Home Magazine Capturing Nature with Sketches and Watercolours

Botanists have long used sketches and watercolour paintings to capture the natural world. But how have the mediums changed, and how do they inform artistic research today?

Related articles: 23 Watercolor Artists You Should Know About - Top 11 most iconic and famous sketches ever made - 51 Most Popular Contemporary Artists - Landscape across the centuries

For all human beings, wherever they live in the world and whenever they have lived in time, the natural world has been at the centre of religion, philosophy, popular beliefs and medicine. The way we are drawn to the natural world from an artistic point of view has evolved enormously. From a rigorous scientific exploration, it has become a liberated artistic research.

In the past, many drawings and watercolour paintings have been created by artists, researchers, scientists and visionaries depicting nature, plants and flowers. Now the possibility of capturing on film objects with immense detail has made the scientific scope of these techniques futile. The advent of new tools to document, but also to create, has completely changed the way we engage, observe and document Nature.

However, while the scientific use of sketching has greatly been left behind with the adoption of photography, it is an extremely common and valid tool for contemporary artists. Indeed, the same fast, precise and luminous methods used by botanists are advantageous for a slightly different type of visual analysis.


Paul Klee, Raunarchitekturen (Auf Kalt-Warm), 1915, Courtesy of Christie’s ©Christie’s 2021.


Botanical Drawings colouring Scientific Research

The very possibility of studying object comes from the observation and documentation of the world which surrounds us, and to which we belong. Observation and analysis are so central to humanity, bringing light to the mechanisms and structures which govern the natural world. 

We all know how portraits were the old selfies. Instead of having a phone stuck to the end of a stick, an artist would sit in front of a canvas for hours until their painting was completed. But even in the past there were ways of stopping time with quick yet precise drawing techniques. Indeed, botanical illustrations did just this.

Travelling and exploring, the botanist observed to investigate natural objects. In fact, it is a curious and questioning drive which lay behind the botanist’s work. Drawing and watercolour paintings served the botanist’s purpose helping to capture the details of the leaves, petals and insects. We can even affirm that the initial simple and pure curiosity of the botanist became deep observation only thanks to the use of artistic tools. 

Drawing, sketching and painting allowed objects to be represented with an extreme level of detail - just like digital photographs do today. By capturing the instant, freezing objects, plants and flowers, illustrative observations became the main tool for scientific analyses. This acute examination combined with biological and horticultural knowledge gave form to many systems of classification which are still valid today.

It is an old technique. The book ‘De Materia Medica’ created by Greek botanist Pedanius Dioscorides for medical purposes, traced this practice back to 50-70 AD. But the use of drawing for this scope continued throughout history. It became extremely common in the Era of Enlightenment and spread with the use of print in the Eighteenth Century. 

Today, the different tools and techniques which were used in botanical drawings are still commonly used in visual research. Indeed, even though many innovative mediums have been introduced, the basic mediums, methods are still extremely important.


.Rob Harris, Installation view of The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and The Cosmic Tree at Camden Art Centre, 2020, Courtesy of the Camden Art Centre ©Rob Harris.


What tools were used to capture fleeting objects, moments or visions?

Humans have always had the irrepressible need to document, trace and represent their surroundings. Biology and botanical studies have seen scientists use fast, precise and lifelike techniques to draw the most common and the rarest specimens of plants, flowers and animals all over the planet. Watercolours in particular have been a favourite.

Before the majority could photograph anything on a daily basis, watercolours were by far the preferred medium. Watercolours are easy to pick up and fairly simple to use. It may in fact seem like a boring basic technique, however, watercolours are difficult to master completely. If used skilfully they can create either light vivid scenes or haunting atmospheres, shimmering water or delicate shadows.


Paul Newland, Bright River, n.d., Courtesy of the Royal Watercolour Society ©2021 ROYAL WATERCOLOUR SOCIETY.


A touch of Colour with Watercolours

Petals, leaves and insects come to life on the page with watercolour paints.

