As Christmas draws closer, our thoughts turn to all things associated with the season and its traditions. Evergreens featured as decorations in homes and shrines of pagan people at this time of year, as their continuing greenness was a sign of life in the winter, when other plants were dead. Holly, ivy and mistletoe also bore fruit at this time. Evergreens were used as Christianity developed and people looked for Christian meanings in these plants. It is thought that the English word holly derived from the word holy.

As painters we often look towards designing our own greetings cards for family and special friends, especially at this season when they are welcomed with delight as a personal greeting.

For this article, therefore, I have chosen holly as my subject, and will show you different methods of working, which I hope will inspire you to take the first steps in producing your own cards.

Your subject

Holly (ilex) is universally symbolic of Christmas with its characteristic dark, shiny, spikey leaves. The flowers are insignificant, but the bright red berries of winter create contrast against the rich green foliage. It is at this time that we need to capture them in paint, especially before the birds eat them.

The leaves are noted for their dark green, glossy, oval shape and sharp needle-like protuberances, with undulating surfaces, thick and leathery with a slightly pitted surface. There are many varieties of holly, some of which are variegated with different colour and pattern combinations.

Some species have smooth edges and can be found at the top of the tree, whereas more spikey ones are found nearer ground level, produced to protect the tree from animals.

Green and shiny surfaces are always a challenge to produce so why not follow my tutorial and work up your own Christmas card, giving a lovely surprise to friends and family.

Drawing your subject

Let’s begin by looking at the leaves and their habits. Holly Studies were worked on smooth cartridge paper, using an F pencil, which gave a fine line. Working from the central vein in each case, I drew the twisted shapes, showing the surface undulations and needle-like points.

Holly Studies, pencil on smooth cartridge paper, 6x81⁄4in. (15x21cm)

A. The shading was gradually built up following the contours. The leathery, shiny surface is slightly dimpled so highlights were strongly contrasted and showed the pitted pattern.

B. Here is a foreshortened view, showing the character of the leaf.

C. This linear drawing takes another view of the irregular shape. The light green edge of this variety has been depicted.

D. The under surface of the leaf displays the proud central vein and hollowing along the lateral veins. In a strong contrast to the upper surface the colour is matt and olive or sap green.


For all my botanical studies I work to the actual size of the plant and in so doing can make an accurate comparison of shape and perspective. Although a watercolourist, I also favour pen and ink, as I love to draw. If you use ink, you do need to be confident, unless you place pencil guidelines before adding pen marks.

Normally I use smooth paper, such as Bristol board or a good quality cartridge. If I intend to add a wash, I work on NOT or HP surface watercolour paper. It is worth noting, however, that this surface does alter the pen marks, as the pen does not travel as smoothly over the textured surface.

Holly Study, pen and ink drawing, 9x814⁄ in. (23x21cm)

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The grouping of leaves and berries on this sprig made a good composition (see above), and I placed it off centre and at a slight angle. Using a 0.1 waterproof drawing pen, I outlined the shapes, depicting the double edge to the leaves, central and lateral veins. The marks you make in pen and ink should be dictated to you by your subject matter and due to the delicacy of the plants, it is advisable to use stipple to build up tonal values. Stipple is time-consuming, but sympathetic to plant forms; varying the amount of stipple conveys the depth of tone and form.

Note that the highlights on the berries do not appear in the same place on each berry. Close observation on all details is important to create a convincing image.

I added the wash over my pen drawing to produce this Christmas card (above) in pen & wash. I only made a suggestion of colour and not a detailed colour rendition, as you see in my other examples. The card was printed at 5x5in. (12.5x12.5cm), showing the twig in its natural size.

EXERCISE 1 Holly, Golden King

Holly, Golden King, watercolour on Saunders Waterford Rough paper, 6x4in. (15x10cm)

Holly, Golden King was worked in watercolour on Saunders Waterford Rough paper. I laid a wash of sap green on the central vein and lateral veins. In this variety the leaf edges are a golden green so I mixed sap green with green gold for this area then added warm sepia to the mix for the slightly shaded area on the right. Perylene green was a good match for the dark, shiny patches.

Initially I laid a dilute wash of perylene green, but while still damp, dropped in stronger pigment to give the shape and tone of the leaf. With a stipple action I added deeper colour to define the hollows and the veins to the slightly irregular surface. This paper responds well to the wet-in-wet technique, which gives the gradation of tone on the curved surface between the lateral veins. Initially I used a No. 6 brush for the washes then reduced the size down to a No. 3 for the remainder of the life-size painting.

EXERCISE 2 Holly, Silver Queen

Holly, Silver Queen, watercolour on Saunders Waterford NOT paper, 4x4in. (10x10cm)

Holly, Silver Queen shows a much lighter edging to the variegated type. To achieve the right hue I mixed lemon yellow and Naples yellow and laid a wash around the leaf edges. As with all holly leaves, they are thick and leathery so you will see the thickness which shows where shadows fall. The shiny surface catches the light so there is strong contrast between light and shade with the convoluted surface.

Some areas showed white so I dropped clear water on these places, before feeding in dilute perylene green then adding more pigment until I achieved the depth of tone I required. I allowed my brushstrokes to follow the contours to emphasise shape and form.

For the hollows and shadow areas on the yellow edging, I added Davy’s grey to the yellow mix. The lateral veins were hardly visible, but I suggested them by negative painting in the final layer of paint. This leaf was worked on Saunders Waterford NOT paper. The paper is very responsive to wet in wet, but obviously in a controlled manner, as the painting is small.

The painting for this Christmas card measured (24x18cm)

This image in watercolour was designed specifically as a card and was painted on Arches 140lb NOT paper to the actual plant size, but was reduced in reproduction to 7x5in. (18x12.5cm). I used the same painting techniques as in the other examples you see here. Note the variety of greens on the leaves, varying as they twist and turn in the light. The highlights on the shiny berries catch the light as their position on the stalk changes.

Judith Milne
To find out more about Judith’s work, please visit or email [email protected]

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