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Pencils and Papers

Pencils must be one of the simplest tools ever made. The slate and pencil, quickly replaced by the wooden lead pencil, with graphite soon replacing lead. There are many types of coloured pencils and I have seen beautiful botanical work using watercolour pencils.

My choice is a mechanical pencil using 2B .05mm lead. The 2B is sufficiently soft to draw fine lines, although the lead will break under a heavy hand. I find the harder HB lead that is available in .03mm can seriously damage the surface of the paper. From my field sketches I copy freehand onto the art paper ready for painting. I use French Arches, cold pressed 100% cotton (300gsm) medium paper, size 420 x 590mm. Three surface textures are available, smooth, medium and rough. I use medium as I feel the smooth presents a rather lack-lustre painting while rough paper is the other extreme, too coarse for fine detail although excellent for landscape and other art. Textured papers can result in problems if the image is to be printed and I will cover this subject a little further in my remarks on painting.

Initially I layout a skeleton of the field sample. Leaves are represented by three lines, one for the mid-rib and one each for the leaf margins, with leaves showing the undersides only clearly marked. I take special care that all leaves sit naturally on the main stem as a leaf at an uncomfortable angle will be extremely uncomfortable to the eye. Outlines of the flower and cone are also allowed for in the basic sketch. Before I start the flower I draw a vertical line through the centre so that the finished work is absolutely vertical. A few degrees either way and the flower will hurt the eye forever.

Drawing the flower requires a small degree of skill, a far greater degree of consistent and even drawing, then finally an enormous amount of patience, and always with an eraser close at hand! A flower can take several hours to complete and the cone presents a similar challenge.

The final work on the leaves involves carefully illustrating the leaf edges to show the serrations, as in B. serrata, or smooth, as with B. integrifolia, or one of the many other types of edges. When the drawing is complete, and this could take a day or two, I remove much of the graphite leaving only sufficient to show lines for the brush to follow. This is done by tapping the eraser on the work, never using a rubbing action. To protect the work while drawing or painting I use a mask made from a sheet of watercolour paper the same size as the painting. I cut an opening 150mm square near the top right corner leaving a 100mm margin on the top and side of the opening. The sheet can then be turned around or over to protect the work. Even the very best artists can transfer very minute traces of oily perspiration onto the paper. These fingermarks may be a great asset at a crime scene but never at an art scene, as they can produce a slightly waterproof surface, not at all helpful with watercolour.

A final critical check on leaf placement and layout usually results in some alterations as the work must be complete in all aspects to be ready for the brush… which is a more colourful story