When I look closely at the petals of the white flower I plan to paint, they are not actually pure white, but host a collection of other colours reflecting onto them from surrounding sources. Very often the colours from leaves, nearby flowers and other objects behind a plant will show through transparent petals, influencing the overall appearance of the flower. The sun brightens and makes highlights while also casting shadows. Shaded areas below the top layers of petals may actually be made up of colours, such as pale lilacs or grey. If we study carefully the photo we’re using as reference for this painting (below) I can see a hint of pale yellow and pink on the surface of the petals and a touch of lilac in the shadows.

Before drawing the shape of the flower I’m painting I plan which colours I want to use rather than using whatever dried paint is left on a palette. I rely on leaving the paper white rather than using white paint to create the flower. To make the shape of it stand out against the background I add contrast by surrounding it with dark colours, suggesting blurred foliage.

The flower is very delicate and as I can’t overwork the shadow colours on the petals I decided to glaze pale transparent washes onto them using transparent paints on dry paper, overlapping each shade and leaving highlights of pure white paper. I chose this method rather than wetting the paper first so that I can control how much of the white paper is showing. If I wet the paper first then add the paint, the colours may spread too far and I will have lost the white, turning it into a yellow or pink flower.

Transparent and opaque colours

Watercolour paints are transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque or opaque. When layered on top of each other in thin washes, transparent paints are translucent, meaning the previously painted layers shine through and are ideal for the glazing technique. Opaque colours when painted in layers on top of one another cover over the underneath colour rather than allowing it to show through. To find out which colours are transparent or opaque look on the side of the tube of paint; some manufacturers print this underneath the name of the colour. Winsor & Newton have a small square shape on the reverse of the tube; an outline empty square means the colour is transparent and a small solid square represents an opaque colour. Other manufacturers don’t indicate this information on the side of the tube of paint so you will have to go to their website for more details.


To show how each glaze alters the underpainted colour, I painted thin washes of transparent colours in rectangular shapes using permanent rose, transparent yellow, Prussian blue and Winsor violet. Once these were thoroughly dry I painted on top with another thin wash of colour. When pink is painted over yellow it turns orange, and blue over pink creates a lilac colour. Remember not to glaze violet over yellow or it will turn brown.

Demonstration White Peony

You will need:


  • Saunders Waterford NOT 300gsm watercolour paper (28x38cm)

Winsor & Newton Professional Water Colour

  • Winsor yellow
  • Winsor red
  • Permanent rose
  • Prussian blue
  • Winsor violet
  • Sap green


  • Rounds Nos. 12, 8, 6 & 1


  • A palette
  • Masking fluid
  • Colour Shaper
  • HB pencil
  • Board and masking tape to fasten the paper on to the board
  • Water pot

Step 1

1. Draw the shape of the flower onto watercolour paper, beginning at the centre and working outwards towards the edge of the petals. We need a large area to practise the glazing technique so almost fill the page with the flower rather than making it too small.

2. Use masking fluid on a Colour Shaper or old brush to mask the inner edge of the outline of the flower so that when the background paint is applied it leaves the outline of the flower crisp and clean.

3. Mask the stamens in the centre of the flower to reserve some highlights and mask out the stalk.

Step 2

1. Prepare large washes for the background colours: Winsor yellow, Prussian blue, Winsor violet and sap green. Use plenty of paint and only a little water or the washes will dry too light. If you don’t have these colours practise overlapping different yellow and blue paints on a spare piece of paper to see which combination you prefer, but remember overlapping yellow and purple makes brown so avoid putting these side by side.

2. Thoroughly wet the background area around the outer edges of the flower with clean water. Ensure no water goes on to the flower area or some of the background colour will run on the petals.

3. Working quickly, apply the yellow paint with a No. 12 brush to the outer corners of the paper.

4. Add sap green then Prussian blue, allowing these colours to merge into each other on the paper. Add purple next to the blue then make darker shades of green by adding the blue on top of selected parts of the green areas. Allow these colours to dry thoroughly before removing the masking fluid that is around the edges of the flower by rubbing it off with your finger. Leave the masking fluid in place on the stamens but remove it from the stem and paint this green.

5. Once the masking fluid has been removed use a damp brush to drag a little of the blue background colour on the flower to create a shadow effect behind some of the petals, as shown in this illustration.

Step 3

1. Check you still have some yellow wash left in your palette. Dampen the centre where the stamens are masked.

2. Paint in a strong wash of yellow with a No. 6 brush. While this is still wet use the tip of a No. 1 brush to dab in little areas of Winsor red. Leave this to dry.

3. Load a No. 8 brush with watery yellow paint and add the first glaze sparingly on to the petals as shown in the illustration. Work on dry paper (not wet in wet), painting outwards from the centre towards the edge of the flower. I didn’t wet the petals with water first as this would make the yellow spread and fill the entire flower. It is important not to cover the whole petal, as the white paper would be lost, making this look like a yellow flower rather than a white one.

Step 4

Next, with a No. 8 brush paint a glaze of pale pink made from a diluted wash of permanent rose on each petal where there are shadows. Blend hard edges with a damp brush. Using bold brushstrokes try not to overwork these pink glazes otherwise you may disturb the layer of paint underneath. Remember to leave areas of white paper. Once the pink glaze has been added, leave this to dry thoroughly.

Step 5

1. To make the top petals appear above those underneath, darken the shadowed areas on the lower petal with a thin wash of blue paint.

2. Once this is dry, add a thin wash of Winsor violet on top of the blue shadows to deepen them. These layers can be seen in detail in this close-up illustration.

Step 6

1. Remove the masking fluid on the centre of the flower and paint the white stamens in pale yellow with a No. 1 brush.

2. Make a green by adding yellow and blue together. Refer to the reference photograph or the finished painting to paint the shapes in the centre of the flower with green and a small brush.

The finished painting

White Peony, watercolour, (28x38cm)

Gwen Scott

Gwen is a professional artist and tutor from Nottingham. To see more of Gwen’s paintings and information on workshops and other tuition visit her website at gwenscottwatercolours.co.uk.

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