Traditional watercolour paints are found in small dry rectangular blocks of colour. These paints are basically simple pigments plus a water-soluble-binder – a gum.  Actually, to be a little more precise this little coloured block is made out of four essential ingredients. As well as the pigment and the binder, additives (like glucose, glycerine and wetting agents) and preservatives (like honey) are added to maintain the colour in time and influence the viscosity of the paint.

Watercolour paints are ‘water media’ - just like acrylics, inks, tempera and gouaches.  To be used they are mixed with water. The binder dissolves and the pigment particles tint the water with their colours. Other than the paints - and water - the artist only needs a simple paintbrush and a piece of paper. 

Thin layers of paint are applied, a thin wash of colour, with a wet brush. One over the other. It is a very different to oil paints or acrylics. In fact, instead of having thick layers, the artist plays with the transparency of the medium to create the shades and the colours, leaving the blank empty white paper for the pure light.

With watercolour paints, the colours can be created through mixing or, thanks to the transparent quality of this medium, layered. When layered, the colours blend, becoming darker, giving depth and tridimensionality to the work. 


Jaques Le Moyne de Morgues, Daffodils and a Red Admiral Butterfly, ca. 1575, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


The advantages of watercolours are the luminosity and fast drying quality of this type of paint. This is what distinguishes this technique from others. More than any other method, they create cohesive backgrounds, details and bright effects thanks to their delicate semi-transparency. Indeed, this is the key to the art of watercolour. This what gives paintings their tonal depth and luminosity. 

This technique offers many possibilities for those who use it with skill, knowledge and patience. But it is also really simple to overdo it with this medium losing control by using an excessive amount of water. 

They are also greatly unpredictable. It is extremely easy to ruin the paper or create messy pieces because one does not know how to balance the colours or judge the absorbency and strength of the paper used.

However, the realistic effect which many botanists have achieved is incredible. It truly is a lifelike medium for a trained hand – a fit substitute for the photographs used nowadays.


Evelyn Cheston, Betchworth Lane, October 1917, Courtesy of the Tate ©Tate.


Other Essential Tools: Pencils, Charcoal, Chalk and Ink

Other tools can equally grasp a view and freeze shadows extraordinarily. These were more common among artists than with botanists – but the aim of imitating reality was still the critical focus of their application.

The first classic tool to use when sketching is graphite. It is the number one essential tool. For many artists it is even the first thing they reach for when creating a piece. Graphite is the tool from which many artworks originate. The graphite pencil is the form in which we find this medium today. Common, basic pencils – but for artists these are a practical and indispensable tool.

They trace or mark, adding shadows and definition at the same time. Indeed, the graphite inner core of the pencil can be soft, fine, hard or be thick. It is essential to know that there are multiple types of pencils. This is what gives an artist a free expressive style. The choice of a particular pencil gives the creative the possibility of using one which fits their own hand, style and helps them achieve the effect they desire. Just pencils – yes, but with such an incredible variety that they can be the starting point, and even the end.

Many other alternative techniques can also to create realistic drawings. Charcoal sticks have been used in a very similar way to graphite. They create a more sketch-like effect. The possibility of blending can create interesting effects for shading, textures giving a tridimensionality to the scenes, objects and figures drawn. Ink – classic black china or coloured ink – can be used to create stronger outlines and shapes.

The use of charcoal, chalk, graphite and watercolours can be traced back in time. Whether for observational, ritual, artistic, or scientific purposes, these classic methods have been used and reused throughout history. The techniques have been employed by professional artists and are still in use today. 

They give access to a very pure way of looking at things, but it also provides knowledge to the creator. In fact, although with time the essential tool of illustration is no longer essential to the botanist, it continues to be essential for artistic examination – but imitation is no longer the fundamental and final purpose.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Bule Rigi, Sunrise, 1842, Courtesy of the Tate ©Tate.


Contemporary Sketching: Creative Freedom and Infinite Tools

Today, theconcept of using artist skills to investigate and reproduce is largely still applicable. Many of the tools have remained the same. 

