Understanding Flowers

Check out some of the helpful drawing tips taught in our course, The Practice of Botanical Drawing!

A flower is the reproductive part or seed-bearing portion of a plant. The main function of a flower is attraction. The enticing form, color, smell and the promise of sweet nectar makes resistance difficult for any pollinator or person.

All flowers have their differences, but many flowers contain some combination of stem, petals, sepals, pistils, stamens, and ovules/ovaries.

Look at a flower initially as a simple shape and identify which simple shape is most like your flower subject. Tubular flowers are one of the simplest flower shapes because the three-dimensional form is very evident. Here are some flower shapes to give you an idea.

Tubular or Trumpet shape: A flower with a tube formed of united petals, often separating at the mouth into a flared shape where the petals often curl back. (Trumpet flower, Allamanda)

Cup shape: A flower that widens gradually from the base and can be formed by individual petals (collectively known as tepals) that are not joined, even though they usually conform to this shape. (Tulip, Crocus)

Campanulate or Bell shape: A flower with a wide tube and flared petal tips, typical of the Bellflower family. (Nectar campanula or other campanula)

Funnelform (Funnel) shape: A flower that widens gradually from the base, ending in an open or flared shape. (Lily, Morning Glory, Azalea)

Rotate shape: A disc-shaped flower that is mostly flat and circular. (Daisy, Clematis, Sunflower)

Combination shape: A flower with a trumpet shape and a rotate/elliptical shape together. (Daffodil)

Radial Symmetry: Arrangement of parts around a single main axis that will produce a mirror image on the plane at any angle when dissected in half. (Zinnia, Anemone)

Bilateral Symmetry: The structure is a mirror image on either side of a line drawn vertically through the middle. (Wisteria, Orchid, mouthy flowers in the Mint family, Lavender, Wild Bergamot)


To understand a flower, take it apart in a methodical way. Making an herbarium page will help you learn plant anatomy and the page will serve as a reference tool that will exist long after your live specimen. Once you’ve separated the parts of your flower, examine them through a magnifying glass to see details more easily. Cover the specimen with a piece of scrap paper and press under some heavy books. Your page will be dry in ~2 weeks.

A la Emily Dickinson (yes, that Emily Dickinson), try arranging your next botanical drawing composition to tell a story: whether it is the biography of one plant over time, the connection between two, or the tale of your journey to the place where you discovered a flower. Read more about Emily Dickinson’s herbarium and see her entire digitized collection.

Caution: Beware plants with poisonous parts! Be careful & wash your hands after handling.


Drawing the individual elements of the flower before attempting the entire structure can be less intimidating. On your study page, consider recording the number of petals, details about the reproductive parts and leaves, and any other things that intrigue you! Be sure to practice color mixing, too. Imagine having a series of study pages as a document of the seasons!

Petals: Put the petal right on the paper; start with a center axis. For light colors like yellow, draw guides very lightly with graphite pencil and erase before adding color. Use Earth Green or Gray Verithin to add tones. Subtly define the outer edges with Verithin.

Ruffled Corona: Flatten out to see the edges more clearly. Think of the shape as a skirt, a ribbon, or a piece of fabric. Enlarge the section to see the ruffles more clearly. Notice how the petals roll over the top of the corona.

Reproductive parts: Magnification is essential. Studying plants under magnification opens up a hidden world. The closer you look, the more detail and form you can see to draw. In addition, structure seen under magnification will help you add a 3-dimensional quality to your drawings.

Check out this Joy of Botanical Drawing Video Companion on Measuring and Flower Shapes.

Want to learn how to draw a rose?

Follow Wendy’s step-by-step instructions in this post, or check out the Joy of Botanical Drawing Video Lesson Companion: Draw a Rose.

Want to learn more about flowers and how to create herbarium and study pages?

Check out Lesson 5: Understanding a Flower in The Practice of Botanical Drawing.


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