'Roses come in a variety of wonderful shades, ranging from soft pinks, yellows and peaches through to rich vibrant reds and magentas,' says Julie King. 'Whether from life or a photograph, before beginning the painting stage I study the subject and select the colour palette accordingly.

'Many shades can be produced by mixing the three primary colours, however, due to the vibrancy and sometimes almost synthetic shade of certain varieties of rose, extra colours are often needed, for example quinacridone magenta, which is a transparent cool and luminous pink.'


Rosette-style, multi-petalled rose (bowl shaped), viewed from different angles

Observe the different colours within the petals of your subject; a pink or red rose isn’t a flat, single colour. It is made up of variations of colour: warmer shades, which may appear peachier or redder due to the content of yellow in the mix, or cool shades that contain more blue.

The light source affects the shade of colour within an entire flower head. Sunlight appears to bleach out colour, which creates a very pale tone or bright white highlights. They can be suggested by leaving areas of white, dry paper. The same applies to the leaves. The colours within can vary from warm greens with touches of yellow, to cool shades with touches of almost neat blue. In fact, when the sun shines on a shiny leaf, it reflects the blue sky.

Angular pink-peach rose study with colour notes

  1. Hints of yellow
  2. A mix of yellow and blue
  3. Highlights on a pale French ultramarine base
  4. Add a touch of the flower colour in the stem (red or mauve)
  5. Pyrrole red
  6. Quinacridone magenta
  7. Permanent rose
  8. Cobalt yellow
  9. Phthalo blue
  10. French ultramarine
  11. Cobalt yellow
  12. Wet on wet
  13. A touch of red in the green tones down the shade

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Colour experiments to try

The excitement of watercolour lies in being able to lay two or three colours side by side or on top of each other, allowing them to bleed together into a partial mix, either wet on dry or wet on wet. This can be far more effective than pre-mixing colours together in the palette. The effect is far more vibrant.

1. Let damp colours flow together

Experiment with letting colours mix on the paper. The direction of the light falling on a rose, together with the shadow colours, gives the opportunity to create lively colour combinations. Don’t be afraid of exaggerating colour and bear in mind watercolour dries lighter so compensate by mixing the colours stronger than they appear. Warm reds and cool pinks combine with blue and yellow to create the secondary colours.

Clashing colours, mixed on the paper

2. Glazing technique

I also pick colours that are transparent or semi-transparent, due to their glazing qualities when working wet on dry. If a petal needs more warmth, for example, a glaze of dilute yellow can be washed over the dry base to give a glow.

In fact, any sequence of colours can be used. Here I used the primary colours: French ultramarine blue, diarylide yellow, and a cool permanent rose and pyrrole red, which is warmer. Notice when one primary colour is glazed over another, a secondary colour is created.

Glazed colours

Rose Study

Try making a study page to suggest the different rose shapes and colour combinations.

Experiment with different brushstrokes and colours. It helps to loosen up!

  1. Permanent rose
  2. Colbalt yellow
  3. Diarylide yellow
  4. Pyrrole red
  5. French ultramarine
  6. Cobalt yellow
  7. Quinacridone magenta
  8. Permanent rose
  9. French ultramarine
  10. Pyrrole red
  11. Quinacridone magenta
  12. French ultramarine
  13. Cobalt yellow
  14. Diarylide yellow
  15. Pyrrole red
  16. Quinacridone magenta
  17. Permanent rose
  18. Quinacridone magenta
  19. French ultramarine
  20. Prussian blue
  21. Cobalt yellow


Yellow Rose, watercolour, (25x25cm)

In this painting, I used cool cobalt yellow, pyrrole red, permanent rose and quinacridone magenta. I dropped these colours onto a wet base, working one petal at a time to create a glow. Different shades of blue and yellow can be mixed in this way, too. I also combined phthalo blue and cobalt yellow to make green. To tone it down, I added a touch of its complementary shade, red.

Depending on the variety of rose, some have petals that curl more obviously than others and catch the light, which assist in defining the shape of the rose. The curled edges can be either left as a pale tone or simply as white paper.

There are many approaches to painting roses. It is a matter of personal choice. You can see two different approaches in Yellow Rose (above) and Summer Mix (below).

Summer Mix, watercolour, (26x36cm)

When I am painting outdoors, I like to paint directly. I don’t studiously copy every petal but capture the essence of the flower with loose brushstrokes, having studied its characteristics first. Here are directly painted roses, with highlights left white.

Exercise one - Brushstrokes with limited palette

Colours used:
  • Quinacridone magenta
  • French ultramarine
  • Cobalt yellow

Here I illustrate the sequence of brushstrokes I used to build up a multi-petalled rose shape.

Step one

Using dilute quinacridone magenta, begin in the centre and work outwards with curved brushstrokes, almost drawing the petal shapes with the brush. The brushstrokes indicate the negative spaces and shadows, and the areas left as white suggest the highlighted petals.

Step two

Soften the brushstrokes with a damp brush and drop in a stronger shade of magenta, a hint of French ultramarine and yellow towards the centre.

Step three

Add sweeping brushstrokes in a circle.

The finished study

Exercise two - Colour over a wet-in-wet base wash

Unlike the angular multi-petalled rose in exercise 1 (above), which illustrates a petal-by-petal approach on a white damp base, this exercise demonstrates another method whereby I began with an overall base wash.

Colours used:

  • Cobalt yellow
  • Permanent rose
  • Quinacridone magenta
  • French ultramarine
Step one

Rather than paint a flat one-colour wash, I wetted the entire background and let my four chosen colours bleed together to create a variegated wash. I worked from warm to cool shades, beginning with a hint of cobalt yellow, followed by permanent rose, quinacridone magenta and, finally, a hint of French ultramarine blue, which I applied very sparingly to avoid muddiness.

Step two

Whilst damp, I lifted colour out of the curled back petals with a nylon brush.

Step three

I continued painting each petal with a combination of wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry techniques.

Step four

The curled areas can be left as simply the base colour, or a hint of tone can be added to suggest its rounded shape.


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


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