How I Made My First Graphite Composition

This is a re-post from my old blog that explains how I did my very first botanical illustration composition in graphite.

I think composition is one of those things that may come easy for some and not so easy for others. My experience is that some days I have it and some days I don’t.  It kind of reminds me of when my husband sits down to play piano.  Even though he has been playing piano for almost 50 years, he has days when the music just flows out of him almost effortlessly and other days when he can’t seem to make it all work.

So it is with graphite composition for me.  Still, there is something to be said about consistent practice and persistent patience.

Hibiscus syriacus L.

I am working on a graphite composition for the flower Hibiscus syriacus L. which I have recently completed a botanical study on.  Because of my thorough study I know the parts of the flower pretty well, which is one of the keys to a successful composition.  How can you portray anything accurately if you don’t know and understand it inside and out, backwards and forwards?  I will talk with you about the details of my study in a later post and for now focus on the steps I have taken to create my composition.

I thought it would be best to refer to the overall plant while creating my composition.  I have two Hibiscus syriacus L. and I have kept them in pots so that I can study them easily whether I am inside or out.

I then chose two stems that I thought showed the various stages of the flower; i.e., bud, opening bud, almost fully opened flower and full flower, as well as the different shapes of the leaves.  I can't wait to get a better lighting set for my photography!!

Once I made my choice, I taped them to my white trifold foam display board.  I bought this board at Michaels and so far it works perfectly for taking pictures and holding my subjects in place while I sketch them out.  Using straight pens to attach them would work as well.

I made a quick decision on the position I put them in, just to get my creative juices flowing. I have found that if I take too long on this part, I won’t do anything and it will just be time wasted.  So I start something whether I end up using it in the long run or not.

Quick Drawing In My Sketchbook

Once I had them in place, I made a quick drawing in my sketchbook since they won’t last long without water.  For my drawing I used my dividers and my little ruler to get the size correct.  Holding my divider arm’s length away, but straight in front of the subject, then closing one eye, gives me an accurate measurement of my subjects.

The Tracing

The next step I took was to trace this onto a sheet of tracing paper which allowed me to cut it up and tape it into different compositions if I desired to do so.  I also proceeded to trace all of my drawings of individual leaves, buds, flowers and even my dissected pieces from my original study. as shown below...


This allowed me different pieces from my original plant sketches to work with for a final composition.

I actually ended up submitting the above composition along with my dissected sketches to my botanical illustration teacher thinking that it was a pretty good composition.

But the X shape through the middle with the stems was definitely a bad choice and the two flowers together would not work either.  What better way to learn, however, than to make mistakes, and I felt good that I had at least the beginnings to my composition.

I thought I would move things around a bit and in doing so I came up with two more ideas that I just threw out to my teacher.  I knew they weren’t quite working, but I really didn’t understand why, so I just kept trying.

After reading through my teacher’s thoughts and suggestions I came up with what I really thought was an amazing, but simple composition… Now she had me thinking, and I felt that a breakthrough was coming…

But this still wasn’t quite it.  It had improved, but the stem running sideways through the composition didn’t make any sense and everything felt separate from each other.  The dissection of my whole flower seemed too large to work as well.

This time I took a few days to display it on my art desk and ponder it for a while.

I also spent a lot of time looking at other beautiful compositions, reading through Chapter 9 of Mary Ann Scott’s book “Botanical Sketchbook”, and on the third day, my juices began to flow again. I decided to start completely over, and this is what I came up with...

My teacher’s response was what I had been looking for all along and I was so glad she had pushed me to really think about making a composition and stop just throwing things out there.  It took time though.  It took patience, and practice and study.

Compositions Need To Be Botanically Correct

Compositions are hard and they are hard to learn the first time.  But the one thing that really stood out to me was that the composition needs to be botanically correct of the plant. It needs to reflect its true growth pattern and any other characteristics that make it different from other plants.

Next, I began adding leaves that gave some roundness to it so that it wasn't so straight down the right side.  Also, I added some leaves and flowers pointing away – to give it some depth and to show another angle.

At this point I was excited because I felt I had a foundation to work with and I looked forward to beginning my shading and bringing some reality to it.

Transferring of The Composition

Once I had it just the way I wanted it, I traced over the back side of my tracing paper, then I flipped it right side up, laid it down on my watercolor paper and traced over it on the right side.  The graphite on the back side will be transferred lightly to my watercolor paper and it will be ready for shading and finishing.

After I had completed the tracing and filled in the lines to make them solid, I then lightened it with my putty eraser.  

Immediately when I began I could tell that my HB pencil would be too dark for my first layer, so I got out my trusty putty eraser and lightened it up, then switched to my 2H pencil which was lighter.

As I used my putty eraser to lighten the lines I worked in, the lines could no longer be picked up on the camera – but I can see them as I work… and yes, a magnifying glass comes in handy. Also, I use a folded piece of clean tracing paper to rest my hand on so I won’t smudge my existing work.

The paper I used is a cold press paper by Strathmore.  For my graphite composition this paper worked, but cold press paper does not work for watercolor purposes as I progress in my class. Instead the preferred watercolor paper of late is Arches HP in the 140lb ( do not buy the 300lb) or Canson Moulin de Roy 140lb or 300 or even Moulin de Roy 640g, all hot pressed.

At this point, the composition came along very slowly.  I started  to see shape to my leaves, but capturing where the light shined and where the shadows were was very difficult and was a very slow process taking great concentration.  I loved it!

After watching a tutorial on working a light colored flower in graphite, I was totally inspired and found myself moving right along and actually getting quite a bit done. I still had a ways to go, but I really enjoyed the process and looked forward to the glorious day of completion for sure!

Some days were hard and I thought that it would surely take me a lifetime to complete!

I often had to take time to lighten a bit with my putty eraser.

I started to feel like it wouldn't be long until I would finish, but I was also a little nervous about tackling that flower on the left that is facing away.  I ended up changing the two leaves above it slightly and now I’m glad I did.

Here I was still working on the buds above… They were not quite right.

I wanted to be done right here!  But I could see that the leaves needed some more depth to them so they didn't look flat like paper and the buds above were still not quite right.

I worked this composition with an HB Faber-Castell 9000 graphite pencil, lightly shading over the entire composition, being very careful to not press down which would indent the paper and make the graphite appear shiny when turned to the side.  I darkened for shadows only by using a darker pencil, such as a 4B with each layer as necessary, but not by pressing down.

At last!!!  I felt so good about it and I was done!   I signed the bottom with the name of the flower, Hibiscus syriacus L., then added Solum per Christum which means "In Christ Alone" in Latin, and added my signature and the year.  Then I wrote the common name on the back:  Rose of Sharon.

I absolutely loved it and I framed it!  I did however, get some really good feedback from my botanical illustration teacher, Dianne Sutherland, and I do plan to revisit this composition one day and complete it with some of the suggestions she made.

I hope you have enjoyed my composition process.  Please check out other posts on my blog and get inspired to cherish the things of God above all else!  

I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished, and the pomegranates budded.
— Song of Solomon 6:11