For most people this will seem like the driest post ever, but my fellow designers out there might actually find this quite useful!
Like so many other people, I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with botanical illustrations, and when you look closely at all the intricacies it’s easy to fall in love with them. You see them adorning everything from old stamps, bank notes, passport pages all the way through to modern day brand collateral. These types of illustration undoubtedly take serious skill, it’s as much of an art as it is a science. Get the proportions off and it’s instantly noticeable, shade with one line closer than the rest and you either have to apply that to the whole drawing or start again.
I cannot remember the exact name of the documentary that I watched (I will update this post when I do) but it was all about how illustrations for US currency is crafted and it was fascinating. And I know that illustration for currency is a massive leap from botanical/scientific illustration, but the sheer craftsmanship and the time spent working on one illustration certainly has its parallels. What was interesting was the group of individuals who create these illustrations undergo a highly selective process after having their portfolios scrutinised, those that are chosen spend over 10 years learning to draw in that particular style and refine their skills further. On top of that, the illustration themselves take years to finish so it doesn’t necessarily matter how talented you are, the need for patience will always remain.
But as for most artists, often it’s not about how long something takes, it’s about that visual reward we seek at the end. It’s a lasting relic, something tactile that is a sum of all the hard work, patience and years worth of practice that is funnelled into a final piece. Illustrations and artwork have the power to connect with people in ways no other medium can. So it’s no surprise that designers often look at ways of integrating illustration into brand identities as a way of crafting distinction. And I believe it’s because of this that people find botanical illustrations so charming. They represent a time where printing methods were a lot simpler, and in turn this may have inadvertently produced oddities or inconsistencies in the artwork but this merely adds to their charm. The illustrations themselves are beautiful in their own right, but it’s often the natural process of aging in the paper that helps propel that uniqueness further.
Over the years I have worked my way through countless tools hoping to capture a mere modicum of this particular style. I have experimented with various inks and brushes along the way but fine liners always seem to come out on top. They’re easy to control, they produce uniform lines and there’s no worrying about inks running together or waiting around for the work to dry. Out of all the fineliners I’ve been through, I’ve done a quick review on my top three – including my go-to brand for botanical style illustrations. Let me know if there are any others out there that you think are worth a shout!
In third place, we have the Pigma Micron fineliner. I picked a few of these up whilst in America, I felt like there was a point where I kept seeing them pop up in other artist’s Instagram feeds. Admittedly, the design of the pen looks good, so I wanted to test whether they lived up to the hype! Now, this is a good fineliner and the most expensive of the three, but for me not my absolute ‘go-to’ favourite. Why? In comparison to some of the others, the ink colour seems a little more faded – not a ‘Rich black’ – which you need for scanning intricate details. I also find the nib to be a bit too scratchy for my liking – only marginally though. With botanical illustration work, I feel as though you need something a bit smoother that glides across the paper. With this one I found that there would often be noticeable gaps in the lines – and ideally, you want to draw the lines once, rather than go over areas again and make some sections darker than others. If I had to rate this pen for this particular purpose I would give it a strong 7/10.
Next, in second place we have the UniPin fineliner. Now again, this is another good contender. The black ink we discussed in last entry? Not a problem with this one. The colour is a lot richer, especially on the thicker versions (i.e. the 0.5). No real qualms here but I do think this pen is a lot better suited to illustrations where you want to gradually build layers with shading. What’s also great is that out of all three, this is the cheapest option – so, great for practicing with! I’ll give this one an 8/10.
This Staedtler Pigment Liner has been a long-time favourite of mine – we’re probably talking since GCSE Art, so years. Perhaps that’s partly why I’ve placed it at number one – the sense of familiarity. Staedtler tends to be a good, reliable brand and I use them a lot for other things. I like that they offer a 0.05 size where most brands offer 0.1 as their smallest. These fineliners are smooth, easy to work with and don’t leave gaps in the lines. Whenever I create a botanical illustration like the one pictured above, 98% of time it has been created with this pen. The other 2% of the time, I’ve probably forgotten where I’ve placed the pen. I’ll give this one a 9/10 because there could still be something out there that’s better, I just don’t know about it yet!
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Let me know in the comments if you have any favourites!