While travelling, on the go or to fix an image, scene or idea, artists can scribble on the corner of a notebook, random pieces of paper and even on a receipt or the back of a document. This can be the starting point for a composition, the reference for a project and the details which make a piece feel alive.

Using basic and simple techniques which do not require too many tools is essential for this time freezing moment of artistic enquiry. The right tools can give artists the flexibility they need: the possibility of travelling easily and working only for brief moments.

Contemporary artists have a wide range of materials at their disposal. For instance, pens are an immediate alternative to charcoal or graphite, even used to strengthen the definite outline sketched with pencils. Pens, in different colours or thicknesses, can be used to create fine precise lines or strong black outlines. Felt-tips or markers can also be a way of giving colour, boldness and graphic results to sketches.

Watercolour paints can now be found in many different forms, shapes, consistencies, and colours. They can be found as watercolour pencils (with a coloured core, similar to regular pencils) or watercolour tubes (similar to gauche paints). 

Of course, the idea is the same as that of watercolour blocks, but the artist can achieve a more intense colour than that which can be produced with the traditional paints, more detail can be given, and it is easier to control the quantity of water which is being applied to the paper. After a wet brush, or a water brush, is used to mix the colours. 


Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Apollo and Daphne, ca. 1630-1664, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Traditionally, with watercolour paints the layers are left to dry for a few minutes before others are added, but wet-on-wet techniques are becoming more and more common. These are used to create leaks between colours and when mixed with different inks and markers they can create strange unpredictable abstract effects. 

Nowadays, techniques are combined without following strict academic rules. Rather artists and creatives let their instincts and sensibility guide the sketch to present the perception or concept, essence or atmosphere that they want to achieve. Collages and text have become integral part of many works. Pens, paints, colour and strong marks are used together to create the desired result.

The techniques have relaxed in the hand of the artist. Nevertheless, the purpose remains that of enquiring and exploring, even though the form of mediums are different - whether tube, pencil or pen – and the techniques have evolved from those of the past.

With the combination of different techniques and tools becoming more and more widespread, the sketchbook becomes a place for imagination, creativity and experimentation. The work evolves depending on how one feels and what tools are available – sometimes the messier the results the better. It is not all about accurate observation anymore, instead the artists work is an insightful interpretation of the world.

In some ways, it is as if the artist is liberated from the scientific, methodical and academic purpose of sketching in the past.Their works do not have to be an imitation of nature. It is not all about achieving a perfectly beautiful image, landscape paintings or the perfect shade. Today, photographs, scans and microscopes can be used for pure documentation. If artists choose to represent things exactly, this is a choice – not an obligation. They are freed from the constraints of the past.

However, this does not mean the works are less methodical, and a scientific character is definitely not to be considered superior to an artistic purpose. It is still research, yet it is a visual, creative and conceptual one, more personal and less determined.


William Tillyer, The Buttress, n.d., Courtesy of the Royal Watercolour Society ©2021 ROYAL WATERCOLOUR SOCIETY.


The importance of the Basic Techniques

Overall, the method of sketching has not been abandoned. Actually, it has hardly evolved at all. Although many things have changed since these first botanical studies, it is surprising to see how the essential mediums for visual research are still in use today.

Of course, new tools and techniques are used. Even the classic mediums have been reinvented – like dry blocks transformed into watercolour pencils. Changes have occurred but the meticulous and essential importance of the sketches have remained. These tools are still central for the artist, and the basics are still there.

Centuries have passed but sketches, pencils, watercolour paint, and many other tools (even though in different shapes and forms) still allow artists to elaborate, study and analyse. But instead of being centred on observation, the aim is to transform, reinterpret and create. 

Just like with Science, the initial examination is what leads Art to question our world, our preconceptions and how we perceive the world we inhabit. It has even unravelled the western and man centred society we live in – the complex relationship with the other, and the natural world.

‘Sketching’ is observation and experimentation. By capturing and transforming, fundamentally the artist allows space for all that is artistic.


Cover image: William Tillyer, The Buttress, n.d., Courtesy of the Royal Watercolour Society ©2021 ROYAL WATERCOLOUR SOCIETY.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.