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How to Paint Hellebores in Watercolour with Catherine Harriyott

Posted on Thu 13 Dec 2018

As I mentioned in my previous article (Leisure Painter, Summer 2018), it is not always possible to paint from life as plants are not always in season when needed. So the first thing we need to do is begin a collection of images that will become our ‘go to’ library. If you have a lovely plant in flower in your garden, it is a good time to take lots of photos of it, ready to work from at a later date.

From these images begin by sketching the flower heads and leaves, and arrange them into a composition with which you feel pleased. Once done you are ready to trace out the whole composition on the paper, ready to paint.

EXERCISE 1 - Colour matching

One of the pleasures of working from photos is that it is fun to colour match, noticing the contrasts between the lightest and darkest tones. To do this you will need to make yourself a little square cut-out.

Cut out a two-and-a-half inch square of the paper you will be using for the finished painting and inside that cut out a smaller square to form a window. Begin by placing your square over the section of your photo you are going to paint. Straight away you will observe with more clarity the colour and tone of that particular area of the flower.

Mix your paint to match as accurately as you can, noticing the very lightest and darkest tones. I found a 50:50 mix of Schminke Horadam Aquarell brilliant red violet and perylene violet gave me the closest match to the image.

As you do this step by step throughout your painting you will achieve a more lively-looking image as more tonal contrast will be evident.

EXERCISE 2 - Lifting paint

A simple way to add texture to a wash is to lift off some of the paint with a clean dry brush. This is not hard to do, but does need to be practised so you become familiar with the technique, as it does need to be done fairly swiftly before the wash has started to dry.

To practise this you will need to have clean water and paper towel on hand. Begin by laying down a small patch of wash. Quickly rinse your brush and dry it on the paper towel then firmly run your brush across the patch of wash and it will pick up the surface layer of paint.

It is fun trying this out with all sorts of absorbent surfaces, different shaped brushes, scrunched-up paper or cotton wool. I found cotton buds useful when painting cyclamen leaves.

Demonstration Helleborus orientalis

You will need:


  • Hot-pressed botanical watercolour paper 20x18in. (50x45cm)


  • Pro Arte Rounds Nos. 5 & 1

Horadam Aquarell watercolour

  • Brilliant red violet
  • Perylene violet
  • Sap green
  • Bismuth yellow
  • Perylene green

Step 1 - Draw your composition

Step 2 - How to paint the flower head

1. I find it best to apply the masking fluid to the stamens section by section as I work. So, using an old brush carefully apply the fluid and leave to dry. Remember to wash your brush immediately or the latex will glue it up.

2. When the masking fluid is dry, apply a dark mix of your ready prepared paint as close to the stamens as possible then, with water, begin to pull the paint to the edges of the petal. I used a Pro Arte No. 5 brush.

3. Working quickly, just as in exercise 2 (above), rinse and dry your brush on a piece of paper towel and carefully lift off some of the colour to indicate the veins.

4. Leave this to dry before adding more washes. Work in the same way for each petal, using your square as you go to help you notice the light and dark tonal variations. As always, it is good practice to leave a petal between each worked area to prevent any bleeding of lines.

5. On some petals you may notice a greenish tinge near the tips. To tackle this I added a thin wash of sap green to these areas. Leave this to dry before going over with the purple wash as before. Remember not to paint over the green.

6. When all is done and dry, add the detail of the veins. Notice that the web of veins travel all the way to the edge of the petal; this makes sense as they are carrying precious nutrients. To add these, I simply drew them in with a Pro Arte No. 1 brush using the same dark paint mix as before. You will not want to overload your brush with too much paint or the fine line required will be thick and clumpy, and not at all like a delicate vein.

7. Finally when everything is dry, gently rub away your masking fluid. Because the masking fluid will probably remove the graphite you may need to re-draw the stamens. I painted them with a very light wash of sap green then carefully painted around them with a dark mix of the purple paint using the Pro Arte No. 1.

Step 3 - How to paint the foliage

1. I have always found it easier to paint the veins of a leaf first; this then gives you a clear guide to follow. Looking at a hellebore leaf, you will notice that the main vein runs near enough straight down the centre of the leaf from base to tip. From this they branch out on the left and right then split again and again to form a sort of honeycomb pattern, reaching right out to the leaf’s edge. The veins on these leaves are yellow-green in colour so using my square, I found that bismuth yellow mixed with a little of the sap green used before worked as a close match.

2. Using a mix of 50:50 sap green and perylene green begin painting the little sections in between the veins. I used the Pro Arte No. 1. With each leaf work from the inside of each section, adding paint then, with a little water, pull the paint to the edges just like you did for the petals. This can be time consuming, but is worth it as the leaves look more alive than they would if they were painted with just a flat surface wash.

3. Once all is dry, take your brush very lightly around the outside of the leaves, gently highlighting the serrated edge. This must be done lightly otherwise there is a danger of a heavy outline being drawn, rather like on a child’s painting.

4. Where the top of the stalks meet a flower head add a delicate wash of the same mix you used for the flower heads then add a light wash of the sap green over the top. For the main woodier stalks paint the reverse, laying down a wash in the sap green first then, when dry, gently stroke over the stem with a little of the purple mix.

The finished painting

Hellebore Orientalis, Horadam Aquarell watercolour on HP watercolour paper, (50x45cm)

Catherine Harriyott

Catherine is a Sussex-based artist, who studied with the Society of Botanical Artists. She offers painting lessons to anyone who simply wants to have a go. Email

This demonstration is taken from the February 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy

How to Paint Hellebores in Watercolour with Catherine Harriyott


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