Saturday, 30 March 2013

Time for Some Colour!

Spring is upon us so it's time for some colour! Here's a watercolour tutorial showing how I approach painting my favourite  British spring flower, Fritillaria meleagris L. Liliaceae. Commonly known as the Snake's Head Fritillary.
F. meleagris was once a common sight in British meadows but the intensification of farming after WWII destroyed their habitat, and, when combined with and the practise of picking and selling vast quantities of the flowers in markets - the population was left severely depleted. Today the status of Fritillaria in Britain is Nationally Scarce ( non IUCN data 2007) and the remaining population is largely concentrated in Oxfordshire.

I know in my last blog post I said I was going to do leaves... but that's coming up later! Also if leaves are your nemesis, the monocots with their thin strappy leaves, like this Fritillaria, make life a little easier, so that's a good excuse for me to postpone a leaf tutorial!   

The Subject
Fritillarias last a few weeks so you have a good bit of time and each flower lasts a few days.
Always consider the longevity of the subject if you are slow at working and take photographs for back up reference.

NOTE: Beware of colour and morphological changes due to environmental influences e.g. heat, light, nutrients etc. which can occur when you take a plant indoors or take a cutting. Put it back outdoors at night or in a cool place if it's a cut stem.

The Preparation
Before putting pencil to paper take time to observe the subject and find the best position by turning it around....take a good look and think it through. I lit the plant from the right hand side using an angle poise lamp ( right handers light from the other side). I used a pot of Frits containing 5 plants, purchased from the garden centre. The Fritillaria is a kind subject, in this one I like the way the two leaves at the top curl around, so this is a good feature for a painting. Look for attractive and curves and shapes and avoid awkward overlaps or foreshortening which make it difficult for the viewer to see what's actually going on.  Make a few rough sketches before deciding on the best position. Put them aside for at least an hour before deciding which one is the best.You can do some colour testing in this time.

Once you have decided on the best position start be making an line drawing of your subject as described in previous post on drawing. Keep it very light and never press on so hard that the pencil indents the paper. I use an H or HB pencil.
I'm working on Langton Extra Smooth Hot Pressed 140lb paper.

Once I have made the initial drawing I use a putty rubber to lighten it so there is as little as possible pencil on the paper but just enough to be able to see the outline.

Identify the Colours
Identify which colours you are going to use before starting. I usually take a leaf and petal from the plant ( if possible) and lay them on a separate sheets of white paper to isolate them from surrounding colours, which influence your perception of the colour. if you have made colour charts these can be very useful, particularly with green mixes, however I'm lazy and too disorganised!... so I don't bother with colour charts and mix colours on a 'need' basis....I never seem to want to spend time doing charts but if you can they are worth the effort. 

  • For the shadows I used a Botanical Grey Mix: There are lots of different mixes for a botanical grey comprising equal parts of  blue + red + yellow. I'm using Cobalt blue, Perm Magenta an Winsor Yellow.
  • Petals: There is an underlying brighter red colour for this I used Perylene Maroon +Permanent Magenta. For the darker purple I add Winsor Violet Dioxide and add Neutral Tint for the darker shades. The leaf tip is lemon yellow. 
  • Leaves: The leaves have a blue/grey green colour. I used Cerulean Blue + Transparent Yellow with a little Magenta to kill the brightness. The ratio of the colours determines the colour balance. Also check the colour of the newer leaves compared to the older leaves, usually older leaves are more yellow.
  • The Stem: The underlying colour is green with a red/purple/ brown marking. I use the same green mix as the leaves with the red/purple mix on top. I always try to use the same colours throughout to create transition and continuity and always try to use a few colours as possible.
  • The Anthers:Winsor yellow for closed anthers with the green mix on top. Dehisced anthers are more of a Cad yellow.
  • Neutral Tint mix 4:1 ratio of French Ultra to Perm Azil Crimson with a tiny amount of Cad Yellow. mixed to make a black.

I always try to work on a painting up as a whole rather than concentrating on any one part. So I lay in all the washes first, I think it makes for a better all round ' balanced' painting  For example, it can be tempting to focus on the most visually appealing part of a plant such as the flower and neglect the leaves until last, I don't like to work in this way because I'm left with the parts I either don't fancy doing or find difficult, and this, for me, is how a painting remains in an unfinished's also quite a stressful experience if you make a good job of the flower and leave the tricky bits until last!     

