Herbs have been known to seduce a gardener’s eye with their delicate foliage and subtle flowers. If you’ve ever wished you could capture that fleeting beauty in a method more subtle, more lyrical than a photograph, consider drawing herbs from your garden. Not only is it fun to draw herbs, it can lure you to look at your garden more closely than ever before.
In Victorian days, teachers believed that anyone who could learn to read could learn to draw. You say you can’t even draw a straight line? Not to worry. Nature doesn’t give us straight lines. Hate drawing outdoors with unpredictable weather and those annoying insects? Bring your herbs indoors to draw. If you have a reasonably steady hand and good eyesight and follow these step-by-step instructions, you’ll not only see garden herbs with a fresh eye, you may discover an unrealized talent.
First things first
Here are the materials that, to my mind, are essential for drawing herbs from your garden.
• White or pastel drawing paper no smaller than 8 by 11 inches, smooth enough for detail work, but with enough “tooth” to take graphite well. (I like Strathmore 400 Bristol, hot press drawing paper.)
• Graphite pencils: H, HB, B, 2B (H is the hardest, B the softest)
• Kneaded eraser
• Clear plastic ruler, 6-inch
• Magnifying hand lens
• X-acto knife
• A lightweight drawing board surface no smaller than 12 x 14 inches
The following materials are optional, but useful items you’ll want to have around if you find you enjoy drawing herbs.
• Proportional dividers (double-ended pointers that set fixed ratios for enlargement or reduction)
• Tracing paper or a white photographer’s glove with thumb and index finger cut out (to protect your drawing from smearing and your drawing paper from oils in your hands as you draw)
• Small piece of fine sandpaper for producing fine pencil points
• Workable fixative spray for preserving pencil drawings
Once you’ve assembled these materials, you’ll want to get a drawing area set up. Place the table that will be your drawing surface beside a stationary light source to your left (for the right-handed) or your right (for lefties). Natural north light is ideal, but you can use incandescent light. Avoid bright sunlight; it tends to cast shadows that are too harsh.
Put a box or stack of books on the table to hold the herb at or slightly below eye level, 12 to 24 inches from your eyes. Prop a sheet of stiff white paper or cardboard behind the herb to provide a neutral background. Now adjust your drawing surface to a comfortable angle: tilt your drawing table, if you have one, or incline a drawing board against a book or block (see Figure 1 at left). Gather your pencils, a hand-held magnifying glass, an X-acto knife, a ruler, and an eraser.
Choose your subject
Select an herb complex enough to interest you, but not so complex it will discourage your first drawing efforts. I recommend sage, sweet basil, mint, catnip, calendula, horehound, lemon balm, motherwort, or echinacea. Pot up a small plant, or place a sprig of the fresh herb in a container of water. You’ll learn from experience which herbs hold their shape best.
Rotate the herb until you find your favorite view, and then allow it half an hour to adjust to its new light source. (Herbs won’t die off as you draw them, but they do turn toward light and continue to grow or wilt.) Allow yourself one to two hours to complete your drawing. If you stop drawing for more than a couple of hours, place your herb in a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator.
Begin by looking
Look at your herb closely before beginning to draw. Notice its posture, which captures its character. Study its seemingly random curves, its symmetry or asymmetry, and repetitions of leaves, stems, and flowers. Squint to detect basic shapes and angles. Check details with the hand lens held to your eye; move it backward and forward to focus.
Be aware that herb specimens vary with growing conditions. Field guides can answer questions about plant characteristics and add interesting facts about the plants you draw.
Draw the herb either life size, or to an easy enlargement or reduction (half life-size or twice life-size, for example). In one corner of your drawing paper, write this scale, the name of the herb, and any other information you want to record. Close one eye as you hold the clear plastic ruler parallel to the herb to measure it.
Measure the height and width of the plant’s major structures as they appear to your eye (Figure 2). Lightly mark these measurements onto your drawing paper with an H pencil. If you use proportional dividers to speed this process, hold them flat against the drawing surface so you don’t damage the paper. Allow at least a two-inch margin of paper around your drawing.
