A simple floral arrangement can be the perfect subject for beginner still lifes.
by Janet Walsh
With many years of experience as a watercolor instructor and artist, I have developed a simplified approach to painting flowers in watercolor.
In this article, I have divided the approach into two segments. The first half focuses on exploring and developing confidence in drawing and painting the different shapes, colors, and individuality of each flower. The second half will explain how to incorporate the individual exercise into a floral grouping.
Foliage occurs in a limitless number of shapes, sizes and hues. In most locations, examples are easily accessible either growing or purchased in supermarkets and specialty shops. An assortment of foliage shapes can add variety and interest to your setup, and one way to start making sense of a variety of forms is simply to practice painting them.
To start, you might want to make several attempts—one focusing on color, another on shape, and a third on size. Then try to pull them all together. This approach will take time and a willingness to make mistakes as you learn. However, the lessons you learn from these exercises will become a permanent part of your artistic repertoire.
Exercise: Making Leaf Shapes
This chart has a variety of shapes, colors, and edges to help you in understanding and simplifying what is in front of you. You will need a No. 10 or No. 12 round and a 3⁄4″ flat brush. Using your tracing paper to sketch in possibilities can help you to decide where and what value to make your negative shapes.
1. Create with one wash. Notice the edge shape of the leaf on the right side is not identical to the left. This makes the shape more interesting.
2. Paint two connecting foliage shapes, moving from one shape into the other. You will need to have more paint on your brush. Let the paint dry before you create the darker-valued negative shape.
3. Multipetaled shape. Try painting this grouping from one end to the other in one try. If you need to add more paint to your brush, be sure to leave a small bead of paint where you can begin again. After the paint is dry, add one or two negative shapes.
4. Foliage with two different colors of green. Start painting this example from the left side to the right side, changing value and color as you go. When all the paint is dry, add some sharp-edged negative shapes.
5. I added some holly to the chart to show the leaf and berry structure. Paint this the same way as steps 3 and 4. Make sure you have color mixed ahead of time.
6. To make pine needles, use a No. 10 or 12 round and the 3⁄4″ flat brush. Begin by painting with the tip of your round brush, starting at the central needle axis, painting outward. This is easier to do standing up and using the non-painting end of the flat brush to steady your hand. You might want to practice this several times.
7. This foliage example has multiple petals on each side. To add interest, I’ve overlapped some petals
Painting a Foliage Bouquet in a Glass Container
Now that you’ve had a good warm-up in creating a variety of foliage shapes and color mixes, I have added this exercise as a way to experiment working with a setup.
First, remember to put together a simple bouquet that is not too big. Consider mixing the foliage and flower sizes, shapes, and colors to create interest. Use a simple transparent container—even a clear drinking glass will work. Lightly sketch the various overlapping foliage and flower shapes, as this will be your roadmap for the painting. Mix all the colors you will need—be generous with the paint.
A. Draw the foliage bouquet, overlapping the shapes. Remember this is a painting, not a photograph.
B. Start painting on one side and proceed to the other. This is a lot easier than painting all the individual shapes. Notice how I made transitions from one shape to the other. I modified and changed colors as the shapes were connected. If this is a new way of painting for you, try connecting two of the shapes and then slowly add more negative-valued shapes, challenging yourself each time. Do not be concerned if some of the colors intermingle. This is what watercolor is all about.
C. Next, draw the vase with top and bottom ellipses. Indicate the waterline ellipse, a few stems, and maybe a leaf or two. It is not necessary to draw everything you see.
D. Mix very watery colors (using some of the bouquet’s colors plus a small amount of cerulean blue). Squinting is very important at this stage. Begin by painting a light wash of color on the topmost rim of the container, leaving some gaps of white. Carry this wash down to the waterline. Make the waterline the shape of the container; in this case, an ellipse. Continue down to the base of the container with soft, loose, and fluid leaf and stem shapes. These shapes have white spaces interspersed to suggest water. The “crawl-backs” of the paint and the other small shapes contribute to the feeling of water. While this paint is still wet, use a damp 3⁄4″ flat brush and a tissue to lift out some color across the container shape, creating interesting shapes in the water area.
