Painting Roots–Why and How

Painting Roots–Why and How

Roots…mysterious and hidden, yet life sustaining. They not only anchor plants, and absorb nutrients and moisture from the soil, but they use mycorrhizae to make deep symbiotic relationships with soil and fungi beyond the roots. Recent research shows that plants can even communicate stress, like drought conditions or insect damage, to nearby plants through their roots.

Without plant roots, the soil would be like concrete and would not absorb rain water. Incredibly, one handful of soil contains about 50 billion life forms, which could not survive without plant roots. Besides all that, I love the architecture of roots and include them as much as possible in my illustrations not only because of their mysterious and important existence but because of their beauty.

Wild Ginger roots emerge from an underground branch called a rhizome. I thought this was important information to convey in my portrait of this plant. I left little bits of soil on the roots and even an ant crawling on them, to indicate the rich web of life that is part of the story.

I greatly simplify the root systems in my paintings because I want to show the basic structure rather than every detail of the tangled mass, which would be too chaotic. This is a Checker Lily (Fritillaria affinis) bulb and root.

How to Prepare Roots for Study

If I can, I isolate part of the root system in order to study it, rather than removing the soil from all of the roots. I took this plant out of its nursery pot and put it into a container that allowed better root access. Chop sticks and wire ties give the rhizome support so it doesn’t break off, and hold it out where I can observe it more easily.

A laboratory stand with a beaker holder can serve as a third hand to hold a plant aloft so the roots dangle down naturally.

Since I paint from life, I very carefully remove the plant from its pot, or dig it up if it is in my garden, in order to study its roots. I can usually find a native plant that I want to study in a local nursery and do not dig up plants growing in the wild. I carefully remove the soil from part or all of the roots by swishing them in a pail of water or gently spraying water over them. When studying them, I keep them moist by spritzing them with water. Between sessions I put the roots in a plastic bag with wet paper towels and put the plant in the frig or in a shady place outside. So far all of the plants I have used have survived and thrived when I put them back into the soil.

Painting Roots

When painting the roots, each individual root should be shaded to indicate it’s round shape, and the mass of roots is also shaded to give it volume. I usually use a warm grey or tan to indicate the shadows on a predominately white root system. Since I avoid premixed colors and only use single pigment paints, I mix my root colors from primary colors that I have used in the painting elsewhere, if possible. So yellow and red with a little blue mixed in will yield an earthy tan color or warm grey, depending on the ratio of colors. I particularly like a watery combination of Transparent Yellow and Permanent Rose with a dab of Phthalo Blue Red Shade to make a nice warm grey for shading roots. These are all pigments that I use frequently in my paintings. Using the same pigments as much as possible throughout the painting, in different mixtures, gives the painting a sense of unity.

The most ordinary things in nature, like roots and dirt, prove to be complex beyond imagination and inextricably interrelated with all of life.


  1. Theresa Ream says

    This was an excellent article! I really appreciate your clear suggestions for capturing roots in your paintings, from selecting and preserving them to the paints you used to achieve the shading. And your photos were such a help. Armed with your suggestions, I’m going to include more in my own work!

  2. Eileen LaBarre says

    Searching the internet for how to shade roots brought me to your blog. What good luck! Your work is beautiful and accurate. Thanks, too, for the color swatches.

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