Updates to the photo equipment section on my website…

I finally got around to upgrading my photography equipment section of my website. I’ve been overhauling my lenses and camera body over the last 18 months, going as far as purchasing three different camera systems to ensure I was making the right choice.

It amazes me that we live in an age where you can buy photography equipment, use it for a while, and sell it for less of a loss than you would take to rent it for a week or so. It’s a great way of testing equipment without having to take a huge hit when trading it in to a camera dealer. I have tried the Nikon D90 and the Pentax K-7 and eventually returned to Canon with the purchase of a Canon 50D. I ended up breaking nearly even throughout this entire exchange with perhaps a couple of hundred dollars lost here and there when reselling. Phenomenal!

Anyway, I’ve updated my website with the new equipment. I’m looking at purchasing either a 5D Mark II or perhaps settling for a 5D for landscape shooting and will update my page once I’ve made a decision. This will come after selling my 300mm f/4L IS USM and my Nikon D90 with 18-105mm, 70-300mm VR, and 35mm f/1.8G lenses. This will basically cover the cost of even the 5D Mark II so I am hoping to make this happen before our first wildlife photography trip.


Spring is Here! (at least on the ground)

Well, I’m satisfied that Spring is here. I’ve not had a chance to hike for a couple of weeks and we finally managed to head out today for a couple of hours. I was pleasantly surprised to find buttercups flowering in numerous places along the trail.

This harbinger of Spring in western Montana is a welcome sight after the rather long, bleak winter we’ve had here. Combine this wonderful find with the bountiful Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, and chittering Robins, and it was clear that Spring is finally here.

Why illustrations are better than photography

I received an interesting comment on my previous post about Botanical Illustration about why illustrations would be preferable over photographs. I thought it would be worth an in-depth explanation for others who might have the same question.

Not to come to the defense of my work too quickly, but there are four primary reasons that make illustrations more useful than photographs for scientific purposes.

First, illustration allows the artist to enhance particular traits (especially diagnostic ones) and de-emphasize those that aren’t critical. With a photograph, the entire image is equally “resolved” with no single feature more prominent. Scientists or enthusiasts looking at the illustrations are focused on the diagnostic features rather than unimportant traits which can be obscured with too many details.

Secondly, the items being drawn are sometimes extremely small. Major features might be only 2-3 mm long with critical details being 0.2mm or even smaller in size. These details are nearly impossible to photograph without specialized equipment.

Third, It is quite difficult to effectively light an object that you are photographing from 1 or 2 cm away. There’s simple no way to fit a flash or off-camera light into the space between the lens and the object.

Fourth: and probably most importantly, the samples being used for the illustrations are prepared specimens. In the case of botanical illustrations, I am working from pressed specimens that lose their natural structures in the process. Flowers are crushed flat, leaves no longer curve gracefully like they do in a live specimen. A photograph would be unable to restore “life” to the specimen, but with illustration, the artist can breathe new life into the sample and give it a natural appearance more useful to a botanist.

Good question. I hope that helps give a different perspective on why illustrations are still used in the age of computers. Obviously a lot of illustrators are starting to implement computer illustrations instead of pen & ink, but it requires digitizing tablets to be able to do it effectively.


I will be starting a tutoring session tonight for an aspiring artist interested in drawing. I’ve been developing the course outline over the last few weeks and really enjoyed the opportunity to put down on paper the ideas and techniques that have come to be second nature for me. How do I tackle the geometry of a new subject? Do I always establish my tones the same way? When I am trying to create a new texture, do I start with the darks first or does it vary?

Teaching is one of the best ways of really getting to know a subject. To deconstruct, organize, and deliver fairly complex concepts to someone else requires a bit of soul-searching. This has been a great reminder that drawing is a complex, evolving set of techniques that each of us adapts to their own particular style as well as for each subject they are drawing. My hope is that I can get across some of the fundamental ideas and provide a basis for improving her drawing ability without forcing my particular style into the lessons.

As part of the preparation for the sessions, I recommended two books that were instrumental in helping me get started with drawing realistically. In order of complexity, they are J.D. Hillberry’s Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil, a concise guide to using charcoal, graphite, and carbon pencil to create realistic textures.

The more advanced book was written by my friend and mentor, Mike Sibley, titled, Drawing from Line to Life. Mike’s book is comprehensive and covers the entire drawing process from sketching to realistic drawings.

I’ll be posting a review of each of these books in upcoming blog entries. If you’re looking to get started with drawing, I’d highly recommend J.D. Hillberry’s book. If you’ve drawn for some time but are looking for a more thorough coverage of the challenges of pencil drawing, Mike’s book is a great step up.

