Lesson 3: Drawing Plants

As of October 8th 2016, after roughly two years of offering free critiques, I will now be limiting my own critiques to patreon supporters ($3 or more). But don't fret - you are still welcome to freely submit your work and questions directly to the /r/ArtFundamentals subreddit to be reviewed by the community.

This marks the beginning of the 'Dynamic Sketching' curriculum. At this point, I assume you've completed both lessons in The Basics section. If you haven't, no matter how good you may be, I strongly recommend you complete them first. All the lessons on this website tackle drawing in a very specific manner, with specific techniques that are repeated throughout. These techniques are introduced in The Basics section, so if you miss them, you probably won't fully grasp what is explained here.

Analytical and Constructive Drawing from Observation: Drawing Plants

To start us off, we're going to ease into the subject of drawing rather gently. Each topic will build on the last, gradually working you up. I don't necessarily expect that upon completing this lesson, you'll be able to put all of the concepts I mention here into practice. Instead, I wish you to finish with a general understanding of what the concepts are on a theoretical level, an awareness of what you are doing wrong, and a target to aim for in the long term.

Due to how all of these lessons are structured, you will continue to develop the skills explored here in later lessons, so in the future, you may want to come back to this lesson and attempt the homework again - just to see how your skills have improved.

Unlike the previous lessons, which focused on exercises, those in the Dynamic Sketching section will emphasize a variety of demonstrations.

Before you move ahead with this lesson, be sure to read this article on constructional drawing. This approach is at the core of all of the dynamic sketching lessons here, and should be used across the board.

So I've been noticing that people tend to struggle with a lot of the same kinds of things, so I've devised a few exercises you guys can do before you move onto actually drawing the plants. They'll relate much more directly to the matter of drawing plants, so hopefully those of you who are eager to get onto drawing tangible objects won't get too frustrated.

  1. Page of Leaves

    Page of Leaves

    I'm honestly not sure if it's leaves or leafs... Oh well. The first thing you're going to do is draw a page of them. The first thing I always recommend when it comes to this particular topic is to think about the arrows in lesson 2. The biggest problem with people tackling this is that they're very much in the mindset of a pencil gliding across a flat page. This may be factually true, but it is immensely wrong. When you draw, you need to fool yourself into thinking that your pencil is moving through a 3D world - that when it draws a mark, it's not creating an object, but rather gliding along a surface that already exists, and just bringing it into view. That's what contour lines, for instance, are all about - when you're drawing one, you're not creating a mark on a page, you're gliding your pencil along the rounded surface of a form that already exists in the world.

    It may sound absurd right now, but in time and with practice, you'll learn to buy into this illusion. Once your subconscious is able to believe it, then you will be able to convince others. You must be the first victim of this little white lie.

    Leaf Construction
    1. The most important part is the center line, the spine of the leaf. I can't stress enough how important it is to think about how this line moves through three dimensions, not across a flat page. Think of how it moves towards or away from the viewer. This can be difficult with a simple line, but try and think of it like an arrow, pointing towards a direction.
    2. Enclose the leaf with simple curves. I don't care how complex this leaf is, capture the core of it, its essence, in just two curves. No waves, no jagged edges, no complexity whatsoever. Focus on the flow of the shape, and construct it around that center line. Don't treat that line like some kind of a suggestion - it is a rule. Build your leaf around it.
    3. As always, contour lines help a lot when it comes to being able to picture how the form you're revealing flows through space - they're especially useful when the leaf folds over itself. Unlike the contour curves we dealt with in lesson 2, these do not run over a rounded form, so there's no business of them hooking around the edge and wrapping back around.
    4. And finally, detail. Don't stress too much over this, it's the absolute least important part of the drawing. A leaf with poor underlying construction cannot be saved no matter how much detail you add - it'll still feel stiff and lifeless. A strong construction with no detail whatsoever however will still look fine.
  2. Page of Stems

    Page of Stems

    Another thing people tend to struggle with is stems, branches, and that sort of thing. Much of the challenge comes from the fact that these things are skinny and long, leaving very little room for drawing well shaped contour lines that wrap convincingly around the cylindrical shaft. This exercise focuses on taking the opposite approach - starting off with ellipses, and then constructing a tube around them.

    This exercise exposes you to several important things. First off, the importance of the minor axis in relation to how ellipses should be aligned. Secondly, considering a tube to be a connected chain of ellipses, where those ellipses' degree reflect their orientation relative to the viewer.

    Now, one thing is certain - this is not easy. The most difficult part is drawing the actual edges of the tube, connecting up the ellipses. You'll see that even in my example, some are worse than others. We'll discuss certain approaches to overcoming this challenge, but a lot of it comes down to practice. Also rotate your page. A lot.

