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, ”

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.

Protect Our Waters- Stop the Spread of Invasive Plants

I recently had the opportunity to create this painting for IFAS- Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. The project was designed as a new product for educators and aquatic plant management enthusiasts. Many people are unaware of the damages invasive plants can do to the environment. Back in 2012 I took a  week of Plant Camp studies through IFAS. I was blown away by how many invasive species of plants and animals are wreaking havoc in the USA and Florida in particular. The climate in Florida is the only sub-tropical ecosystem in the USA. It harbors many species that can not survive in the colder climates. The 6 plants depicted in my painting are the top 6 invaders in Florida’s waterways. They are choking the lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. Many invasive plants are available at garden centers and places like Lowe’s and HomeDepot because there is no regulation prohibiting their sale. Regardless of whether you live in Florida or any other part of the world…. when choosing plants for your landscape find out the latin name of the plants you are thinking of purchasing and research them before you purchase. It is well worth the small investment of the time it takes to research the plant than the time and energy you will spend trying to eradicate it from your garden. To find out more about invasive plants visit IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants Website.

Click here for to read the full article written and published by Aquaphytes pages 7 & 8.

INVASIVE plants 

1. Alligatorweed (Alternanthera philoxeroides) is an emersed plant native to South  America.

2. Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is a free-floating plant; nativity disputed.

3. Torpedograss (Panicum repens) a wetland grass native to Africa, Asia and Europe.

4. Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a free-floating plant native to Brazil.

5. Giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta) is a floating plant native to South America.

6. Hydrilla  (Hydrilla verticillata)  is a submersed plant native to Africa, Asia, and Europe

For more information on the above species, visit the University of Florida/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants website:

NATIVE animals

7.  Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

8. Yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta)


9. Alligatorweed flea beetle (Agasicles hygrophila) is used as a biological control agent introduced to control alligatorweed.

10. Dragonfly is a beneficial native insect that eats mosquitos.

11. Dragonfly nymph is a casing left behind after the adult emergence.

12. The mosquito is an insect pest that can harm humans and animals; it breeds beneath dense aquatic weed infestations.

Florida Society of Botanical Artists Exhibition

In December of 2016 I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a group of artists at the Florida Society of Botanical Artists in Sarasota Florida. The society is a local chapter of the American Society of Botanical Artists. This was the third time they invited me to teach the group. This particular workshop was about drawing birds. I teach a variety of subjects and incorporate some ornithology anatomy in my Intro to Scientific Illustration class at the University of Florida. I wondered why this group wanted to work with birds instead of botanical subjects…….. The answer is they were preparing for an exhibition at the Sarasota Audubon Society which is located at The Celery Fields.

The exhibition is titled “Backyard Beauties” and will show case beautiful paintings of native plants and birds found in the unique ecosystem of The Celery Fields. Native plants are very important to the survival of many local and migrating species.

The Celery Fields is a 360+ acre site which consists of open marshlands, deep ponds, shallow pools, and canals. It is edged with oaks, willows, and pines. In early 2001, Sarasota Audubon began conducting bird surveys at the Fields. To date, 217 species have been recorded. Wintertime offers particularly good birding, hosting sparrows, Marsh and Sedge Wrens, and several species of rails, including Sora and Virginia. The Fields also host breeding birds, including Black-necked Stilts, King Rail, Least Bittern, Limpkin, Purple Gallinule, Eastern Towhee, Barn Owl and Eastern Meadowlark. Least Terns breed on nearby buildings and use the ponds as a primary food source. Rarities show up from time to time, including Upland and White-rumped Sandpipers, Short-eared Owl and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.

Sarasota County, recognizing the importance of the Celery Fields as a food and habitat source to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife, worked with Sarasota Audubon to restore 100+ acres in the Southern Cells into a more traditional wetland.

If you are in the area please visit The Celery Fields, do some nature hiking and see some of the wonderful art by the Florida Society of Botanical Artists. Details about the exhibit are located on the flyer.

ASBA- NY Horticultural Society 18th Annual International Botanical Art Exhibit

This year My Biriba Fruit with Hairstreak Butterfly; Annona mucosa, Atlides polybe painting was accepted into the ASBA- NY Horticultural Society 18th Annual International Botanical Art Exhibit. The exhibit will be up until December 30, 2015. Here is the story behind the painting.

