Flowers provide exciting subject matter during the spring and summer months, offering vibrant colour, elegant forms, tonal variation and design potential. I particularly enjoy the way bright sunlight enhances the translucent and reflective surfaces of flowers and foliage, and the fluid transparency of watercolour makes it ideal for capturing these light effects and organic forms.

Tulips, watercolour on Bockingford Rough 140lb (300gsm), (35.5x35.5cm).
Painted in two washes, the simple forms allowed for a loose, expressive approach.

Three-step strategy

My three-step strategy for painting flowers is designed to keep things fresh, minimise mud and preserve transparency.

Step 1: Tonal rough and composition plan  

This is essential if I am to paint with economy and conviction. Painting without a plan is like going into a new city without a map, the one thing you can be sure of achieving is getting lost! With a clear route forward, I lightly sketch the main shapes onto the watercolour paper with a 2B pencil.

Step 2: The underpainting

I aim to cover the whole sheet, establishing all light passages while reserving any highlights as white paper. This is the foundation of the work, paving the way for all washes to come by helping me relate everything to the whole, rather than scattered bits and pieces. The main ingredient that describes light is tone and to judge it accurately, it must be seen in context, in other words against another tone. If elements are judged against white paper when later they will be surrounded by colour, it’s likely they will need reworking and making stronger, which of course risks creating mud. The foundation wash provides a guide to pitch the next wash accurately and in one go.

Step 3: Mid-tones, darks and details

It is these passages that will describe the shapes within the picture, using the underpainting to pitch their strength as accurately as possible. I especially enjoy revealing bright flowers and leaves by painting the rich, dark negative shapes around them, using the underpainting to create the lightest colours of the blooms and foliage. With discipline, practice and a little bit of luck, a painting can be finished in no more than two washes, creating a vibrant and luminous result.

Regarding the painting sequence, I always work from background to foreground, light to dark, establishing the main masses first and finally the details. It’s vital to observe the edges of shapes carefully – are they sharp, broken, soft or lost and found. This determines if I am working wet-into-wet to create blurred edges or soft transitions, or wet on dry paper if the definition is sharp, rough or broken.

DEMONSTRATION: Sunlit Daffodils

Put Paul’s three-step method to the test, as you paint these Sunlit Daffodils, step-by-step.