    Stem Construction
    1. Again, just like the leaves, start off with a simple line. It drives how your tube flows through space.
    2. Place ellipses along the line, being sure to align them to the line as their minor axis. I cover this in Lesson 1 as well as in the 250 Cylinder Challenge, but basically the minor axis cuts the ellipse into two equal, symmetrical halves down its narrower dimension. Also, consider the degree when drawing the ellipses - how fat or skinny the ellipse is is a product of how the circle it represents is turned in space. If it's narrower, it's turned away. If it's wider, it's turned towards the viewer. One way to think about this is holding up a CD and turning it slowly. As the tube flows through space, it will turn, so some of its cross-sections will be facing the viewer, while others will face away.
    3. Draw the edges of the tube by connecting the ellipses. Drawing curved lines can be very difficult, especially when they have to match a very specific criteria. Do not draw a line from one ellipse to the other and stop. Instead, overshoot the second ellipse, trying to follow the path towards the second one. Then go back to that second ellipse and repeat the process. Initially your lines (as you can see in my example) will not overlap perfectly, but with practice and the proper preparation, these will come closer and will eventually come together. After enough practice - and this is a long ways away - you will find yourself being able to manage two, or three segments at a time. If you feel a segment is just too long and too curvy to manage, throw an extra ellipse in there to bridge the gap.

    Start off simple, for at least half the page. Then try playing around with it. Try adding small clusters of three ellipses close together, with the central one swelling out a little bit to create knots, as one sometimes sees in plant stems and branches. Another thing you can try is creating a forking branch, as you see in the example page. When doing so, make sure your intersection points are clearly defined with ellipses, as it's these intersectional cross-sections that really reinforce the illusion of form.

    Absolutely NEVER leave a tube open-ended, even if your image cuts off there. Always cap it off with an ellipse.

Pitcher Plant

When thinking about what kind of demos to do, I figured I'd spread them out over a few different kinds of plants you might see. This doesn't have a whole lot of leafy flat-ribbon type stuff going on, and instead is more closely related to organic forms.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:

Establish the Flow

In lesson 2, we tackled constructing organic forms with no real limitations or targets. In this case, there's a particular flow that we want our form to follow. Just like how we set out the center line for our leaves, we do the same thing here. Then we follow it up with a few ellipses along the length to define how the form is going to expand or taper. It's actually a lot like building a ship - you lay out the ribs/supports before putting down the... Alright, you got me. I know nothing about building ships, neither technique nor terminology. I'll stop that analogy right there.

Fill out the Volume

With the supporting scaffolding set out, we build our form around these ellipses, and I've also extended the lip on the top to match my reference.. It can be a little tricky, but always remember to be confident with your linework. You'll make mistakes, you'll mess things up, but it doesn't matter. We're not here to make pretty pictures, we're here to learn how to draw.

Append Secondary Forms

Looking at the mouth of this plant, there's two additional features - the leaf hanging overtop, and the strange form curled along the rim. The form on the rim's got some shape to it, but we want to lay it in first before even considering that bit. So, we lay it in as simply as possible, capturing the fact that it's simply curled back. Always capture your details as simply as possible first, then refine them.

Refine/Break Down Forms

So, with our forms blocked out, we can start breaking them down. Keep in mind that our initial lay-in is not a suggestion. You adhere to it as closely as you can, even if you start to find that you've deviated here and there from your reference. Just go with it. You made decisions in the previous steps, and those decisions cannot be unmade. As with the analogy I mentioned in the intro video, you've laid down the scaffolding, and now you're raising the building itself. You can tuck things in, or stick them out, but you can't work outside the bounds of your scaffolding, or everything will fall apart.

Reinforce the Illusion of Form (Contour Lines)

Looking at the reference image, you can see some pronounced ridges along that form that rests along the edge of the mouth. These are useful, as they're natural contour lines. Whenever these sorts of things occur, we want to take advantage of them in order to better describe how our surfaces twist, turn and deform through space. You can think of natural contour lines as freebies - where you need to be careful about how and where you place your artificial ones (those that you add yourself that wouldn't be part of a pristine drawing, like the ellipses we used earlier in the construction), the natural ones are already supposed to be part of the final image.


And finally, detail. It's very easy to get caught up in detail, and it's very often that I see students half-ass prior steps, expecting to be able to recover in this phase. It does not work like that. An undetailed construction can still be beautiful in its own right, but an awful construction covered in detail is going to look like a bulldog in makeup. No one wants to see that. Spend your time focusing on your construction. Details should be an afterthought. Hell, it would probably be a good idea to reserve details to the last half of your homework, so that your first few drawings can be properly focused entirely on construction.

