How to Foreshorten Leaves: Basics

Learning to foreshorten leaves will allow you to draw them from any angle, adding life and dynamism to your sketches. Foreshortening causes some surprising distortions of the leaf shape.

To help you intuitively understand these changes, download and print the leaf model and follow along as you study this post, comparing what you see in the model with the demonstrations.

Click on the first image to start a slide-show tutorial.

How to Draw a Cone-shaped Flower

The shape of the ellipse of the outer edge of the cone and the location of the flower bottom are the two most important reference points to catch in your preliminary sketch. This fairly stiff demonstration emphasizes the geometry of the shape. Keep these steps in mind when drawing a real flower. This framework will help you capture the geometry of the flower. On top of this you can add the individual character and twists of individual petals (a topic for another blog).

Click on the first image to start a step by step slideshow.

How to Foreshorten Flowers: Disk vs. Cone

Flowers with petals in a flat disk foreshorten differently than cone-shaped flowers. The center of a flat disk will always appear at the center of the ellipse that forms as you tilt the disk, viewing it from an angle. The center of a cone will drop from the center of the ellipse as you tilt the cone away from you. The steeper the sides of the cone, the faster the center will drop as you tilt it.

You will see the center point of the cone inside the bowl of the cone (that forms the ellipse) until it drops below the edge of the cone. Then it appears below the cone and you start to see the underside of the cone.

Print out a paper flower model and modify it to create a cone to follow along with this demonstration. Then click on the first image to start the tutorial.

How to Foreshorten Flowers: widths, lengths, and angles

Flower ForeshorteningStudy the way that angles and proportions change on a foreshortened flower. Petals and the negative spaces between petals that connect to the short axis (top and bottom) of a foreshortened ellipse keep their width but become shorter. Petals and negative spaces between the petals that connect to the long axis (sides) of a foreshortened ellipse keep their length but become narrower. Because the proportions of the top and bottom petals change, they may appear to get wider while the side petals appear to get longer. This is an illusion as you can see by following the red lines in the illustration on the right.

The diagrams below highlight subtleties in these changes. In the first column, I have taken a simplified flower shape and squished it to replicate angles seen in foreshortened flowers. I then rotate the flower shapes so that the petals point to different points around the circle and re-squish the flower. Finally I rotate foreshortened (squished) flowers so that the long axis of the ellipse is no longer horizantal. As you study this post, it will help to hold a paper flower model that you can tilt and study. Download one here.

Click on the first illustration to start a step by step sideshow.

As you foreshorten flowers, notice changes in petal width and length. Petals closer to the vertical position get shorter but maintain their width. Petals closer to the horizontal position get narrower but maintain their length.

Now observe the negative spaces between the petals and the length of the arc segment between each petal. Arc segments on the top or bottom of the ellipse are longer with wider petal angles than on the sides.

Flowers can rotate on three axes. The flower may rotate within the circle as we see in the first row. The flower may tilt toward or away from you as we see in the subsequent three rows. Finally the axis of the foreshortened oval may also tilt as in the last row.

How to Draw Wildflowers I (video workshop)

Learn to draw wildflowers!

Enjoy the beauty of spring wildflowers. Drawing them will help you get to know them better and will help you see aspects of your favorite wildflowers that you have never noticed before. This introductory workshop will teach you:

  • How to understand basic flower structure.
  • How to capture the symmetry of wildflowers with simple lines.
  • How to foreshorten your sketches of wildflowers so you can draw them from any angle.
  • How to foreshorten cone-shaped flowers
  • For advanced journalers, a subtle way that foreshortening changes the shape of leaves and petals observed at a 45 degree angle.

Before watching this video, download and cut out the paper leaf and flower models. They are essential tools for learning this material.


Download Leaf and Flower Models

Here you can download paper models to help you learn or teach how to foreshorten leaves and flowers. If you are an individual learning to draw, download the “leaf-flower set”. If you are a teacher, download the “leaf set” and the “flower set”. These are pages with multiples of each model to reduce paper waste. Cut the leaf model to the edge of the illustration. Cut the flower model out as a disk, cutting from petal tip to petal tip (not following the flower edge between the petals. Once you have cut out the flower disk, make a single second cut between two petals, straight to the center point of the circle (vertex).

To use the models, close one eye and hold the models at eye level. Rotate the models and observe how the perceived proportions of length and width change. Also notice how the angles of the tip of the leaf, veins, and negative spaces between petals change. To take the leaf model to another level, turn it over and trace the vein lines with a pencil on the back side. Then curl the leaf model gently. Observe the shapes and angles when you can see both the top and the bottom of the leaf. Once you understand how the widths and lengths of the petals change as you rotate the flower model, you are ready to study cone-shaped flowers. Turn the flower model over and trace the petal shapes on the back of the paper. Then overlap two of the petals to form a cone. Now observe how the proportions of the petals change as you rotate the cone (again with one eye closed and the model at eye level). If you study this model, you will develop an intuitive understanding of how to foreshorten flowers.

Using paper models to teach and understand leaf and flower foreshortening is a very effective way to learn and teach. I have developed and refined this system through teaching classes and experimentation. I give my permission to use these materials to any teacher who would like to use them. Please give an acknowledgment where appropriate and let your students know about other learning resources on this site.

