In spring, an artist’s fancy turns to flowers. And what better medium to convey the translucence of petals than watercolor painting?
By Birgit O’Connor
Flowers are gorgeous and joyful in a bouquet or a garden, but I love to paint blooms up close, so I can bring to light their intricate, often convoluted, forms. I paint in watercolor, what I consider the most fluid and expressive medium. Watercolor paint lets me do a lot with a little. I paint with lots of water and though I don’t use much pigment, I get intense, vivid results. My basic practice is to apply water to the paper and then paint, allowing the color to move on the paper.
Below you can read my list of my materials and the 5 steps I take in painting radiant red parrot tulips with watercolors.
- Arches cold-pressed, 300-pound paper
- 2- to 3-inch bamboo hake brush
- No. 30 natural hair brush
- No. 14 and No. 20 natural and synthetic blend brushes
- No. 20 synthetic brush
My Palette (I love Winsor & Newton watercolors)
- Winsor red
- Permanent alizarin crimson
- Quinacridone magenta
- Carbazole violet
- Indian yellow
Red is challenging because you have to keep it fresh and clean if it is to retain its vibrancy. For this painting I wanted to keep the lighter colors in the foreground so the viewer would come close and look inside the flower, and then peer more deeply into space, into the background and the shadows.
Step 1: After making a light pencil drawing on a sheet of Arches 300-pound, cold-pressed paper, I applied water to one petal. With a No. 30 brush, I let Winsor red, permanent alizarin crimson and quinacridone magenta mix on the palette. Combining warm (Winsor red) with cool (alizarin crimson and quinacridone magenta) helps push and pull the color. While that surface was still wet, I applied Indian yellow, allowing it to blend into the red.
Step 2: While the surface was still damp, I methodically worked on each petal with a No. 20 brush. I made sure there was a lot of paint on my brush, and then I applied swift, sweeping strokes of color. I lifted and moved the paper as I worked, so I could avoid feathering or other unwanted effects. I inspected the color as it started to dry. If it seemed that I needed deeper colors, I would apply another layer of paint.
Step 3: Then it was time to work on the shadows. I used the same colors I’d used for the petals, only I added carbazole violet or a very small amount of indigo. I started with the largest areas first, adding water and then color. Again I let the color move within the water. This technique creates a luminous, filtered-shadow effect. As I painted the shadow, I allowed it to cover the stamens and the petal. I’ll worry about details later.
Step 4: Mixing a rich dark, I applied paint to the negative spaces; a dark background suggests drama. Once I’d got the deepest darks in place, I evaluated the colors and the shadows to make sure there was a balance. Then I decided what areas still needed to be darkened.
Step 5: After studying the painting awhile, I decided there wasn’t enough contrast to make the lightest and most vivid areas pop. I deepened the background. With a small round brush, I then added the details to the stamen in Parrot Tulips (watercolor, 30×22).
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), is now in bookstores. 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 first appeared in the article “Fancy Flowers” by Birgit O’Connor in the March 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Don’t miss O’Connor’s other online demos: