More on Cast Shadows

CAST SHADOWS!!!! UGH!!!! I always work with one light source. It is very consistent and can be very rewarding once you get used to it. I find that once I got the “hang” of it, I am now able to make anything 3-dimensional at any time. Some people have a difficult time imagining where the light is coming from and opt to set up the lighting in a studio setting. I was taught to learn to imagine it and as I have been teaching it to others I have encountered people who struggle with it. I went to a local art/craft store called Michael’s and found the forms in wood. I painted them white and did the exercise of setting up the forms and my lighting. The cost was about $10. I also invested in plaster forms because I teach. These were around $75, and are really big and heavy. I have a few photos taken of the plaster casts that show how one form casts a shadow onto another. The shadows will vary in shape as to the shape of the form the shadow is cast onto. Here are 3 scenarios of how cast shadows vary in size and shape depending on the form they are cast onto.

Here the cone casts a shadow onto the cube. The cube surface is flat so the shadow conforms to the flat surface.

Here the cone casts a shadow onto a sphere. There is a slight space between the 2 objects and the shadow of the cone onto the sphere is curved to conform to the surface contour of the sphere.

Here the cylinder casts a shadow onto the cube. The cylinder is taller than the cube so the shadow folds over and hits the top of the cube.


When in doubt try to set up your objects and lighting to better understand how cast shadows are affected by the direction of the light and the objects involved in the composition.

The Dreaded Cast Shadow

Cube Cast Shadow for Upper Left LightingDo you struggle with cast shadows in your art? I am often asked where and how big cast shadows should be. I use the scientific method of lighting my subjects with the light coming from 11 o’clock at 45 degrees from the picture plane. I use cast shadows when an object is on top of a surface. Botanical and scientific illustration typically has the subject floating in space. If you are depicting your subject on a surface, a cast shadow will eliminate the appearance of floating. Cast shadows may also appear when one subject is in front of another. A simple example of this is one leaf in front of another leaf. The leaf in the foreground will cast a shadow onto the leaf in the background.

Here is simple diagram of a cube. Notice the grey back wall is casting the shadow onto the surface to produce the shadow. The length of the shadow is determined by the height of the cube and the 45-degree angle from the back left corner.

I recommend placing a piece of tracing paper over your drawings to figure out the angles and lengths of shadows. It can be very frustrating to add a shadow only to change your mind if it doesn’t look right. Erasing mistakes on your final paintings or drawings can often end up ruining hours of hard work. Doing this one intermediate step can help you avoid this pitfall.

If you are interested in learning more about light on form and drawing skills you might consider taking my online distance Foundation Drawing class.

Canon Rebel for Nature Reference Photography!

I have been drawing birds for a while and have started to take more and more photographs for photo reference for my paintings. I have invested my time and money in upgrading my camera equipment. I just bought the new Canon Rebel SL2. It is a DSLR- Digital Single Lens Reflex Camera which means it has the ability to take different interchangeable lenses. I researched cameras for a while and was overwhelmed with the amount of options and price points out there. I really enjoy getting out in nature whether it is at Disneyland or a local preserve. It is fun taking photographs but I really don’t like carrying all the bulky camera gear, lenses, tripods etc….. The Canon Rebel SL2 is a small light weight camera that also has video capability, wifi  and a wonderful flip out touch screen. I have had it for about a month and I am happy with it so far. I thought I would share some of the shots I have taken with it. I also purchased a 55-250mm Zoom Lens. This has been great for capturing birds at a moderate distance. The lenses that allow you to be far away and get great up close shots are lenses that are 400 mm and greater. They are very expensive!…. around $2000 and are heavy. It is possible to shoot with them without a tripod but there has to be a lot of light. I decided to stay under a $1000 for all my equipment and keep it light and portable. I will be going to Peru later this month and will be taking it with me. I am excited to see the new possibilities it can bring to my art! What camera do you use and what has been your experience? I would love for you to share your comments, challenges and experiences!