Potato Plant

The second demo's going to focus more on leafy plants. We've gone over dealing with individual leaves, but drawing clusters of them is... well it's not so much difficult, as it is annoying, and I feel like it might be valuable to show you guys the process of it.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:

Figure Out the Structure

As always, the most important steps come first. Here we're figuring out just how these leaves are laid out. At first glance, one might think that it's just a pile of haphazard leaves, but that is virtually never the case. There's always some kind of rhythm, pattern or structure to how objects are arranged. Pure randomness tends to look awful to our eyes, and nature itself rarely lays things out that way, by virtue of the laws it follows.

If you look closely, you can see that there's a core point where the stems sprout from the dirt. Several stems come out from there, and they each go off away from the center. Then, each stem sprouts several branches, from which leaves grow. So, you can see in figure 2.2 that I've laid out my drawing to match this principle. I'm not being super careful about matching the reference image - I'm more interested in matching and understanding its essence. I like to think of it as though I'm drawing a potato plant, not necessarily this potato plant. This also lets me focus more on maintaining the solidity and integrity of this drawing, rather than fussing over being a perfectionist and ruining everything in the process.

I also haven't gone into significant detail with the farther part of the plant. This is in part because I can't make out exactly what's going on there, and also because it's not my primary area of focus, so I'm fine with that being somewhat more loosely constructed.

Start Building Up the Leaves
More Build-Up
Even More Build Up!

Yeah, there's a lot of leaves to draw. Following our leaf construction method of center line, followed by *simple* edges neglecting any waviness or complexity, just focusing on how each leaf flows through space, we flesh out as many of the leaves as we can. It's going to get very tedious very quickly, but you've got to push through and try and maintain a solid level of quality for your leaves. If you find your quality dropping, put your pen down, stretch, take a break, whatever. Just don't allow the tedium of an exercise to decrease the quality of your work. Always put forward the best you can.

It's totally normal for your brain to insist that this is too hard, when it's actually not. It's like walking up a really big hill - it's not hard, it's just tiring. Given infinite breaks you can walk up any hill (barring starvation, injury, or bears).

Separate out your Shapes

Now, some will mistake this as being the use of shadow and light. It's not - or at least, it's not the point. What I'm doing here is using flat black spaces to help clarify my drawing and organize my shapes. If you look at figure 2.5, it's very difficult for your eye to focus on any one area - everything is equal, so they're all vying for your attention. Stare too long, and it's going to start to hurt. Looking at figure 2.6 however is going to start to feel a bit more clear. It's not quite there yet, but we'll continue to push that sort of organization and hierarchy in later steps. That's what you want to keep in mind - the idea of constructing a hierarchy. This is what should draw your eye first, then this, and so on. Every drawing you present to your audience should have embedded in it a roadmap for their eyes.

Minor Surrounding Information

Now, as every drawing is going to be a little different, and have different kinds of demands, this one in particular with its high angle shot could use a little bit of grounding and contextual information. The pile of leaves could just as well be floating in the air, or sprouting from the back of your head. There isn't even any clear sense of how it relates to the surface it's coming out of, so adding these little rocks, pebbles and bits of dirt can really help to give the object some grounding. It doesn't have to be much, and you don't have to worry about applying the constructional method to every little bit. Even flat shapes can accomplish a lot in terms of lightly suggesting the presence of certain textures.

In fact, there are a lot of times where you would benefit significantly from using flat shapes instead of constructing solid, believable ones. One such situation is when they are not a part of your primary area of focus. Flat, flimsy shapes are naturally going to demand less attention from the viewer, so rather than presenting competition, they recede into the background and happily accept their supporting role.

Using Line Weight to Clarify Overlaps

Previously we used solid black fills to break up and organize our shapes - another approach with perhaps a lighter touch is to leverage line weight. If you've read over the 250 Box Challenge notes, you'll have come across how line weight can be used to clarify how different objects overlap, and establish one as dominant and the other as subordinate. That's what we're doing where - by adding more weight to the silhouettes of the leaves, we're pushing the ground detail back.

A Touch of Detail

And once again, detail. Being that I just drew a bazillion leaves, I'm not terribly interested in going to town on this (not that I ever do). So, I splash on a few minor details to a particular area I wish to define as my focal area. It really is just a game of relativity. If nothing else has much going on, then even a little bit more detail is going to make a particular area stand out. There's rarely any need to go crazy with detail or texture on something.

Hibiscus Flower

This time, a fairly basic flower. Petals are much the same as leaves, but due to their somewhat less directional nature, people do struggle with them.