To start with I lay down  a tea wash of the green. A tea wash is simply a very dilute mix of paint with lots tea! Leave out only the strongest highlights when painting a tea wash. I paint this was very quickly and used a flat W & N 3mm/1/8"  One Stroke brush. I like this brush for stems and curved strappy leaves because it can be angled to allow more paint to be deposited on the shaded sides but it also tapers well at leaf tips.  

The underlying colour of the flower is basically light/white with a heavy chequered pattern on top, so once the first leaf wash is complete I paint in the shadows on the flower using the botanical grey mix. Again this is added quickly and left to dry completely before starting on the first colour wash ( which you can see I have just started in the image below). Also be careful to leave the anthers clear of paint as a sharp edge will be needed around these. You can use masking fluid but I find it more trouble than it's worth.
I then apply a second wash of the green mix to the leaves, using a more concentrate green to define the leaf blades and shadows. Remember my light is from the right hand side. I used the same flat brush but a size 3 round brush will also work well

When the botanical grey wash on the flower is completely dry I start to add the brighter red mix  ( perylene maroon and perm magenta) as a chequered pattern. It doesn't need to be very neat and organised because the colour bleeds into the petals. It you paint it in too regimented a fashion it will look unnatural. I used a Rosemary and Co. size 2 spotter brush but again any size 2 brush will do, the shorter haired miniature brushes work well for this type of pattern because you have more control over them.
 I also add the same red mix to the stem, which has a reddish brown colour in places. The effect of painting red over green creates this brown colour.  I always try to use the same colour in the stem or leaves as that used in the flower, where there is such colouration, this creates continuity in a painting and 'binds' it together. 

Following the first wash of the red pattern I start to add the purple mix working in the same way but being careful not to completely cover the underlying red. I use a slightly more concentrate mix of paint for this purpose.
I also darkened the shadows a little on the petals as I felt they were too light and add a little more detail to the leaves to balance the leaves with the flower.

I add the yellow mix to the anthers.  Only closed anthers are showing here and the stigma is largely obscured. The anthers dehisce in stages to increase the chances of pollination, and in this flower they  open to release pollen 3 at a time, thus extending the period of time available to pollinators. I only show the 3 closed anthers here and the tip of the stigma. Once they are all dehisced the stigma is clearly seen. So always pay particularly close attention to the reproductive parts as they change rapidly I also add a the same yellow in a very dilute mix to the petal tips.  I add a little of the green mix to define the anthers down the centre.      

From here on it's really just a case of building up the colour. Where darker shades are required, such as down the central petal rib I add a small amount of neutral tint, this darkens the colour without changing it, I find that sometimes complementary colours change the colours because we are not dealing with true primaries with the watercolours ( if that makes sense?). I prefer use my own mix of neutral tint rather than a ready prepared one ( see colours above) but it's up to you. 

Be careful not to overpaint or lose the highlights.  Finally I also add a little cobalt blue to the highlights at the top of the flower to brighten them. I probably should have done this earlier but things change as a painting develops and tweaks are required!

 Finish off by adding some definition by using the dry brush technique define the petal veins, rib and pattern using a size 1 miniature or spotter brush. Dry drush should alsways be applied last and is really just a more concentrate mix of paint applied with a 'damp' rather than wet brush. Mix the paint, load the brush until is swells ony slightly and then dab any excess waster on kitchen paper. If you havenet tried it befor it takes a bit of practise. I'll write more on it later as there are a few variations in the technique. 
That's about it! it's just the way I do's not the only way.  


  1. Brilliant tutorial, Dianne and such a gorgeous subject too!!

  2. Fantastic tutorial Dianne :) Beautiful painting too.

  3. Beautiful Fritillary, great tutorial xx

  4. Your tutorials are really great. And I absolutely love this Frit. Very well done! ;)

  5. Your tutorials are fantastic! We love them!

    The Darjeeling Darlings

  6. Lovely to hear how you do things, Dianne.