Where is that "Rich" guy?

© Rich Adams 2010

First off, let me apologize for the extended absence from my website, newsletters, and life in general. I am still alive, and yes, I am still drawing. I have been fortunate to have picked up a couple of projects that are keeping me very busy with very little free time for the last several months. I’ll talk a bit more about them in an upcoming blog post but wanted to provide a brief update on what I’ve been working on.

Botanical Illustration

I was approached at the end of 2008 (see my website for the approximate point where I stopped posting) by a botanist from the University of Montana who was looking for an illustrator for a project he is working on. He had worked with a couple of other illustrators in town and was looking for someone to work on the final phase of the project. I freely admitted that my knowledge of plants was fairly limited but I was a sucker for punishment. He recommended we arrange a meeting to talk about the project and what he was looking for.

Carex layout
© Rich Adams 2010

We discussed the project in detail and it sounded like a great opportunity to 1) expand my knowledge of the flora of Montana, 2) get back to some scientific illustration similar to what I loved doing in the early 90’s, and 3) pick up a technical pen again for the first time in over 15 years.

The project is being funded by the US Forest Service through the Montana Native Plant Society and will culminate in the publication of a book at some point in 2010. The book is aimed at botanists more than the general public. There are a gazillion illustrations for the book and I signed on for the final 18-months of work. I have been working feverishly to be finished ahead of the deadline so there will be plenty of time for revisions, changes, or additions prior to going to press.

I have really enjoyed the work and have learned a lot about numerous genera of plants. I am hopeful that this experience can lead to other botanical illustration projects or other illustration projects in general.

Technical Aspects

I adopted a two-stage approach to the illustrations where I draw a fairly refined pencil drawing of each of the species. This is done in my favorite sketchbook, the Canson Field Drawing Book. The paper in the sketchbook is quite durable, allowing fairly easy erasing of allows me to draw fairly quickly but easily allows for fine details. There is a similar sketchbook called the Canson Field Sketch Book but the paper in it is quite thin and not nearly as resilient.

Once these semi-finished drawings are completed, I transfer the outlines to a bristol paper. After trying out about 10 different papers for use with pen & ink I settled on Strathmore 500 Series Vellum. Because it is cotton-based, it works great with pen & ink and I find myself using it for more pencil illustrations as well. I happened to have some of this paper on hand but I have to admit that cartoonist Tom Richmond really demonstrates why it is so useful for pen & ink.

The shading is done with stippling which is totally different than pencil work. Not only is it far more time-consuming, it also requires you to use the appropriate pen nib size. I frequently rely on a 0.25mm technical pen (Rapidograph 3×0 for those geeks out there) as it is very durable and can withstand the constant tap-tap-tapping caused by the thousands of tiny little dots.

An Abstruse Lexicon

I am just over the two-thirds point of the project and am starting to feel like I am beginning to learn a bit about plants. Oh, for those who’ve never taken a botany course in college or read a scientific journal, the technical jargon for various plant parts are simply mystifying. I’m not versed in Latin nor in botany so I keep my dictionary handy to look up “hard words”. Examples include words like “hirsute”, “campanulate”, “foveate”, along with a host of other “grown-up” words. Oh, by the way, the term “abstruse” used in the title of this section means “difficult to understand”, it’s a perfect way of summing up my feelings about botanical jargon.

I’ve created a separate Botanical Illustration page on my Drawings page. The four ‘Carex’ drawings begin to show true stippling techniques and will resemble the majority of remaining illustrations. The drawings may at some point be offered as prints and the finished book will be available sometime next year.

More information to come about additional botanical illustrations…

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The world of blogging revisited

It’s been quite some time since I considered a blog as a way of keeping in touch with friends. I’ve been using my website as my primary means of updating information about prints and projects but since it’s a static object, it’s hard to alert folks when new things are posted. It seems like a blog might be a better means of providing updates on an ongoing basis.

I’ve got a few ideas that seem like they are good areas to cover but I am interested in your ideas as well. New drawings, technical topics involved with drawing including materials, tools, and various techniques, it might be interesting to include a few reviews along the way of things like different pencils, books, or even other artists but I am open to other ideas as well.

Since I am also still planning on sending out a quarterly newsletter (resuming in the second quarter of 2010), this blog will serve as a great means of populating information for that as well, especially in case people haven’t been actively following the blog.

I look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments section and am open to ideas for future posts that you’d like to see covered. If you’ve had a questions about either my artwork or drawings in general, feel free to post the question or send me an e-mail. I’ll try to cover these question in future blog entries.

Have a great Spring!