Leaf-flower set

Flower set

Leaf set


How to Draw Trees in Winter

Just in time for spring, a lesson on how to draw trees in winter!

Without leaves, deciduous trees reveal their distinct architecture. Each species has a characteristic form  primarily described by crown shape and branch angles. No step-by-step can replace the value of real observation but armed with a few tricks, you will be better able to draw what you see. Adapt these ideas to the real tree shapes before you.

My Top Tips

  • Start with deep observation. Describe the shape of the tree before you out loud. What makes it different from the other trees around it? Attend to the size and locations of the major branch units or clumps of the tree.
  • Begin drawing from the top down, connecting smaller branches to larger ones. Observe the angles at which the smaller branches connect to each other and to the major trunk. Make sure to enlarge the trunk as you descend.
  • Look for the major branch units of the tree and show this structure by drawing a light arch above each unit and drawing down from there. This gives you the shape of the crown, a critical detail to represent individual species.
  • How do you draw all those fine little branches? I don’t! Instead try using an area of light tone in the areas of the densest small twigs. This can be created with light watercolor or a paper smudging tool on graphite.

Click in the first image in the series to begin a step-by-step tutorial.

Journal More, Journal Better

butterfly valley sketchingHave you made several starts at keeping a journal but found it hard to keep at it? Are you in a journaling rut and need to get unstuck? Here is a simple plan to help you set realistic goals, get you sketching and journaling, and to help you keep at it. You can do this, and it will change your life.

It does not help to tell yourself that you “should” be journaling more. To make it happen, set clear goals for yourself. At first the push to start journaling more regularly will feel unnatural or forced. That’s because it is. It’s not yet your habit or routine. Do not be put off if it feels a little like work at the start.  You are training yourself to make a new habit. Once it becomes a part of your routine, it will feel natural and you will do it all the time on your own accord. Use the S.M.A.R.T. formula to set better goals.

Specific: Instead of saying “I want to keep a nature journal” be as detailed and specific as you can. Answer the questions: What are you going to do? Why do you want to do it? Where are you going to journal? When are you going to do it? I am really interested in natural history so my goal might look like this: I want to keep a journal of natural observations, and places I explore. I want to do this to help me observe the events of my life and the world around me more deeply and to help me remember these experiences. I will journal on my travels and on walks around my home. I will journal on my birding walks, nature hikes, and other expeditions in addition to around my home when I find something interesting.

Everyone will have different goals. An equally exciting goal would be to capture the people, places, and events of your live, sketching in cafes, over a bowl of soup or a good taco, at concerts or other venues. The question is what are you excited about? What do you want to do?

Measurable: A number of pages per week is a measurable goal. You will be able to hold yourself accountable and measure your progress. Remember, it is a numbers game. The best way to get better is to fill more pages.

Attainable: If you decide to fill 100 pages a week, you will probably fall short of your goal (at least I would). Choose a number that you can do but will push you a little outside of your comfort zone.

Realistic: You will get better, give it time. Do not judge yourself on how pretty a picture is, but attend to what you discovered, or how much richer your memories of the moment have become.

Timely: When and how often are you going to open your journal? Think about the fabric of your day. Every moment is already filled so how can you fit in something new? Journal entries need not take hours. Let yourself get out your journal to catch fifteen minutes here and ten minutes there. Try connecting routines that you already have with the practice of journaling. If you have a cup of tea every morning, open your journal at the window at the same time. If you go birding or hiking, start to journal on these expeditions.

Now what do I do?

So there you are, journal in hand, out in nature, what do you do? The infinite range possibilities are overwhelming. Here are a few tricks to jump-start you and help you begin. Rather than trying to do everything, pick a little piece and do that well. The constraint will help you to focus.

One way to do this is the alphabet trick: Pick a letter of the alphabet (lets say B). Think of things that start with the letter B that could become the focus of a little investigation (birds, beetles, berries, things that are blue, etc.). Choose one of these and use it as a lens through which to see the world. You will be amazed at what you notice when you start looking for blue everywhere… Oh, and if you choose berries, be sure to add a smear of the juice on your page next to each sketch. The next time you go out, pick a different letter. There is always something to explore.

The most important thing is that you believe that you can do this. Throw yourself into it and you will find the skills growing within you.


Nature Journaling with your Family

I was recently invited to write a guest post for Ronnie’s Awesome List, a blog for families in the North Bay. Some of the content you will recognize from the post Journal More, Journal Better but it also includes new material to help inspire you to get journaling with your family. I hope you enjoy it.

How to Draw Aspen and Steal Inspiration

In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon urges his readers to get comfortable with the idea of taking inspiration from other’s work, stealing the best ideas and making something new with them. Look at the work of other artists and naturalists as a smorgasbord of ideas and techniques. Don’t just sit there and say “wow, that is soooooo good” but mine art your respect for ideas and techniques that are portable. See what you can take and use in your own work. I do this all the time. A close look at my work will reveal echos of Clare Walker Leslie (the author of my first and most influential book on nature drawing), Hannah Hinchman, Cathy Johnson, and other wonderful teachers. Find work that you like, figure out why you are drawn to it, then try those new ideas yourself.

This step-by-step tutorial of how to draw aspen in winter is a good example of how I take other’s ideas and make them my own. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow that takes you through the process of drawing the trees with watercolor and gouache.