Shape vs. Structure

There are two ways of visualizing what you want to sketch, seeing shape and structure. Block in your sketch using shapes then refine your drawing by double checking that the structure is accurately observed.

curling ribbon shapeA curling ribbon is a good model to begin thinking about surface shapes. Train your eye to catch the shapes formed by the green and blue sides. Each section has distinct angles and curves that are more easily seen and drawn in isolation from the rest of the ribbon.

curling ribbon structureOnce you have blocked in the drawing with shapes, back up and observe the structure. The near and the far edges are continuous lines. The purple and blue edges do not have to be the same shape. You also see the surface of the ribbon between the edges at every turn (green lines).

If you are drawing a leaf, start by visualizing the top and bottom surfaces. See the top and the bottom surfaces as individual shapes. Join them to create a leaf. Then draw the close edge with a heavier line to connect the parts of the leaf and to emphasize distance and space.

leaf shape

Now think about the structure. To make sure your mid-vein and the far side of the leaf emerge at the right spot, imagine you can see through the leaf and follow the curves of the lines that are blocked from your sight. These should make smooth curves (or in some cases loops).

leaf structure

How to Draw Wildflowers 2 (video workshop)

This is the second of a two part series on drawing wildflowers. Watch part 1.

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 workshop will teach you:
  • How to draw tight clusters of white flowers (yarrow etc).
  • How to draw curling and twisted petals and leaves (Iris, orchids etc.).
  • How to draw bilaterally symmetrical and tube-shaped flowers (Monkey Flowers).
  • How to draw flowers with many complex repeating parts (Lupine).

How to Foreshorten Leaves: Advanced

The way to foreshorten leaves that are oriented toward you or at a right angle to your line of sight is fairly straightforward. The proportions of the leaf will change but the leaf will remain symmetrical. However, when a leaf (or petal) is foreshortened and the axis is oriented at a 45 degree angle to your line of sight, it becomes asymmetrical. The more that one side of the leaf tip points toward the observer (while the other does not) the greater the asymmetry will be. Once you start looking for this asymmetry you will see it in petals and leaves everywhere.

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. To get this effect to work with the leaf model, hold the model at eye level, close one eye, rock the leaf back to a steeply foreshortened angle and then (keeping the angle) point the leaf tip over one of your shoulders.

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

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.