Biriba Fruit- ©2014 Mindy Lighthipe

For the past 25 years I have traveled to Costa Rica and Central America to lead botanical and natural science artists into the rainforest. The diversity of species within the Neo-Tropics is astounding. The rainforest has become my classroom, where I learn and teach. Last year we visited the Tiskita region on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. While hiking on a trail near the ocean I looked up and saw the Biriba Fruit hanging from the trees. The unusual shape and color was something I was immediately fascinated with. These fruits look like ancient flails. They hang at the end of a long stem that is reminiscent of a ball and chain. Fortunately the spikes are rounded and soft and are considered by many to be an edible delicacy. I was able to draw the fruit, the leaf and stem in my sketchbook as well as create watercolor notes for the painting once I returned home.

On the same trip I met a woman who was in the last stages of terminal cancer. One of her wishes was to visit the rainforest and see as many different butterfly species as she could. As we walked along together she spoke of her love of butterflies. We immediately bonded as kindred spirits. The hairstreak butterfly in this painting was one that we spotted on our brief encounter together. The area was just down the ocean path from where I found the Biriba Tree. I sat with her and we quietly took pictures of the butterfly. I never saw the woman again but our chance meeting had an impact on me. Upon my return I painted the Biriba fruit and decided to put the butterfly into the composition. I felt it was a way to tell the story of my encounter with her; a small, fearless butterfly resting peacefully on a terrain of many peaks and valleys.
As a botanical and natural science artist I paint things depicting the interconnectedness of plants and insects in the natural world. Many of my works depict the lifecycle of butterflies with their host plants. This particular painting is more about the chance meeting of these two species and my chance meeting with another nature enthusiast.

Back to Basics!


PinFreebieSeptember brings a change in the season and for me it always means back to school. Ever since I can remember I went back to school in September, whether it was as a student or as a teacher. It is a time which reminds me to go back to the basics. As you already know I teach art. I have taught a variety of subjects and techniques throughout my teaching career. For me the most important aspect of creating art  and teaching it is in the Foundation of DRAWING. For botanical and nature artists, it is all about getting the underlying structure of our subjects in proportion, scale, form and detail. Knowing the basics and using them every time I put the pencil to the paper has made a huge difference in my own drawings and paintings. The more I draw, the better I see, the more I understand and the better I can convey it in my art.

On September 16 I have 2 online classes starting. The Foundation Drawing Class goes in-depth about the fundamentals of drawing for botanical and nature subjects. Drawing on the Beauty of Plants goes in-depth, step by step to drawing plants. Both are taught in graphite.

To the left is just a short list of the things I do every time I draw. I decided to prepare a 10 minute video as a slide presentation to jump start you “Back to School”.

If you are already on my email list you received the video via email a few days ago. Check your email to get the link or email me at:

What? you are not on the email list? In an effort to grow my email list and spread my drawing tips and techniques I created an Opt-in Page for you to get my free content. I promise not to SPAM you or share your email address. You can Opt-out anytime you like.

To get started click the box below:


If you are so inclined…….. share this with friends, save it to a Pinterest board or shout out a tweet! I appreciate you visiting my blog.

Happy Drawing!


Careers in Botanical Art and Natural Science Illustration

“How the heck do you break into the market?”…… this is a question I received from a student in my online Drawing the Beauty of Plants Class.

The first thing I believe you need to figure out is exactly what you are looking to “break into” within the field of Botanical Art Natural Science Illustration. Then set up a plan on how you are going to do. Once you decide on what you want to do you can then decide how to achieve it.

There are many areas with the Botanical Art & Natural Science Illustration world that are professional. Here is a short break down on the possibilities:

1. Working for a botanist, ornithologist, mammalogist etc….requires scientific knowledge of anatomy within the given field. Black & white techniques like traditional pen & ink are vital skills as most scientific work is done in b&w. There are not many artists working this way and the pay is very minimal for the level of skill required and the time it takes. Scientists are usually working with grant money and the budget for an artist is at the bottom of the grant. Some scientists will do their own art, even if it is not up to professional skill levels. There are a few staff positions for artists in institutions like the Smithsonian. These positions are usually filled by an artist who makes a 20+ year career. A position opens when the staff artist retires….. if the budget is still available the position is filled for another 20+ years. Freelance work is available but don’t wait for it to drop into your lap.

2. Exhibiting and competing for awards in national and international competitions is something many artists strive for. The botanical world in particular is very competitive. The ASBA, SBA and other organizations have exhibits and competitions regularly. There are many opportunities to exhibit in the Natural Science and History fields, especially in wildlife art. The standards are high for excellent skills in watercolor or the color mediums, as well as composition, extensive knowledge of anatomy, as well as producing beautiful art. Gallery representation is few and far between. There are not many Botanical Artists or Natural Science Illustrators making a living by only selling their art.