For those among you who are current patreon supporters of drawabox, there is a video recording of this drawing available:

Basic Structure

Here we're starting off super simple. I'm defining the outer perimeter of the petals, the center of the flower (note how the center is sunk in a little in three dimensions, so it's slightly offset from the dead 2D center of the larger ellipse), and the flow of the stem. The stem is actually more theoretical, but I figured that including it would help give the flower a little more context, instead of being simply a few clustered petals floating in the air.

Fleshing Things Out

I may have gone a touch overboard with the contour curves, but my intent here was to cement the idea that these petals (which are not yet drawn) are not simply radiating out in two dimensions, but coming from that sunken-in center point and flowing out. The curves of the contour lines helps me wrap my head around this notion. Had I kept it in my head, I might have forgotten it, but now that it's on the page it's much harder to ignore.

Construct the Petals

I'm still following the principle of constructing leaves. I've got my center lines, and I'm constructing the curve on each side of each center line independently. The only difference is that I'm flaring them out way more than I would do with a leaf. Each one still has a direction in which it flows, which is the most important thing to remember.

Constructing the Pistil

Here we're going back to the more familiar, more solid somewhat-geometric construction. The pistil is that sticky-outy bit in the center of a flower, a key part of its reproductive system. The main stem (called the style, I believe) of this section was easy but I made the decision to capture the end as a ball. This follows the same logic I applied when initially drawing the perimeter of the petals as an ellipse in figure 3.2 - the forms are going to remain within this shape/form that I've constructed, so I can use that information later when breaking down those forms.

Notice how you can see the intersection between the ball at the top, and the tube beneath it. Due to our angle, the ball should be blocking out that intersection shape, but in order to help solidify the forms in my mind, I've included it. Always try to include these intersection shapes, they're key to letting your brain grasp how things sit in 3D space and relate to one another.

Basic Structure
Basic Structure

Not a whole lot to discuss here - just broke the forms down into smaller elements. As the elements got smaller, I became less concerned with their construction, allowing things to become a little bit looser in order to avoid piling on too much ink in small spaces.

Further Define the Petals

The petals themselves had a considerable amount of edge complexity to them - little curls and waves and such. Whilst adhering to my initial scaffolding, I started to play with those edges, using the reference image to inform my choices.

Organizing my Shapes

Here I have two objectives, and luckily they go hand in hand. The pistil of the flower is starting to get lost amongst the petals and construction lines, so I want to bring that forward. Secondly, I want to emphasize the depth of that sunken-in central hole. My solution tackles both problems. By constructing some simple black shadow shapes within the interior, I am able to make the pistil stand out more starkly against this new solid background, while also deepening the center.


Again, detail. While construction follows a somewhat formulaic approach, texture is always tricky especially when working in two strict values (black/white). The challenges this puts you through will sometimes make it exceptionally difficult to polish off a drawing nicely, but in the attempt, you will learn a lot more than you might have were you given a more flexible medium. Ultimately, each different surface, material or texture is going to require experimentation. For example, about halfway through trying to figure out how to capture the soft subtlety of the petals, I started to find that outlining my shadow shapes instead of filling them in gave them a more gentle touch. Of course, many details had already been drawn in other ways, so that is something I will have to carry into my next drawing.

As I do homework critiques, I create new hand-written demos/notes that likely are valuable to others, so I'll be including them here.

These exercises should be done traditionally, using a felt tip pen (0.5mm is ideal). I use the Staedtler Pigment Liners, and sometimes the Faber Castell PITT artist pens (more expensive and higher quality), though there are plenty of other brands that work just as well.

Felt Tip Pens

In previous exercises, I allowed ballpoint pens to be used. For these, I insist you use a felt tip pen, as it will force you to deal with your pressure control - an issue that will help across various other drawing media.

As homework, I recommend doing at least:

  • 1 filled page of the leaves exercise. I mean filled as in filled to the brim. Don't draw them too small, but use up all the space you've got.
  • 1 filled page of the branches exercise - again, pack that stuff in.
  • 8 filled pages of plant drawings. The first 4 MUST be with no texture or detail whatsoever, just focused entirely on construction. The last 4 can have texture and detail, but you are not required to include it.

Take your time, and take as many breaks as you need. No need to rush. I expect this to take you at least eight hours, likely more.

Either draw from life, or use high-resolution reference images. Here's an album of fairly high-res photos taken by a classmate of mine when we were on a fieldtrip at the Arboretum in Arcadia, California.

If you want a critique and some direction, you can submit your homework for review as a comment on this lesson's post on /r/ArtFundamentals. If you do choose to submit, please be sure to complete the homework in its entirety in the required medium/media. While I am happy to help out, it does take a lot of time, and I'd greatly appreciate it if the time is taken to fully read and digest the material.