Photo taken at Animal Kingdom in Disney World.

White Ibis- Photo taken in a park.

Photo taken at Animal Kingdom, Disney World.

Close up using a zoom lens- Photo taken a Animal Kingdom in Disney World.

Tri-colored Heron- Photo taken in a nature park






Surface Contour for Botanical Artists


Where are the bends, twists and curves of any given object? Think of surface contour as a topographical map or the terrain of an object. To clearly see the surface contour it helps to create an armature drawing. An armature drawing shows the formation of how the different planes move, curve and shift. To simplify it, look at the basic forms. Each form can be broken down into specific planes or surfaces. The shape of each surface changes as lines go from being straight to being curved.

The overall shape of the artichoke is simply a globe on top of a cylinder. Within the globe there are cone shapes. In the drawing above I created a surface contour armature drawing to better understand how the artichoke grows. When it came time to tone the drawing, I transferred a simple line drawing onto my drawing paper and used the armature drawing as a road map. My application of graphite was placed on the paper in keeping with the surface contour. I used the scientific method of illuminating my subject to get the best form and detail. I often do this kind of preliminary drawing to get to know my subject better. By doing a study like this, I become familiar with the surface contour, light source, as well as the surface texture. When it comes time to do the piece in color I have already done a lot of the hard work.  Click here for a quick video on light on form and surface contour. There is more detailed information about how to render botanical surface contour in my book, ”

The Biggest Beetle EVER!

As many of you already know I LOVE bugs! Here is a favorite beetle I found while traveling in Costa Rica. It is a giant long horned beetle – Macrodontia batesi. It was 5 inches long! Most people are terrified when they see something this big because they think it will hurt them. This was a male beetle, noted by the elongated mandibles.  The word Macrodontia is from the Greek μάκρος (makros) meaning “long or large” and οδόντος(odontos) meaning “of teeth”. The males are usually larger than the females. They use their mandibles to fight off other males during the breeding season. The only danger they pose to humans is if you pick them up and stick your finger between the mandibles it will clamp down on your finger…… and it won’t let go! Here is a photo I took while in Costa Rica of this super cool bug and a painting I did of it afterwards when I got home. The painting is done in watercolor on calf skin vellum. The vellum had an irregular coloration and I thought this was interesting to work with.

Interested in going to Costa Rica to paint, photograph and find cool bugs? We are going in February 2018. Click here to join us!



Understanding Eyelevel

One of the most important aspects about drawing is training your eye to recognize the level that you are looking at something. All too often we don’t pay enough attention to the height of a subject in regards to the relationship of our field of vision. In this illustration I have drawn a tulip at three different view points.

The first drawing is “at my eye level”. I started out by drawing a simple cup shape to show you how the tulip breaks down into a simple form. Notice that the tulip is slightly going away from me. I do not see the inside and the dotted line on the cup shape indicates the circumference of the tulip.

The next drawing illustrates what happens when I slightly lower the tulip.  I was able to see the inside of the tulip as well as the back petals. The ellipse shows this as well.

The last drawing I positioned the tulip further downward.  This view point exposes the pistol and stamens. The shape of the ellipse is almost a perfect circle. The petals in the foreground become foreshortened.

The easiest way to get your drawing correct is to establish your view point or eyelevel and then determine if there are simple shapes like a cup or cone that you can work from. Getting the initial perspective correct is key to creating an accurate drawing.

Also don’t forget to make sure all the petals, pistols, stamens, and stems all line up at the center!

Happy drawing!


Interested in taking a class? Check out my online video classes.

Draw Through Your Subjects!

When you are drawing multiple images that overlap remember it is important to draw the background object through the foreground object. Erase any overlapping lines. This makes all of your lines read correctly. You can even decide to place a leaf that might be in the background in the foreground. Don’t be afraid to play with your composition until you are happy with it. I do this on multiple layers of tracing paper until I am happy that everything looks correct. The foundation of a drawing is the first and most often the most important step in creating a composition. If you are interested in learning more about composing botanicals try my Drawing Plants Class . It is 8 weeks of step by step instruction on how to accurately draw the many components of botanical illustration.

