Thymus vulgaris – a botanical art project.

Have you ever really looked at Thyme when you are using it in cooking? I bet you haven’t!

I have been asked to paint a botanical picture of Thymus vulgaris. Note the correct way of writing a binomial scientific name correctly; all in italics but with the capital letter at the beginning of the first word only.

My heart sank when I got the email asking me to do this particular plant. Imagine, all that ‘tiny-ness’! How on earth was I going to create a beautiful picture from this subject, one in which the viewer wanted to take a second look. The picture still isn’t painted yet, so the result will not magically appear at the end of this blog. However, I thought you might be interested in both my thought processes and my work progress.

I eventually got a plant that said it was Thymus vulgaris.

Thymus vulgaris

In actual fact, I got three – all of them different. I knew that the leaf had to have a furled edge; two of them had furled edges. When the flowers eventually started to appear I knew that the stamens would be protruding from the tube created by the four petals. One of them did not have protruding stamens as they remained just under the fused lip of the petals. The last one did all the things I expected it to do. Or did it?

When the last plant had flowered for a while, some of the flowers didn’t have visible stamens. After much research I discovered that in fact the same plant can have flowers with all the reproductive systems in place, but some flowers are sterile as they only have a style and stigma. Whew, what a relief. I now had a suitable subject. Do you like it? But where to start!

A quick look at the leaves

As you now realise I had to do quite a bit of investigating in relation to this plant. It helped me get to know it so that as I observed, researched and sketched, thoughts for my final composition began to be a little clearer. I also found that although it was a challenging subject (apparently I like challenges). I also really began to appreciate the plant and wanted to include things in my picture that would tell others about the plant. However, one of the challenges is that there were to be no dissections! That is often how I show others of what a plant is comprised.

Botanical art is an exciting subject and it really helps you to observe things around you. So we start off with the leaves. Have you noticed anything strange about them. Have a look at a real one, rather than my pictures.

Trichomes on the leaf

You will notice the appearance of little dents in the surface of the leaves. This is the same ones under a microscope. Do you see the little dents are in fact Trichomes, a special type of hair that produces aromatic oils. The oil is the part that smells so good when you crush the leaves before adding them to your cooking. But see if you can see where else the hairs are and the oil is:

Trichomes on the flower bud
Trichomes on the flower

Every part of the plant can be used in your cooking as every part produces the aromatic oils. Exciting isn’t it?

But what about the parts that need to be included in my picture? Although I found this particularly interesting and wished I could include this information in my picture, this depth of detail was not needed by the client.

However for me, Thymus vulgaris had moved up in my regard from being a plant with lots of tiny bits that smell nice, to being a complex and interesting plant. I hope I do it justice.

A Flower spike



I decided to do a whole lot of sketches in my sketch book. This helps hands to get to know the painting of the plant, the size at which I am showing it, the colours and hopefully an idea for the composition.




Me painting away with a magnifier on my head.

To see the plant I needed to use a magnifier, which lead me to enlarging the flower spike for everyone to marvel at the detail of the individual flowers.I did three spikes before deciding which one to use for my final composition. You can see by my clothes that the weather was a lot colder when I started this project!







I now had a better idea of which sketches I wanted to include in my final picture. I wanted to show the flower spike enlarged so that the flowers with their magnificent coloured anthers were clear. I also knew that I needed to give a suggestion of the surface texture of the leaves, front and back as well as the growth habit of the plant.

A trial composition,
Final composition
The final painting started.

11 thoughts on “Thymus vulgaris – a botanical art project.

  1. Hi Gaynor, I really love you’re sketches. Could you tell me what sketch books you use, the one I have used seems a bit thin. Thank you

    1. Hei Vicky. I’m glad you like the sketches. As I have used watercolour on top of the graphite under-shading, I used the Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook. It copes well with a certain amount of water. When I am planning to do work with coloured pencil, I don’t need such a heavy paper and use the Epsilon series. The Zeta is 270gsm, whilst the Epsilon is 150gsm. The final work is being done on ‘old’ Fabriano Artistico extra white 300gsm.

  2. Very interesting! I guess sometimes a kick is needed to delve into the realms of the tiny things that needs special efforts to be SEEN….I am curious about your head loupe (magnifyer), would you tell us a bit more about it, please?

    1. Sometimes you don’t even need a kick to start delving, you just start looking and somehow you get to looking deeper and deeper. That’s where all my magnifying glasses and microscopes come into play. I often use different ones, including hand held magnifying glasses for trying to see my subject a little better or finishing off edges to make sure they are neat. The trouble I find is that there is a risk to use one as you are painting, then you lose sight of your overall painting. The risk is even greater with the head loupe, because it’s there all the time and you don’t have to worry about holding it. But having made the mistake a couple of times and having to restart paintings a couple of times because I lost sight of the overall painting, I am more careful now. I use it so that I can look up, or across at my subject, and then down through my ordinary glasses as I paint. In that way. Can see the detail in the plant and keep track of the overall effect my painting is having on my picture.

      I know that in reality your question was where did I get the loupe from? I bought it on Amazon, but doing a Google search gave me this link: I hope this helps.

      1. Thank you! I use head loupes all the time, a habit from being a goldsmith, not when doing the initial washes and the final going over though, as you say it is easy to loose the overview. The benefit though is that you can move your head and don’t have to hold it stiff in a set position to keep focus through an ordinary magnifying glass. The ones I have are different as the loupes are attaches at the forehead rather than the sides, so they have to be worn around the forehead which can be uncomfortable. I will try with ones like yours!

  3. Many of our leaves and flowers are small like this, so I also have similar ” challenges”. Would like to know how much bigger was your final painting than the actual specimen.

    1. Hei Lesley, my painting will have work that is natural size to show the habit of the plant and the flower spike will be four times natural size. But when I am eventually finished I will put a scale measurement on each element.

  4. Dear Gaynor What a wonderful piece of work. I write to ask from where you purchased that great piece of magnifying equipment on your head. I have been looking for one of those for ages and not found it. I should really appreciate it if you could kindly let me have details if you have them. I have almost completed my bluebell picture for ABBA and am about to commence work on the Stinking iris. All best wishes, Tina

    1. Hei Tina,
      Thank you for your lovely Comment this picture isn’t for the ABBA exhibition by the way, it’s for a Florilegium. You will see that I sent a link in my reply to Kathe regarding the magnifying thing. I just have to make sure I don’t go overboard in using it as being on my head it means less fiddle. If you use a magnifying glass too much you lose oversight of what you are trying to achieve.

  5. I agree. Artists – whether that is visual, photographers and even writers – see things others don’t. The flowers are beautiful. As is your work. Good luck.

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