3. Commercial applications- This is a very broad market with a huge range of skills and pay scales. This includes work for hire; no copyright benefits. The artist works for a flat rate and delivers the art, never to see it or another penny again. Licensing images or collecting royalties is a way for an artist to continue to make money on a work of art. This type of work can be illustrations in text books, children’s books, t-shirt designs, greeting cards, packaging designs, fashion industry, graphic design etc….. This is the largest area with the most opportunity. You will need knowledge of reproduction and preparation (scanning, Photoshop etc…), good technique drawing and color techniques, speed and ability to work under a deadline as well as marketing skills to find the work within this market. The work can be highly accurate, scientific and detailed or it can be simplistic and whimsical. The range is broad and diverse.

I wrote a blog post a while back about deciding on your expectations. I think this can also be helpful when deciding on a career path as an artist. Here is a link to that post:

I hope this helps you along in your artistic journey……. Have you had success in selling and marketing your art within the field of Botanical Art & Natural Science Illustration? I would love to hear about your successes!

Botanical Art- How Much Detail?

magnifcationI was recently asked in my Drawing the Beauty of Plants class….”How much detail should I include in my drawings of botanical subjects…. especially leaves?” There are so many different ways to handle this question and I always start by answering…… it depends!

The number one thing to think about is ….. Who is this drawing for?  A botanist, girl scout troop, a botanical art competition?

If it is a botanist…. The botanist will tell you. They are usually trying to highlight a specific feature and that is what should be the focus of the drawing. If you draw all the capillaries in and they are only looking for the primary and secondary veins…… you have done way too much work…… On the other hand if the botanist wanted it all and you only did the primary and secondary veins and not the capillaries…….. In both scenarios you will have to do both drawings over again….. Get my point? If they don’t tell you up front ask before you do anything!

If it is a girl scout troop…….. It probably is for some kind of a field guid and should NOT have too much detail but be recognizable so they can learn basic plant identification.

If it is a Botanical Art Competition…….. Find out who the jurors are….see what has been done by others before and work towards that standard. This one is probably the hardest one to figure out!

If you are doing it for yourself…. enjoy and see what works for you and what you are trying to convey.

In the meantime…. here is a sample of doing both in the same drawing….. Here I did a generic drawing with the basics and then did a magnification of the detail. Putting a circle around the detail and having it go outside the perimeter of the leaf lets the viewer know it is a magnification.

How do you decide how much information to put in or leave out of your drawings?

The Invasive Air Potato!

Air Potato Vine ©2015 MLighthipeYesterday was my 3rd year teaching at Plant Camp for the University of Florida. What is Plant Camp? Plant Camp is all about teaching TEACHERS to teach children about INVASIVE Plants. 24 teachers from the State of Florida are picked every year to participate in Plant Camp. It is funded by a grant and is FREE! ( I was one of them in 2012!)  Since 2012 I have been a part of Plant Camp demonstrating to the teachers how to introduce DRAWING and FIELD SKETCHING into their curriculum. Because of budget cuts, art classes are disappearing from the classroom. This is a way to get non-art teachers to get the students involved in the environment as well as get them to draw! For this year, I painted the Air Potato Vine and the Air Potato Beetle. The beetle is under a biological study at UFL to control the air potato in the wild without damaging other plants. The beetle was imported from Thailand and for the past 5 years it has been in a controlled environment and tested to see if it can control the invasive plant. So far it is doing great! The larva and the beetle don’t eat anything except the air potato vine! Hopefully it will pass all the  tests and be released into the wild so it can chomp away!

Here is a brief description of Plant Camp:


When a non-native plant species spreads on its own, causing environmental and/or economic harm, it is considered invasive. In Florida, invasive plant species are blocking flood control devices and bridges; causing navigation problems on lakes and rivers; harboring mosquitos; creating fire pathways to tree tops; tangling electrical lines; and covering valuable fish and wildlife habitat. Aside from being a nuisance, invasive plants can even be dangerous for boaters, swimmers, hikers and homeowners. Managing invasive plants is expensive, costing Florida taxpayers more than 80 million dollars a year.

Prevention and education are needed to protect our waters and natural areas. That’s why we are seeking the help of educators to bring this important topic to the classroom. Join us this summer to learn about the numerous invasive plant (and animal) species silently invading Florida’s natural areas and neighborhoods. Along the way, learn about the wild and wonderful native flora and fauna that make Florida a unique place to live and a world-famous travel destination.


Do you know a teacher in the State of Florida that might be interested in attending Plant Camp next year? It is FREE, all expenses paid, including hotel etc…. Please forward this blog post or send them to the Plant Camp website for more information.

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