Elizabeth Blackadder shows how to paint tulips and irises in this watercolour painting demonstration.
How to paint flowers in watercolour with Elizabeth Blackadder
Painting tulips and irises in watercolour Elizabeth describes her working methods, and how she builds up – and constantly changes – her careful composition.
Starting with an idea
I am going to start a watercolour of flowers, and begin with some tulips, which are beginning to look really quite interesting. I usually like to pick them and leave them in the studio for a little while and then they take on their own shapes. The stems curve and the flowers all come out, and they are much more interesting than when they are first stuck into a vase. I don’t plan out my paintings; I have an idea in my head, but the idea may change during the course of the painting. Once you start with an image on the white paper, that really dictates in a way what is going to happen next. I like to be surprised at the end; I don’t like to be too predictable – I think that then it becomes boring. For this painting I am thinking as well of mixing the varieties of flowers.
Choosing your paper and subject
When I am painting flowers like this, I use paper with a very smooth, hard surface – quite heavy. The paper is not absorbent, and so the paint tends to lie on top; this can give you greater detail and a sharper edge. If I were painting a still life I might use a very soft, absorbent paper and let the paint flood out.
I am fascinated by Irises and have started growing them – as many different kinds as I can possibly find. I think I have realised that I really like flowers that have quite a strong structure to them. The iris has this quality, although there are so many varieties of them. Also, I like the texture of the leaves and the petals, with the light shining through. It is almost impossible to reproduce it in paint, but it is always a challenge to try. I never quite manage it, but I keep on trying!
Choosing your brushes
I use a variety of brushes. I like using some fairly large brushes so that I can get a really full amount of paint on them. If you use very small brushes you tend to get too finicky and detailed. You need something with a fairly fine point as well when you start a flower like the tulip: it has a totally different kind of petal from, say, the iris. Some of them are quite shiny and reflective, and some of the edges of the petals have a slightly broken edge, or they twist and turn, and one colour blends into another and fades out. You can’t hope to get the whole feeling of it, but some idea of it.
To me, drawing is very important. I suppose it is all part of the training that I had, that a great deal of emphasis was put on drawing. I usually draw with quite a soft, watersoluble pencil so that the lines disappear – hopefully.
Combining the subjects
I needed to decide how this tulip would work with the iris, and where to put in another flower-head; really, the paintings are built up in this way. I don’t have a pre-conceived plan of where everything is to go. I do like painting the flowers almost to exact size, I don’t know why – but of course the bigger the scale, the more detail you can get into them. I like just using the watercolour and letting it run on to the paper. I even used to dampen the paper sometimes and then paint on to it before it had properly dried. I don’t do that so much now, but I paint wet-into-wet quite often; this is especially useful when you are trying to get this effect of the stripes in the tulip, so that the colours blend and the edges become a little softer. This is a lily flowering tulip with very pretty, very delicate, very pointed petals, and quite unusual colours too.
Choosing a layout
Sometimes I just like to have the flowers placed on the paper with a pure white background, so the effect is really stark. But I have got a range of old dishes and jugs and so on, some given to me by other painters, so at other times it is quite nice to use them and to feel that someone else has also used them.
The big tulips and even the big purple iris on the right-hand side tend to be fairly similar in size, so I thought it would be very nice to introduce something very different in scale. I like the shape of it and the shape of the bud. It is quite detailed: with the sort of veining on the petals that it is quite tricky to get! There is really such variety within the iris group, both in the flowers and in the shape of leaves and so on.
Keeping it minimal
The trouble is that once you start painting something you have an idea, but as the painting goes on you get a lot more ideas; things that are suggested through the painting and by just looking – sometimes there are too many ideas and you can’t put them all down. The spaces between the flowers and the objects are very important to me in the composition; in fact, they are almost as important as the objects themselves. I try to see that I have got the right distances, and that they are making an interesting shape themselves.
Tulips and Irises, watercolour on Whatman HP paper, (55 x 81.3cm)
This is the finished painting with quite a few additions. I have also put in some different jugs and hinted at the background: I just didn’t want to make it too strong: I wanted the flowers to be the most important thing in the painting. Sometimes, using the jugs gives you a slightly different shape and a different kind of interest in the painting.