Improve Your Floral Illustrations: Observing Botanical Details for Artists & Designers | Lisa Ormiston | Skillshare

Improve Your Floral Illustrations: Observing Botanical Details for Artists & Designers

Lisa Ormiston, Artist, Bibliophile

Improve Your Floral Illustrations: Observing Botanical Details for Artists & Designers

Lisa Ormiston, Artist, Bibliophile

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9 Lessons (18m)
    • 1. Intro

    • 2. Materials

    • 3. Why Details Matter

    • 4. FlowerAnatomy

    • 5. ObservationFlowers

    • 6. Leaf Anatomy

    • 7. ObservationLeaves

    • 8. References

    • 9. ClassProject

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About This Class

Flowers are one of the most perennially popular subjects in the design world (pun intended). It's easy to take flowers for granted and slip into a generic or inaccurate visual language.

This class will ask you to step away from standard visual conventions. It will give you the tools to really see flowers, observe distinguishing details, and up your illustration game while retaining your individual style.

Topics include:

  • why observation before illustration is important
  • basic flower and leaf anatomy
  • observing distinguishing details
  • gathering references

Meet Your Teacher

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Lisa Ormiston

Artist, Bibliophile


Hello, I'm Lisa.

I have worked as a commercial artist for roughly the past two decades - mostly as an exhibit fabricator for natural history museums.

I really, really like learning and tend to collect skills like some people collect Pez dispensers or Precious Moments figurines. Making shoes and millinery flowers are amongst my favorite hobbies. Lately I have been concentrating on 2-D art and have become obsessed with pattern design. 

