Pam Bowen takes you through the process of painting flowers from life with some top tips and advice.

Learn the following with Pam:

  • How to study flowers from life
  • Tips and techniques for drawing and painting flowers
  • Colour-mixing ideas

'Flowers have been painted since man loved nature enough to want to record it. Crocuses were decorated on a Cycladic jar around 1550BC and lilies shown on a palace near Nineveh in the early seventh century BC,' says Pam.

'I came to flower painting through a passionate desire to record the flowers that I saw when botanising or growing in my garden. Photographing them was too instant for me; I enjoy looking and marvelling at the structure and colour of the specimens I choose.

'As a flower painter I don’t need to obey the botanical artist’s strict rules on accuracy, but I do aim to achieve the characteristics of the plant enough to be recognised. The following explains the process I use to paint flowers from life.'

A page from a sketchbook, showing studies of cyclamen flower heads and a leaf, along with colour-mixing ideas.

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Seven top tips for observing and drawing flowers:

1. The subject

With the subject placed in front of me on a large sheet of paper on my studio table and the flower heads at eye level, I begin the exciting challenge of portraying its beauty.

2. Sketchbook exercises

I begin by doing a warm-up exercise in my sketchbook, practising the structure and blooms I want to paint at a variety of angles and experimenting with colour. This helps me to draw and paint the final portrait in a more emotional way. I count the petals before starting. So many amateur artists have been disappointed with their result when they realised their six-petalled plant had only five petals!

3. Shapes

Many of our flowers can be seen as simple geometric shapes. The shape of an ice cream cone covers the shape of lilies, convulvulous, penstemens and gentians. A simple circle covers the daisy family, as long as you remember that it becomes elliptical as the flower turns. The cup-and-saucer shape helps us draw the daffodil family with confidence.

4. Proportion

It is important to ensure the centre of the flower is in the right proportion to the head. A large centre on a yellow daisy, for instance, makes it look like a tansy, whereas a small centre changes it to the rudbeckia family.

5. Measurement

Measure parts of the plant with its own parts. The petal, for instance, may be half the length of the leaf or the centre may be twice the length of the petal.

6. Drawing

Draw the flower and leaves first, because they are the parts of the subject that will move as the day progresses. Leave the stems until last as, by the time you are ready to paint the stems, you may have covered much of them by leaves or buds.

7. Practise your colours

When you are satisfied with your drawing, you are ready to try out the colours. If you can use pigment straight from the pan or tube, your petal colours will appear fresh and convincing, particularly if you have found a transparent colour.


How to paint a sunflower in watercolour

It is summer as I write this and the sunflowers are crying out to be painted.

1. The petals

I use the Rigger like a drawing tool to paint the pigment in small sections then pull down the colour with the larger damp brush to give the petal transparency.

This is more important in delicate flowers, like the wild rose or sweet pea, where the light shines through the fragile petals.

A Rigger is used to paint the negative shapes around the petals.

2. The centre of the sunflower

The centre of a sunflower is dark and, to give it texture, I added course sea salt on to the wet, dark colours.

When dry, the salt was brushed off to leave random markings.

3. The leaves

I laid a wash on the leaf and, when dry, painted another layer, leaving the veins, showing. In effect, I was painting negatively around the vein markings.

My favourite greens are mixed from aureolin and indigo, which produce everything from a yellow-green, as you might need in primrose leaves, to the sort of blue-green you might need for conifer foliage.

A sheet showing studies and colour swatches for the painting, Sunflower and Bee

4. The background

I like to paint a simple texturing colour on the paper around the flower, usually choosing a complementary colour to the petals.

Again I used the Rigger to paint between the petals with a dark pigment, which I dragged down on to damp paper with a larger brush.

While the paint was still wet other colours were bled into it to give the appearance of out-of-focus foliage.

5. The shadows

You now need shadow areas using a mixture of light red and indigo.

6. The stems

I left the stems for last, in the case of these sunflowers, the colour was much paler than the leaves, but in many plants they are darker.

Check that the stems are cylindrical, as some are woody, hairy or square.

Paint them in water first and let the green mixture run down, that takes away the anxiety of painting a long green line.

The finished painting

Sunflower and Bee, watercolour on watercolour paper 12x9in (31x23cm)


Pam Bowen is an experienced watercolour tutor, who studied art at the City of Coventry Teacher Training College.

This feature is taken from the October 2019 issue of Leisure Painter

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