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A Question of Focus: Watercolor Floral Paintings Up Close and Personal

Updated on October 9, 2012
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I am Diane Brown, an artist and illustrator living in Texas. I enjoy all phases of the creative process. Enjoy!

One of the most natural subjects for portrayal in watercolor has got to be flowers! The light, ethereal nature of watercolor washes lend themselves almost effortlessly to the depiction of flower petals. In this article, I will discuss the ways in which I have painted flowers in watercolor, with a particular perspective and intensity that, I believe, gives these paintings greater drama and import than a typical floral painting might.

Claire's Rose, watercolor, 15 x 15"
Claire's Rose, watercolor, 15 x 15"

A Closer Look

For most of my floral subjects, I like to focus in closely on (usually) a single bloom. This is the approach made famous by Georgia O'Keefe. I find that this up-close view of the flower gives it great visual impact, especially when paired with a dramatically dark background. You can see in my painting of a pink rose (Claire's Rose, watercolor), how this approach lends great visual impact to the subject.

Of course, focusing on only one bloom on such a large scale does intensify the need for an accurate rendering of the flower, with correct structure and proportions. While I don't think you need a degree in botany in order to accurately render flowers, I do think you need to carefully study the blooms you wish to portray. I generally work from reference photos that I have taken, exercising care to capture the flowers in the dramatic lighting conditions I prefer. These conditions can be exaggerated when the painting is done, but it is best to have references that show the affects this lighting has on the colors of the flowers. I do not generally paint floral subjects directly from life. I know many artists do to very good effect, but I guess I just work too slowly for this way of working. I find the lighting conditions change too quickly for me to capture what I want to portray in a live setting. I much prefer to have captured what I want in a photo and then render it at my leisure in my studio.

Preliminary Drawing for Purple Iris
Preliminary Drawing for Purple Iris

Preliminary Drawing

This is the preliminary drawing for my painting of a purple iris. You can see that there was a lot of attention paid to the structure and shape of the blossom. I like to lightly indicate folds and bends in the petals in the drawing. I like to have as much information included in the drawing as possible. Of course it is worthwhile to leave some areas of the painting open to chance effects of the interaction of the pigment and the water. I like to have a balance of these looser portions of the painting and the more tightly controlled washes.

Once the drawing is completed to my satisfaction it is time to begin laying in washes. These are done in layers, generally going from lighter (less pigment and more water) to darker (more pigment and less water).

Purple Iris, watercolor 14 x 11"
Purple Iris, watercolor 14 x 11"

Color Choices

Here is the iris painting once it was completed. This painting was executed with a more varied background, suggesting surrounding flowers and vegetation. You can see this gives quite a different effect from the rose painting, above.

One great thing about painting flowers is the freedom one can exercise in the palette one can choose to portray flowers. When an artist is portraying a person, great care must be taken to choose colors that are "believable" for skin tones, etc. With flowers, a much greater range of possible colors are available, so there is more latitude in color choices.

Easter Lilies (Risen Indeed!) watercolor, 10 x 8"
Easter Lilies (Risen Indeed!) watercolor, 10 x 8"

Final Thoughts

Painting white flowers is a challenge that I particularly love. I really enjoy finding ways to paint white flowers so that they "read" as white, but are not portrayed as boring or one dimensional. The key to this is to find subtle shifts in color in the petals caused by shadows or reflected light from other sources. You can see how I've attempted this in these Easter lilies.

I guess one of the main things I want to express about painting flowers in watercolor (or any other medium for that matter) is that floral paintings do not have to be wimpy or wishy-washy! If they are carefully rendered and powerfully lit, floral paintings can evoke great power and strong emotion. These Easter lilies do not give a weak impression, but rather one of vitality and presence, something we artists hope for in all our subjects.


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