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Botanical Drawing: Understanding Lighting

Consistent lighting is key to successfully capturing nature’s details in botanical drawing and art. Learn more in this tutorial.

By Wendy Hollender

In Orange Dahlia (colored pencil on film, 24×18) I used light to direct my placement of shadows and highlights, creating flowers that appear three-dimensional.

Botanical drawing starts with finding a subject. It can be simple: Pick up a twig from the ground; find a seedpod that has an interesting form; pick a fruit or vegetable from a farmers market, or cut a beautiful flower from a garden. Once you have your subject, find a comfortable place with good lighting.

Artists often hear the phrase “good light,” but what exactly does it mean? I think of light in two ways. First, you need to be able to see your paper well and, second, you need to be able to see your subject clearly.

How to Position the Light Source

For botanical drawing, your work area should be illuminated with light — either natural or artificial — that doesn’t come from a direction likely to cast a shadow from your hand. If you’re right handed, your light should come from the left side to avoid this problem. If you’re left handed, the light source should be from the right. In any case, avoid using a light source positioned directly in front of you; it could shine in your eyes. Optimally, your light will come from behind you, either from the right or left (fig. A).

Light hits basic shapes (sphere, cylinder, cone and cup), showing how shadows appear on more complex forms in nature.

Illuminate the Subject (Properly)

I think of botanical drawing as having two purposes. The first and primary purpose is to describe the structure of your subject. The second purpose is to show the subject’s form by depicting the light on the subject’s form. I avoid strong light sources and shadow depictions because with excessively strong lighting the drawing becomes primarily about the light and leaves the subject as secondary. In my drawings, the subject comes first with light as support.

To create form that’s both three-dimensional and descriptive of the form’s structure, you’ll want to use a traditional scientific light source. If my subject’s form is not properly illuminated from a scientific light source, I use my imagination to add one. This allows me to exaggerate the highlights and shadows as needed to make my drawing have sufficient depth and contrast.

Once I’ve described the basic size, shape and light source of the subject, I’m ready to go deeper into the detail of the drawing. I first use a simple geometric shape, closest to the shape of my subject, as a model, to understand the correct use of shadows and light on the more complex form of my subject (figs. B and C).

Imagine Three-Dimensionality

Sometimes I imagine I’m a tiny insect crawling across my subject. Let’s use a tomato for an example. When I’m drawing the tomato’s shadowed side, I imagine myself climbing out of a dark valley and up an enormous hill, which is the surface contour of the fruit, until I reach the brightest light at the top of the tomato — my highlight, as seen below.

As you draw, imagine you’re the tiny insect in the shadow of the tomato at top.

To recreate this, I slowly create a seamless blend of tones to give the illusion of form. I start by using a neutral colored pencil such as Faber-Castell Polychromos dark sepia. Remember, to give the illusion of moving and changing form, these tones must change from very dark to the lightest highlight in a smooth, continuous manner. I work slowly and build layers carefully. I start to add the form’s color in many transparent layers that mix with my neutral tones to create a red tomato in shadow and light. This is when the magic begins to happen, as you can see in the sketch below.

Many transparent layers create depth of color.

Delight In Nature

The act of stroking a pencil across paper is relaxing and meditative. Within seconds of starting the toning stage of a botanical drawing, I can feel myself go through a change. I become calm, focused and relaxed. As I quietly build my drawing, I have a clear direction, while closely studying and discovering the specific qualities of my subject.

In short, I’m able to take delight in nature’s structures, patterns and colors. They never cease to amaze me. If I never went further I would be happy and fulfilled. I invite you to try drawing with this particular focus and see if you too will learn and enjoy the experience.

Chrysanthemum (Kiku Chrysanthemum) (colored pencil, 9×12)

WENDY HOLLENDER is a botanical artist and instructor. She is the author of The Joy of Botanical Drawing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Drawing and Painting Flowers, Leaves, Fruit, and More (Watson-Guptill, 2020). To learn more, visit her websites at and

A version of this article first appeared in Artists Magazine.

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