Painting Flowers Step by Step: White Tulips

The conventional way of painting white flowers is to paint the negative space surrounding the flower. The other technique is to treat a white flower like any other flower, only with much less paint, letting the white of the paper represent the brightest hues. The principal idea in the latter method is to paint the lines that imply the shape and let the white of the paper represent the flower.

The key to painting a white flower is to keep it simple. Don’t overdo it! There’s usually a sufficient amount of pigment in the wash bucket to break up the stark white of the paper; you may only have to add a little bit of color to imply the petal’s shape. Another general rule is to work in this sequence: Apply water and then color.


1. I drew the flowers in pencil on a sheet of Arches 300-lb, cold-pressed paper. Using a No. 30 brush, working one petal at a time, I applied water almost to the pencil line. The leftover color in the water of the wash bucket was enough to break up the stark white of the paper.


2. I drew the flowers in pencil on a sheet of Arches 300-lb, cold- pressed paper. Using a No. 30 brush, working one petal at a time, I applied water almost to the pencil line. The leftover color in the water of the wash bucket was enough to break up the stark white of the paper.


3. Once I’d made sure each flower had a shape, I picked up a No. 20 round (a blend of natural and synthetic fibers) to start adding shadows with a mixture of French ultramarine blue and burnt umber.


4. Next I worked on values. I changed the values slightly each time I painted a shadow: a darker color toward the bottom, a lighter value toward the tip.


5. The shadows make all the difference, as they define the flowers and convey the effect of transparency. To keep these areas from looking flat, I varied the areas of dark and light as I worked.


6. Adding stems will add more color and help ground the painting. As I did with the flowers, I applied water first, then the color. For this green, I mixed permanent sap green and French ultramarine blue; I used a No. 8 to apply color to the outside edge of the stem. Then I allowed the color to run back into the center. To make the stem more interesting, I applied a stroke of quinacridone magenta along one side.


7. Adding stems will add more color and help ground the painting. As I did with the flowers, I applied water first, then the color. For this green, I mixed permanent sap green and French ultramarine blue; I used a No. 8 to apply color to the outside edge of the stem. Then I allowed the color to run back into the center. To make the stem more interesting, I applied a stroke of quinacridone magenta along one side.

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8. For the background, I used my No. 30 brush and a wet-into-wet technique to help pull color into areas and to remove unwanted lines.


9. To help the flowers appear whiter and brighter, I deepened the color in the background. Notice how some pencil lines are still visible in places, a fact that never bothers me, because leaving traces of the process is part of the art inWhite Tulips (watercolor, 40×30).

White Tulips Palette

  • Naples yellow
  • Indian yellow
  • permanent quinacridone magenta
  • French ultramarine blue
  • burnt sienna
  • permanent sap green
  • indigo

Self-taught as an artist, Birgit O’Connor has shown her luminous paintings all around the world, including China. Her new book, Watercolor in Motion (North Light Books, 2008), will be in bookstores in March. A frequent and longtime contributor to The Artist’s Magazine and Watercolor Artist (formerly Watercolor Magic), she teaches workshops in her studio in Bolinas, California. Currently she’s working on a second book, Watercolor Essentials (North Light Books, 2008), which will be released in the fall. For more information, visit her website at www.birgitoconnor.com.


This demonstration is excerpted from Birgit O’Connor’s book Watercolor in Motion (North Light Books, 2008).  Learn more about the book here. The demonstration also appeared in Birgit O’Connor’s article “Fancy Flowers” in the March 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Don’t miss her other online demos::

Click here to preview artistsnetwork.tv video workshop Watercolor Essentials With Birgit O’Connor.


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