Painting hellebores and other white winter flowers in watercolour can present us with several new challenges.

Winter flowers are often in stark contrast with their dark wintry surroundings of brown bare soil or deep green evergreen foliage.

While this contrast makes them a joy to paint, it also brings the potential problem of muddy darks and greens that may seem sludgy rather than clean and vibrant.

In this article I will suggest ways of mixing colours for a dark background; show you methods of mixing vibrant winter greens; and how to make white winter flowers stand out boldly by adding shadows within the flower.

Finally I’ll suggest ways of dealing with winter foliage.

Hellebores - the subject of this demonstration

Work from a clear drawing of the subject

Mixing darks

Dark mixes need to have the three primary colours in them: blue, yellow and some red. I like to choose a vibrant blue such as Winsor blue. For the yellow I find that quinacridone gold works well, and the red could be alizarin crimson or magenta, or even a purple such as dioxazine violet.

The secret when mixing in your palette is always to be able to identify the three separate colours and not allow them to merge completely. I start with the blue and gold side by side and gently mingle them to make green. I then add the red to the blue side of the mix first and gently mingle it with the green. You can see in the photograph (below) how the colours stay clean with this gentle approach.

Making a clean dark mix

First background wash

I have used these colours in my hellebore painting in the first background wash and then added a second background wash when the first was dry to bring out the leaves. You can identify the three separate colours in my first wash because I have not over mixed them in the palette.

Step 1
The first background wash


Second background wash

In the second wash I allowed the colours to blend more on the paper.

Step 2
The second background wash (which brings out the leaves)


Mixing winter greens

I often use Winsor blue and quinacridone gold to mix greens as the gold has some red in it and therefore makes a very natural, clean green.

Once again I aim not to over mix, but to be able to identify the two colours even when mingled. I put the blue and the gold side by side in the palette and bring them together in the middle. You can end up with two or three different shades of green to dip your brush into if you do not over-mix
If the mix does become muddy, then it’s best to start again rather than make do with a colour that isn’t clean.

If you feel you have lost the clean colour you were aiming for, try adding more blue as this can often rescue the mix.


Painting white winter flowers

I always like to depict sunshine on the winter flowers that I paint.

The low winter sun can make interesting cast shadows within the flower. These cast shadows serve to lift the stamens and add to the illusion of depth.


Step 4
The stamens are masked out

In this painting I carefully covered the stamens with masking fluid using a Colour Shaper. It is worth observing closely how they grow in the flower centres and drawing them carefully. When the masking was dry I painted the shadows on the petals. I used a mix of cobalt blue with a touch of permanent rose and a touch of yellow to make a soft blue/grey. For the general shadow tones, I wetted the whole petal and stroked in the shadow mix wet in wet.


Step 5
The cast shadows are added

I then allowed this to dry before painting the crisper cast shadows.


Step 6
The final darks are added to the centre

I painted these wet on dry so as to have more control, as these shadows have hard edges.

When these were dry and before taking the masking off, I looked carefully at my reference photograph and painted the cast shadows of the stamens wet on dry.

I also painted the little green petals in the centre as these would serve to bring out the stamens.

When the masking fluid was removed, I painted the ends of the stamens yellow and added darker yellow on the side away from the light. When this was dry I added darker green into the centres to give more depth.

When painted this way the stamens stand out in a pleasing three-dimensional effect.


Adding the foliage

When painting the foliage I used the green mix described earlier.

Hellebore foliage often has a dark pink tinge to it so I allowed the reds and golds of the first wash to go over the leaves. The colours from the first wash then shone through the greens that were added later which made for a more interesting end result.

I also cut out background leaves from the first wash using the same dark mix.


Three White Hellebores, watercolour, (20x30cm)


In this painting I used Derwent’s crimson lake watercolour pencil, which was dipped in water, to edge the leaves while still wet and to draw the veins.


This article is taken from the January 2013 issue of Leisure Painter