Outline basic shapes
Follow the marks from your measurements as you lightly outline with an H pencil the basic, flat shapes of the herb (Figure 3). Try squinting at the herb to see past the details and identify basic shapes. Leaves and stems change shape as they tilt toward or away from you—an effect called foreshortening. Try closing one eye as you draw the outline of foreshortened shapes. If complex structures confuse your eye, look at the shape of the shadows they cast.
To draw the long, continuous lines for stems or pinnate leaves, rest your hand and arm on the drawing surface and draw downward with your pencil, moving only your fingers, not your hand or arm. After you’ve drawn as long a line as you can reach, lift and reposition your hand and arm downward a couple of inches. Place your pencil about half an inch into the line you just drew, and repeat the downward drawing motion. Repeat for the length of the stem.
To learn to outline with depth, recall a view you’ve seen across a great distance: mountains behind successive layers of trees, for example. Remember how structures furthest from your eye appear softer in shading and detail. Moisture and dust particles in the air cause this effect, called atmospheric perspective. You can use atmospheric perspective to create the illusion of depth in your drawing. Draw the lightest outlines, least detail, and palest shadows on parts of the herb furthest from your eyes.
Draw the heaviest outlines, greatest detail, and darkest shadows on parts of the herb nearest your eyes. Exaggerate this effect by breaking lighter lines behind heavier lines (Figure 4).
As you outline, let your pencil describe the texture you see. Sharpen your pencil well. Rubbing the point on its side against sandpaper produces a very sharp point, which lasts longer and is better for fine detail.
Avoid the glacier method! Don’t fill in the details in one area and then work across the page, the way a glacier moves across a landscape. The glacier method is the quickest path to a distorted drawing. Instead, work on the drawing as a whole, drawing outlines first, then filling in details, then adding fine details, etc.
Your drawing may be complete with outlines, but shading with hatch lines, continuous tone, and stipple can add depth and texture (Figure 5). Draw hatch lines, parallel lines that follow natural contours, with a flicking motion that moves your pencil consistently upward or downward only with your fingers, not with your wrist or arm. Draw cross hatching, lines angled over hatch lines, for deeper shading. For continuous tone, shade with the side of a B or 2B pencil. For stipple shading, create small dots with quick, vertical movements of pencil point to paper.
Choose your shading techniques according to the texture and depth of shading on your herb. Stipple takes the most time, continuous tone the least. Practice shading techniques on a separate sheet of drawing paper. As you shade, keep in mind basic shapes and the direction of the light source.
If your shading is becoming too dark, lift some graphite from the paper with a gentle touch of the kneaded eraser, rolled to a point for small areas. Shading is easier to darken than it is to lighten, so use a delicate touch.
The final touches
With the B or 2B pencil, shade the cast shadows, and draw such details as midribs, veins, bristles, thorns, and scars (Figure 6). A midrib defines a leaf’s structure and continues through leaves as they twist and turn (Figure 7). Draw the leaf midrib a bit lighter than the outline and use a double line. Fade the midrib and the side veins to a light broken line.
To protect your finished drawing, smudge-proof it with a workable fixative spray. Always spray outdoors, because the fumes of these products are harmful. If it’s raining, spray in a well-ventilated area, such as a garage with the door up. Hold your drawing vertically, begin with the can aimed away from the paper, and then move the spray lightly across the paper.
Leslie, Clare Walker. Nature Drawing: A Tool for Learning. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1995.
West, Keith. How to Draw Plants: The Techniques of Botanical
Illustration. Portland, Orgeon: Timber Press, 1996.
Wood, Phyllis. Scientific Illustration. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
Susan Strawn Bailey is an illustrator for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado, and a longtime contributor of illustrations and covers to The Herb Companion. She has taught scientific illustration for Colorado State University and the Rocky Mountain Nature Association.