller than the space between the group of objects and the margins of the page. So, when matting and framing the piece, I close-mounted the image with a wide double mat similar in colour to the paper to tightly enclose the image. The “aperture,” or format became a special, precious space for my gems.

Acorns are such beautiful and interesting little fruits to paint. They are the Botanical Diva’s dream! We can show off so many of our painting skills and techniques.  Fruits colors vary widely: fresh green, very glossy and slightly striped, dark, almost black, shiny or matte. Sitting in richly patterned and textured cupules. 

Cupules’ textures vary enormously; almost suede, crisp and evenly patterned, knobby and shiny, hard. Peduncles are little connectors, often with embryonic fruits attached or a wisp or curl of fiber where the peduncle has parted company with the tree. Look for the detail and the unusual in design terms but check always that the observations are botanically correct. 

Observation, Recording and Drawing

I begin with quick skeleton sketches in my sketch book, where I am able to explore vertical and horizontal axes, planes and the general movement of the subject. I use my clutch pencils, beautifully balanced so they behave well in linear drawings and also shade well. I draw on tracing paper vellum. It is very forgiving, and by stacking layers I correct drawing errors as I go, rather than erasing and making the same mistake again! As a child, I had a book about the human skeleton, with transparent paper layers overlaid on the skeleton, showing vital organs, circulatory system and musculature. I do the same, beginning with the skeleton and adding form and detail in layers. I make notes about details and make magnified drawings to provide explanation of parts not clearly seen without a lens. 

My four layers are: first an accurate and measured line drawing of the subject; second, one with contour lines to show volume and movement; the third shows detail only and the fourth layer combines detail and form.  The fourth drawing is where I have fun, using putty rubber and tiny chips of plastic eraser, adding shading and lifting detail.  Working with a constant light source is key to discovering and rendering core and graduated values for form. By squinting my eyes and viewing an acorn, I see a very light area, a very dark area and a variety of tones in between. I see form.  In very light areas colour is bleached, there is little detail and less contrast. In very dark areas, colour and detail are absorbed and become indistinct with little contrast. In the forefront I see full local colour, all the detail and a full range of tones, what I call contrast. 

The illusion of form is further enhanced by including ambient light at specimens’ edges. This is shown with lighter tone at lighter edges, and a tone darker than this at darkest edges. This provides reflected light’ to soften edges so they appear natural.

Less is More

With so many exciting features to explore and depict, I find it easy to be seduced into faithfully recording every tiny detail.  However, in practice I consider why I am painting the specimen to determine how I will paint. Is it to inform scientifically, to be a painting of great beauty, or to be a combination of the two?  The picture for this article is decorative, fun and convincing. I took some liberties and still was scientifically accurate. In this case, less was more. 

Volume and detail can be conveyed in different ways. Lack of detail tells the viewer very little. Too much detail conflicts with form and may be confusing. It is possible to give as much information as required, and respect the viewer’s intellectual capacity to understand, enjoy and complete the image.

Back to my final drawing. This gives me all the information I need for painting. I have sometimes made a fifth layer in colored pencil. This method is useful with a complex composition when balancing line, form and color.


I use a variety of hues from a number of manufacturers and a bundle of sometimes very scruffy brushes, useful for dry brushing texture. But I do have immaculate brushes with fine points, miniature and round for washes and detail. 

For the fruits I began working wet onto damp paper, creating form by manipulating paint very gently. I over-washed several times with a variety of hues; allowing each layer to dry. This way I was able to control clarity of colour. With the nuts beginning to look 3-dimensional, I added stripes with a fine brush, and lifted others out. To keep the illusion of form, I did not add detail to the light areas and it all but disappeared in the dark and shaded areas. 

The cupules were fun to paint but difficult because the texture catches light in unusual places. My tonal drawing was my guide and I carefully painted in detail. Shadow was added to further create volume and I amended my colors to indicate lack of light. My shadow colors were/are a mix of all hues used in the painting and also the mess of dirty colors often seen in the lid of one’s paint box; mucky and murky and receding. 

The finishing touches were unifying and very dilute washes here and there, adding glow. Cupules were brushed gently with muted tones to darken and harmonies. I had fun with this painting, bringing the acorns to life and remembering that sometimes we have to sacrifice detail for form to achieve volume.

  • The four layers used to create a great drawing, with the top layer providing form and detail in pencil. The layers are kept handy throughout the painting process, to provide a continuing reference
  • Looking over Helen’s shoulder, with all materials needed close to hand, she begins her painting with soft washes to provide a tint of local color, working wet into wet. Washes needed for form are then laid in slightly dryer.
  • With acorn well placed for observation, Helen begins the color layers needed for form, local color, and detail.
  • Quercus fruits/acorns, 14x18”Watercolour on Fabriano Artistico Extra White, ©Helen Allen 2012