People often come to my watercolour classes because they want their work to be looser, fresher, or more ‘painterly’. I don’t think I have ever had a student whose aim was to produce more careful, or tighter paintings!
Painting flowers can provide a wide range of opportunities to really play with, and enjoy, various watercolour techniques. It is also a chance to use a very different pallet than might usually be used for landscape subjects.
I have identified a few key aspects that it are helpful to focus on, to increase the likelihood of a successful painting:
Composition – this needs to be designed, and is not ready made, in the way a copied landscape might be
Light – Plan it or Lose it!
Edge Variety – a real opportunity to move away from a careful, botanical approach
Character – observe and understand your subject.
I haven’t included colour in this list. This may seem an odd omission, but I think out of all the things that need to be considered, colour is much less likely to be ignored or forgotten about than other important considerations.
Whether you have a photo of flowers, a bouquet, or a single stem, you will need to design your composition. This is the stage where you decide whether to have a conventional size and placement on the page, such as a vase of flowers in the centre, or whether you want to achieve something else with your painting.
Consider options such as large blooms that fill the space, leaving little or no room for stems or the vase, flowers set unusually high or low on the page, or off to one side, leaving either white space, or dramatic rich colour backgrounds or effects, shadows or reflections on the table surface.
I am often asked if there ‘should’ be a background. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this, only ways of achieving the painting you have in mind. Think about what you want a background to achieve, such as dark in order to reserve and contrast white or light petals, hazy or splattered to contribute to the effect or atmosphere you have in mind, loose and bold to add an element of energy or abstraction to the painting.
Image – Roses in Jar – the background was used to create a halo of light around the blooms, and to add impact to a small painting
It can be very tempting to dive in, and fill the painting with the beautiful bright colours you’ve selected. If light hasn’t been carefully considered and planned in, the result can be unexpectedly disappointing. You can easily end up with a tonally monotonous painting, with all colours being strong and bright, lacking in tonal contrast and bright, clean light.
Really pay attention to the flowers you are painting. Are the petals and leaves at all transparent in the light? Does the light hitting shiny surfaces make them appear bright and white? Is there a sort of halo of light surrounding back-lit stems?
Plan and reserve the light, and be brave and include the corresponding rich, luscious darks, to ensure the painting has energy and excitement.
Image – Japanese anemones provide white in an area of dark, and the rich darks contrast with, and highlight, the light.
3. Edge Variety
Different brush stroke edges can transform your work. An entire painting completed on dry paper, with definite marks, will have a very different feel to one where there is an element of chance due to wet-in-wet technique.
Areas of lost and found, where parts of the painting are allowed to fade into hazy, soft, wet areas of the painting, can introduce an element of mystery and atmosphere. The paint may get a chance to move and mix in unexpected and sometimes surprising ways, and a few risks taken here can often result in the part of the painting that happens by magic.
If you resist the urge to meddle and ‘fix’ what goes on, you will probably end up with what turns out to be your favourite part of the painting.
Image – areas of wet-in-wet and lost and found edges – ensure a ‘painterly’ feel to the painting, moving it away from being merely a copy.
What are the characteristics of the flowers you are painting? Are the stems straight and tall, or is there a particular way they curve and fall? Are the petals shiny, reflecting the light in definite patches, or are they almost rich and velvety, appearing as solid, dense colour? How do you want to portray these characteristics, without resorting to simply an accurate depiction of them?
Time spent really observing your subject can make the difference between a relatively blunt representation, where little more than colour and shape is considered, to a work that somehow really captures the essence of the subject.
This careful observation doesn’t mean you will produce an accurate, detailed drawing, ready to paint, but instead will ensure that any sketch you do make will be much more likely to inform the subsequent brushstrokes so that they are confident and full of life.
Image – “Mollies Tulips” – focusing on the drooping nature of the blooms, rather than accurate detail, encouraging looseness and life through use of soft edges and connection with the background.
For more flowers in watercolour, have a look at my Floral gallery here.
I cover flowers in watercolour in my weekly classes, as well as selected Saturday Workshops.
Contemporary Flowers in Watercolour - snippets from a Saturday workshop
July 1, 2017
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