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1. Intro: Hi, I'm Lisa Ormiston. I live and work in the San Francisco Bay area. For quite some time now, I've worked off and on building exhibits for natural history museums. During this time, I've made a lot of botanically accurate plant models. Part of the process of making these models involves gathering references and observing certain details in order to make the most realistic looking model possible. Recently, I've decided to concentrate on two-dimensional work. I've looked around the Internet to see what's out there, concentrating mostly on floral illustration, because that's my favorite. I've seen a lot of really beautiful work out there. I also started to notice quite a few botanical inaccuracies, even on some of the most beautifully done work. This got me to thinking, why not take what I learned on the job, making models, and make it into a class for 2D artists? So in this class, I'll address the botanical details to focus on and observe in order to add a level of accuracy to your floral illustrations. I won't deep dive into botany and scientific illustration, is way beyond the scope of this class, so I won't even address it at all. As a side note, I just want to address the subject of imaginary flowers. I think they're great and have a really important place in the art and design world, and basically no rules apply to them. If you want to illustrate a specific kind of flower though, there are some details that are important to observe. 2. Materials: So let's talk a little bit about the materials you'll need for this class. First of all, you'll need some art supplies. You really can use whatever you already have around, whether it be acrylic paint, watercolor, pens, pencils, pastels, whatever you like, working with, the choices totally yours. Secondly, you'll need a notebook and a pen or pencil. You'll be using the notebook to take notes on the flowers you see and to document specific details you observe. If you don't have a notebook, any sort of paper will do. You'll also need camera for taking reference photos. Use whatever camera you like. I tend to use my phone most of the time. Finally, you'll need your eyes and your powers of observation. 3. Why Details Matter: Before I get into basic botanical anatomy and what details to observe, I want to briefly discuss the importance of observation before illustration and why details matter. In a nutshell, details are what distinguish one kind of flower from another. They also take an illustration from generic to specific. In the art and design world, flowers are so ubiquitous that it is easy to assume we know exactly what specific flowers look like, especially when we're familiar with them. But actually, even if we can identify a specific flower, we still may not know exactly what the distinguishing details look like when we go to illustrate it. We may think we know what a particular flower looks like, but without having the actual flower or a reference in front of us, what we "know" maybe inaccurate. What we then illustrate may look perfectly okay to us, but we'll look a little, or even completely off to someone else. Someone who really does know what that flower looks like. The point I'm making about distinguishing details is more obvious with this bear here. Most everyone is familiar with what a bear looks like. If you put large pointy ears on him, he looks a little off and he may or may not be identifiable as a bear. Put a rabbit ears on him, and he looks ridiculous and the ears definitely look wrong. When floral illustrations have errors in details, say roses have the wrong leaves or puppies have the wrong number of petals. No matter how beautifully done those illustrations are, they can look a little bit off. Here are some additional reasons details matter. Street cred. There's no faster way to lose it than to present an illustration chock full of errors. As harsh as this may sound, if you're flowers have the wrong number of petals, for instance, or the wrong leaves or the wrong growth pattern, those in the know may write you off as an amateur. Client satisfaction. If a client commissioned you to illustrate a specific flower, it's to your advantage to visually nail it. Respect for one subject. Because flowers play such a major role in the art and design world, they deserve to be really seen and not taken for granted. Finally, artistic development. Focused and intentional observation makes you a stronger artist. 4. FlowerAnatomy: This lesson covers the basics of flower anatomy. These basic terms are handy to know so you don't have to employ terms such as leaf thingy or little things with pollen on them. Here's a cutaway of a make-believe generic flower which clearly shows all the botanical parts a non botanist might be expected to know. The most prominent feature of a flower is its petals. Although sometimes petals are actually bracts. Bracts are defined as leaf-like plant parts below a flower or flower cluster. These dogwood flowers are a good example. The flowers are actually the teeny tiny guys and the cluster, which is surrounded by the white bracts. Most people don't differentiate between bracts and petals because visually they're pretty much the same. It's just nice to be aware that bracts exist. Back from the bract detour. Back to petals. All of the petals of a flower are referred to collectively as a corolla. Next step is the stem which supports the flower. Sepals are leaf-like segments that make up the calyx. The calyx forms a protective layer around the flower when it is in bud form. The stamens are the pollen producing reproductive organs of a flower. While the pistil is the seed bearing reproductive organ. 5. ObservationFlowers: In this lesson, I'll run down the details to observe when you want to depict specific kinds of flowers. Keep in mind, you may, depending on your style, simplify, or even just imply these details in your finished work. First off, you'll want to take in the overall shape of the flower and or the inflorescence. Botanical term alert, inflorescence is a cluster of flowers on one main stock. Next step is number of petals. The number of petals can be crucial to an accurate depiction, especially if a flower has less than 10 petals. The more petals of flower has, the less important it is to come up with the exact number. Number of sepals, there usually aren't very many on a flower, so the exact number can be pretty easy to figure out. Also, depending on the angle of the flower you're depicting, the sepals may not even be visible, in which case, you can ignore them altogether. Petal shape. Notice the overall shape of the petal and then focus on the more nuance details. In addition to the more obvious characteristics, you may want to observe how the petals move. Are they graceful and curvy, or more straight and rigid? The shape and thickness of the stem. In addition to observing the shape and thickness of a stem, notice the proportion in relation to the flower. Is it really long or is it on the short side? Inflorescence growth pattern. Each inflorescence growth pattern has a specific name. Knowing these names are beyond the scope of this class and not really all that useful. However, it is important to observe growth patterns, so I'll provide some visual examples of what to look for. Here's a straightforward example of one flower on a stem. Let's follow that up with some common but more complicated inflorescence patterns. This is an example of an inflorescence pattern made up of flowers that form a round dome shape, like an agapanthus. The next example shows a spiky growth pattern like a foxglove or a gladiola. Here's yet another possible growth pattern. Then there's the clustered inflorescence surrounded by bracts. This growth pattern is fairly common. Lily of the valley is a good example of it. Lastly, our two more possible growth patterns. There are more than I have shown. I just wanted to give you some examples so you know what to look out for. Finally, on our details to observe list is texture. Is your flower smooth or fuzzy? Is it thin and creepy, or thicker and clay-like? Next step, we'll take a closer look at leaves. 