Costa Rica- Gorgeous Art Created by Jill Crouch

I am always amazed at the beautiful art that is produced after participants come home from a tour with me to Costa Rica. The 10 day tour is a whirlwind experience with so much amazing wildlife encounters it is difficult to know where to focus one’s attention. Part of my focus on these tours is to help artists gather information through field sketching, color notes and specific methods of photography to help the artist create works when they get back to their studios. One participant who has done a fantastic job at recreating art and the excitement of this tour is artist Jill Crouch. Jill continually amazes me with the beautiful art she creates. Here is what she has to say about her experience and some of the wonderful paintings she has produced.


In 2013, I was a retired research scientist with a love for nature and a strong desire to develop the skills necessary for capturing its beauty in a photograph, drawing and/or ultimate painting. Not knowing how, when or where to start, I immersed myself with a small group of similarly minded people into the jungles of Costa Rica. By bus we traveled with Mindy Lighthipe, a professional natural and botanical artist. The 10 days was packed with the knowledge and tools necessary for absorbing the attributes of nature in all its colorful glory. For me, this was the journey of a lifetime and an opportunity to explore any “hidden talents” I had yet to discover in myself. Each day was filled with a nature walk, a visit to an animal reserve, at least one natural wonder, and a “Master’s Class” in drawing, painting and/or photography, with continuous “how to” instructions for almost every imaginable curiosity. There were new lessons around every corner, more miracles to see and more surprises to experience. 

2Toed -Sloth- Watercolor © Jill Crouch

Four years later, I still “draw” on that experience for inspiration with my extensive library of photographs, documented notes, and sketches and paintings from our trip. Today, I have grown as an artist, I continue to take classes and I am starting to feel confident as an animal portrait artist whose journey began lovingly in the jungles of Costa Rica. 

Spider Monkey- Watercolor ©Jill Crouch

“Room for Everybody!” Watercolor ©Jill Crouch

If you would like to join us in 2018 we would love to have you! For more information click here.


Shooting Botanicals with the iPhone 7 Plus

I am super excited with my new iPhone 7Plus! Having a camera with me at all times is essential. You never know when you are going  to come across something special that you want to take a quick picture of. Lugging around cameras especially DSLR’s that have interchangeable lens can get heavy and cumbersome. One of the great advantages to these types of cameras is the “depth of field feature”. The longer the lens, the longer the field of view. You can take pictures of things further away and by using a “zoom” feature it brings the subject closer to you in the view finder. Things that are in the background tend to be out of focus. These lens usually are big and can even require a tripod. This kind of photography could not be done using a simple smart phone camera until now!

The two pictures below where taken with my iPhone 7Plus. My aloe plant was blooming and I wanted to capture the flower stalk for details and maybe a future painting. The photograph on the left shows the camera setting as “normal”. I just pointed the camera at the flower stalk and took the picture. As you can see my garden is full of other plants and the background is complicated, making it difficult to see the basic structure of the plant. In the iPhone 7 Plus there is a setting called “Portrait” and by switching the setting to this I was able to take the same photograph while blurring out the background. The structure of the flower stalk “pops” forward. The image is not perfect….. I am still learning but I can see the overall structure better and having both images really helps to see more of what is going on. Making sketches and color notes helps too but I didn’t have the time.

In addition to these two photos I went back to the original setting of “normal” on the phone and got closer to the subject. It was able to get some of the small details that I was unable to get with the other 2 photos. I am experimenting with all kinds of photography in preparation for the upcoming Art & Photography Tour to Costa Rica. I will be exploring more ways to work with smart phones, point and shoot as well as DSLR’s. Interested in joining us? We would love to have you. Click here for more info.

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