‘As one of the most popular flowers, roses are the perfect painting subject to brighten up any day.,’ says Julie King. ‘They are accessible to buy all year around and can be found in many gardens – even late in the year, I will find a solitary bloom appearing.

‘If you can’t find a live specimen, reference photographs are always available.

For consistency of light and shade, a photograph provides the perfect starting point. I tend to take lots of photographs in the summer when the roses are at their best. Although I love to paint flowers directly, there is never enough time to paint all that inspires me.’

Magenta Wild Rose, detail of a watercolour painting, (18x18cm) shows a five-petalled rose

Observing roses

The key to drawing and painting a rose is observation so, initially, it is worth spending time sketching their form in pencil and making a few descriptive notes with the idea of familiarising yourself with your subject. Depending on their complexity, roses are not always the easiest of flowers to paint, but understanding their structure and character can help you.

All roses can be simplified into a general geometric shape

Here are a few points to consider when looking at your subject:

How would you describe the rose? Is the flower head soft, hard, angular, curved, frilly, simple, complex, delicate or strong?

What and where are the tonal contrasts within the subject?

Which direction is the light coming from?

Does the lighting affect the tones?

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Shapes of roses


A study of an orange rose bud, inspired by the drawings (above)

All roses can be simplified into a general geometric shape; for example when viewing a single rose bud, it appears to have a triangular shape. Its base is quite bulbous and round with the sepals following the curve.

Drawing a triangle and circle at the base can greatly help when drawing it. Gradually the rose opens to reveal its shape and form.

Simple varieties

A simple five-petalled rose fits into a circle, seen here at different angles

The appearance of a rose varies, depending on the angle it is viewed. Whether viewed straight on or at a slight angle, it will fit into a circle, which becomes more elliptical when viewed side on. Viewed from above, the flower fits within a circular shape, with the stamens positioned in the centre.

Viewed at a slight angle, it fits into an oval shape, and, as it is tilted back even further, a lightly sketched shallow ellipse will guide the drawing.

Bear in mind that the petals closest to you are coming forward and, due to their angle, are foreshortened. Look carefully at the proportions – both the height and width – of each petal, which appears quite different to those viewed from above.

Begin with a contour drawing. A central line added to each petal will also suggest the direction of growth and flow of the petal then consider the shape of the petal. Does it curve upwards or downwards, to create a convex or concave shape?

Tonal values

Once the drawing is complete, look at the relationship of tones from one petal to the next so as to differentiate between each of them. I make illustrative sketches using a soft 6B pencil as I observe the lightest and darkest tones. Pure white paper can be left to suggest the highlights or palest of tones. I shade in the direction of the growth and shape of each petal and increase the strength of tone where one petal overlaps another and a cast shadow appears.

Round shapes

A simple five-petalled rose fits into a circle, seen here at different angles

One of my favourite roses is the Olivia Rose Austin (see above) which begins as a pretty cup-shaped bud and gradually unfurls to become a larger cup shape with a definite roundness to the centre then opening to a full bloom to reveal a shallow bowl-shaped multi-petalled rosette-style rose. All the petals gravitate from the central point of the rose and appear to twist and turn.

A graphite drawing of the multi-petalled bowl shape of the rosette-style rose

I began again by making loose pencil sketches to help portray its structure. I indicated a bowl shape viewed at different angles initially to help with the drawing. As there are so many petals, I just captured the essence of the rose with an indication of the structure, rather than trying to draw every petal.

This principle also applies to the method I use to interpret this style of rose in watercolour.

Angular shapes

Above left A tonal drawing of an angular-shaped rose. Above right Viewed from above, the lightly curled petal edges form a similar spiral pattern, increasing in size towards the outer edge.

Another style of rose is a geometric angular-petalled shrub rose, which has fewer petals and is structurally easier to interpret, as the curls of the petal are more obvious. Observe the bud shape in the centre with its triangular form and the petals unravelling to reveal light edges.

In their simplest form, their shape is based on a cylinder, which can be left as white paper or a very pale hint of tone. Note the shadowed areas where one petal overlaps another and the direction of shading to indicate its form.

I generally work from the centre of a rose outward as the petals almost suggest a spiral shape.

The spiral

This example shows a softer-looking rose than the geometric one, but again it has obvious lightly curled petals, which makes it easier to interpret.

Heaven Scent, watercolour, 10¼x10¼in. (26x26cm)

This illustrates the spiral shape created by light petal edges.

Stems and leaves

Studies of leaves in graphite

The angles of stems and leaves are an important part of the painting. Often stems are quite stocky and strong due to the size of the bloom that they support, but they do vary depending on the variety.

The stems are cylindrical in shape and, generally, rose leaves are glossy and catch the light.

When tackling leaves, start drawing the angle of the central vein to achieve the correct perspective. Observe the widest part of the leaf and make a mark or lightly indicate a line. This will be helpful to interpret the overall shape and perspective. Once happy with the shape, the serrated edges can be added loosely, and tone applied. The tones will vary depending on the angle and light source.

Sometimes the veins are visible, sometimes hardly discernible. The same follows for the petals. When viewed with half-closed eyes, finer details are bleached out by strong light. See an example of the leaves in the rosette-style rose photograph above.

Discover colour and watercolour painting techniques for roses in part two


Take three colours and three brushes and learn to paint more flowers with Julie King's book, Watercolour Flowers