6. Leaf Anatomy: Leaves are often neglected in floral illustration. Generally, they're not as fun to illustrate as flowers are, and they're easy to take for granted, but they actually can be a key factor in identifying specific kinds of flowers, so, really, they're the unsung heroes of floral illustration. Here's an illustration of a rose, or is it a peony? At this stage, it could read as either one. If I add rose leaves, it reads as a rose. If I add peony leaves, then it reads as a peony. This experiment clearly demonstrates how important leaves can be in depicting specific flowers, and makes a great case for not taking them for granted and settling for just any old generic leaf. Speaking of generic leaves, here's a diagram of one which I'll use to go over the anatomical parts you may need to know. The very tip of the leaf is called the apex. The edge of the leaf is called the margin. Next are the veins. If you choose to depict the veins, make note of their growth pattern. The midrib is the large vein that runs through the center of the leaf. The base is the bottom of the leaf. The whole leaf is referred to as the blade. Lastly, there's the petiole, which connects the leaf to the stem. 7. ObservationLeaves: Here is a non botanists overview of what to observe in leaves. Overall shape. Is it narrow or wide, or maybe it's irregular. It is also helpful to note where the weight of the leaf is carried. Is it towards the bottom or the top? To easily see where the weight is carried, it is helpful to bisect the leaf and compare each half. A quick word about rose leaves, rose leaves are compound leaves. The definition of a compound leaf is, a leaf that is composed of two or more leaflets on a common stock. Meaning, all of this is one leaf, as is all of this. So if you see leaves like this in arose illustration, there are inaccurate. Another detail you will want to look at is, how leaves are attached to a stem. Some leaves are attached by the petiole and some leaves have no petiole. Leaf margins are definitely varied. Some are smooth and some are scallops, and others are serrated. Some leaves may be wavy along the margin. Other details to observe, the shape of the base, the shape of the apex, and texture. Leaf attachment patterns are also important to observe. Some common attachment patterns are opposite. This is where the leaves are attached to the stem directly across from each other. Alternate, in this pattern, the leaves are attached in alternating positions along the stem. Sometimes along the same vertical plane, and sometimes moving up and around the stem and world. In the world's pattern, the leaves radiate from the stem, like spokes of a wheel. 8. References: It's good to look at references, even if your illustrations are highly stylized or even veering towards the abstract. Looking at references gives you the option to make more informed and intentional decisions about your stylization. The best references by far are live models. When you can see an actual 3D subject from all angles, it is easier to observe all the necessary details. Plus your eye can capture a lot of details that a photo cannot. That said, it is not always possible to obtain a live model. In which case photos make excellent references. You can gather photos off the Internet. But I would encourage you, if possible, to take your own reference photos. Taking your own photos means you're seeing the actual flowers and observing them directly, as well as through your camera lens. Also, if your finished work closely resembles your photo, it is still 100 percent yours and you won't run into any copyright issues. There are plenty of instances when you can't get a live model or personally take photos. This is when Internet photos and photos from other sources are perfectly acceptable, given you use them purely as reference and no direct copying is involved. Some of my favorite sources for reference material are plant and seed catalogs. Books on botanical illustration, as well as actual botanical illustrations are also good. Here are some reference sheets I've put together. A good reference photo doesn't have to be beautiful. It doesn't need to be artistically led or well composed. The main function of a reference is to convey useful information. For this mysterious sheet, I included a photo showing the overall shape of the inflorescence. A close up of the flowers, a close up of the leaves, and a shot of the mature with wisteria vine. I could have included more, but I think this would give me enough information to produce an illustration of wisteria. For these camellia references, I included a close up of a mature flower, a young flower, some leaves, and finally some buds. These references would work well if I wanted to make, for instance, motifs to assemble into a repeating surface pattern. Though I might run into some trouble if I wanted to depict an entire camellia bush, as there are only close ups here. Be sure to cater your references to suit your project. You can start off with the bare minimum and add to your reference materials if what you originally gathered is inadequate for your needs. Also, don't hesitate to gather references from more than one source. 9. ClassProject: For your class project, I would like you to pick at least three specific kinds of flowers to illustrate. I picked rose, jasmine, and daisy, but feel free to pick any that interests you. The choice is yours. Then, using what you've learned about botanical details and observation, make a finished work of your choice. It can be anything you like. It could be wall art, maybe a greeting card or clip art, even a repeating pattern. I turned my three flowers into a thank-you card. My style naturally veers towards the somewhat realistic, but if yours doesn't, don't worry. The aim of this class isn't about making the style of your work more realistic. It's primarily about observation and making your work more intentional and informed. Finally, upload your finished work to the project gallery. I'm super excited to see what you make and huge thank you goes out to everyone who's taken this class. I really appreciate it. Bye.