E. Pause and consider the next step.
F. Indicate that the container is sitting on a surface, incorporating some of the colors in the bouquet and glass container. Perhaps this surface is the shadow falling on a piece of fabric, or on a small flat surface. Remember: less is best.
Drawing the Container
The shapes of most simple containers are symmetrical. The sequence below illustrates the steps involved in rendering simple container forms without getting too technical. You can also use tracing paper to plan and correct your shape before transferring it to the watercolor paper.
- Mark the width of the container top, waterline, and base.
- Draw a vertical line to indicate the centerline of the container.
- Draw the ellipse on the top and bottom—make sure you do the whole circle.
- Erase the unseen sections of both the waterline ellipse and container’s base.
- When you are satisfied, transfer the drawing to the painting surface.
Drawing and Painting White Daisies in Watercolor
Daisies are an excellent subject for learning how to paint whites in watercolor. The flower is composed of many petals emanating from a circular center.
When I begin, I hold the subject flower in my hand and sketch the flower in various positions. I’ve found this helpful in rapidly capturing the essence of the subject.
A. Make all the petals varied in size, shape, and spacing.
B. Some daisy varieties, such as mum daisies, have green centers. In a floral arrangement, this circular shape appears to be a hole. Paint it carefully.
C. I have shown four different center shapes. Varying the shapes and colors of the centers gives variety to your overall floral design, creating visual interest.
D. I lightly sketched this daisy, then painted the greens behind the petals. This makes the whites more prominent. Remember these simple hints.
- Use the foliage as a background for the flowers.
- Paint a watery mix of color against some of the petals with a No. 10 or 12 round brush. Use a 3⁄4″ flat to pull the mix out from the flower so the color blends into the white paper without creating a hard edge. Also, try tinting some of the outside white petals with a soft color.
E. I painted these two daisies, one with warm colors, one with cool.
I arranged a setup using multiple daisies and various foliage, taking advantage of the flowers I had on hand. I used a blue-violet backdrop to make it easier to see these floral and vase shapes.
Floral Demonstration: White Daisies, Vase and Background
First I laid out the foliage and flowers on the table. Then I selected a simple container and filled it with water. I added the foliage first, one piece a time. After I had arranged each piece of foliage in the container, I added the individual flowers, positioning them so they overlapped one another. The foliage kept the flowers in their correct positions.
I next sketched the daisies on the watercolor paper. These shapes were larger than the actual flowers. To suggest a sense of movement, I made adjustments to the flowers to ensure that a few petals pointed in different directions.
I painted the foliage continuously from one end to the other, changing colors as I progressed and allowing the colors to flow into one another. I did not make them individual shapes. I also painted some tints on the white petals and painted the centers of the flowers. After the paint had dried, I added a few interesting negative darker-valued shapes to the foliage. Later, to add a spark of blue to the bouquet, I included the small delphinium flower on the upper left and added a small cobalt-blue vase.
This is probably the easiest type of background to paint. I decided to paint the light background before I painted the darker vase, using colors from the flower centers to help unify the painting.
I mixed the colors ahead of time in cups and not on the palette because I did not want to run out of paint in the middle of a wash and create a hard edge. It’s a good idea to practice a sample background several times on a scrap piece of watercolor paper.
For a smooth wash, the consistency of the paint should be such that a bead of water forms along the brush line but not so much that the bead runs down the paper. With each overlapping stroke, your brush should go through the middle of the bead, thereby carrying it to the end of the background area.
Work on your painting at an upright angle. Try positioning your work upside down or sideways so that the background wash with a bead will flow away from the foliage and downward. Start at one side—not the middle—and work from the inside (the side closest to the flowers and foliage) to the outside edge. If you need to apply more than one layer of color, make sure that the previous one is completely dry before adding the next layer.
Cobalt Blue Container
I painted the small vase using the S-stroke, starting at the top, working downward, adding a small color change (light orange) with the blue as the shape of the vase changed. When the paint was dry, I lifted a light reflected shape (using my scrubber) and darkened the base of the vase.
The Finished Demonstration
Below is the finished demonstration of watercolor flowers in a vase. Enjoy!
More Watercolor Flowers
If you enjoyed the above step-by-step demonstration, be sure to check out watercolor artist Jean Haines’ approach to painting flowers in her ArtistsNetwork.tv instructional video, Watercolor Flowers. Check out the video below!