Looking but not seeing

I drew a maple leaf the other day. Just a doodle, really. I wanted to try out some newfangled coloured pencils. The pencil lines turn into watercolours if you trace over them with a wet brush. I got half way through my drawing when I realized something wasn’t quite right.

My doodle of a maple leaf – after fixing it.

I’d drawn the veins without looking at the leaf. I just drew what I thought was where they should be – sprouting along a single, central vein which ran from the stem directly up to the tip of the leaf. This is exactly not what maple leaf veins, in fact, do. There are several veins which all fan out from the base of the leaf. I caught my mistake and coloured over the misplaced veins. The final doodle is above. If you look closely, you can still see the misplaced ones.

It should be a simple thing to draw a maple leaf, especially when the leaf is right there in front of you. Maple leaves in general are not complicated drawing subjects. But you do have to put aside your assumptions and really see what’s going on in that leaf. This I didn’t do which is embarrassing because I’ve taken several botanical drawing courses as well as a gruelling year-long college botany course. You think I would know better.

But creating and then fixing that doodle reminded me of how drawing can offer a wonderful connection to a plant. When you study botany, a great deal of your time is spent identifying and naming parts of a plant. By seeing (and I mean really seeing) each part of a plant, you get a much better idea of what that plant is all about. What makes it unique. How it fits into the ecosystem around it both above and below ground.

This is one of my assignments for a botany lab. Drawing those roots gave me a whole new appreciation for cannas.

Drawing, or even just naming the parts of a plant, correctly is a great way to slow down and practice the art of seeing things for what they truly are. At the same time, you get to stretch your being-open-minded muscles. Learning how to avoid making quick assumptions is not an easy thing to do. I think it’s actually a life-long practice. But once you get the hang of consciously putting the brakes on what you think you know, it gets a little easier to apply the same thing to everyday life.

If you’re interested in trying your hand at sketching or painting plants, I highly recommend Shari Blaukopf’s online sketching courses. A Montreal-based artist and teacher, Blaukopf offers fun tutorials, using pencil, watercolours and gouache, to sketch bouquets of flowers and outdoor scenes. I took her Sketching Fresh Flowers course and loved it so much I signed up for her courses on capturing the colours of snow and painting sunsets.

Her flower sketching course offers some great opportunities to practice capturing the personality, so to speak, of individual plants in a relaxed, colour-happy way. No pressure to get everything botanically correct here. But you’ll probably find yourself taking a good long look at the plants you’re painting and enjoy seeing them in a whole new light.

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