In Praise of Drawing a Flower
It’s a day in June, and I am sitting in one of the most beautiful flower gardens in the northeast, Hollister House Gardens in Washington, CT. On my lap rests a spiral-bound sketchbook; at my side is a knapsack containing a set of graphite pencils, a box of colored pencils, an eraser, sunscreen, and a hat.
I am staring into a mass of white anemone with one particular blossom in my viewfinder, a white paper frame that allows me to see the details of the flower without being distracted by the others. It’s a trick that our drawing teacher, botanical artist Carol Anne Morey, taught us on the first morning of this two-day class.
The trouble is, the blossom keeps moving. Thin stems anchored by foliage are no match for the gentle breeze, and for over an hour my attempts to draw this simple flower are going nowhere. I spent much of that time analyzing its shape, the way the five petals overlap, where the leaves attach to the stem in proportion to the blossom, and the angle of the stem.
Drawing a flower requires skill but also patience and lots of time with no distractions. If you have knowledge or curiosity about the botany of the plant, that is even better. “Before drawing,” Carol Ann advised, “use your index fingers to outline the shape in the air.” She showed us how to make small circles and sweeping movements, like an orchestra conductor, to memorize the angles and see how everything fit together.
This was my first drawing class in many years and I admit I had low expectations of my abilities. I had read Carol Ann’s impressive bio, studied her intricate drawings, and knew that if all else failed, I could sit on a bench at Hollister House and be perfectly happy looking at the garden. And now as I was sitting on a stool, taking my time to look more closely at the parts of this flower and how they all fit together, I realized how little I knew about flowers. Why I had never done this before?
In this class, however, I was learning to draw and to observe, how to notice the tiny things that I never saw before, and to not be aware of how many times I used my eraser. I had chosen the anemone because I love the plant, but also because it looked like the easiest flower to draw with its single bloom of five petals on a slender stalk and cupped foliage. Yet as I attempted to draw the petals, I noticed the five petals were not of equal sizes: three larger ones were layered over two smaller. The bright yellow stamen comprised of tiny stems featuring even tinier dots of orange pollen at the ends. Even the leaves were complex, undulating edges that were not all equal sizes or the same as another anemone plant.
Emily Dickinson wrote: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I felt that way in this garden. Instead of seeing the colors, the shapes, and the forms as a group of flowers, I was learning to look more closely at the individual specimen. It was as if I was seeing the beauty, the grace, and the magic in a single flower for the first time.
The sun was hot and when we gathered back in the barn for shade and to compare notes, each of us placed our best drawing on the table and stood back to look. I’ve taken writing classes where critique is part of the process of learning, yet looking at everyone’s attempts to draw a flower, all I could think of was admiration. This exercise was much harder than anyone thought, and our collective work represented pieces of the garden that were captured on paper, each unique and stunning in its own way. There were peonies, foxglove, Canterbury bells, and iris. Large and small, dark and light. Each of us had taken away more from that garden than simply the pleasure of wandering through the flowers; all of us attempted to truly understand how a plant or a blossom grows.
A gardener designs and grows a garden, tends the soil and the plants, and watches as the seasons change. I learned on this day in June that you never really know a garden until you sit, quietly and patiently, with a sketchpad to capture the moment. I also learned that the whole plant kingdom is doing its best not overwhelm us by the pure beauty and magic of the existence of its blossoms, buds, and leaves. It’s up to us to take the time to notice.