Saturday, 11 July 2015

Everything's Coming up Roses! The First Studies

A few weeks ago I visited the David Austin Garden, which is less than an hours drive from my home.  In the past I haven't been a huge fan of roses and only ever illustrated a few in all the years I've been painting.... but decided it was time to give the roses another chance. The garden is probably one of the best I've ever seen and got me completely hooked on roses. I purchased three plants and the painting commenced! Roses seem to be one of the more challenging subjects in the world of botanical painting, so I'm open minded about the success of this project. Will split this into two separate posts, this one is about my preparatory studies for Olivia Rose Austin and Munstead Wood.

Olivia rose austin botanical study in watercolour
First study page of Olivia Rose Austin
I had intended to buy an old rose but got drawn in by 'Olivia Rose Austin', which is an English Leander hybrid and has only been available since 2014. With its large pale pink cupped blooms, this rose is named after David Austin's granddaughter, so I guess they must think it's pretty special too! It blooms three times a year instead of the usual two, so I'm hoping that buys me some time. This rose along with a couple more,  Munstead Wood and Sceptre d' Isle, should keep me busy for a while. 

Pink roses photograph in the David Austin Garden, UK
Olivia Rose Austin in full bloom in late June at the David Austin Garden in Albrighton

I couldn't write a post without a few photographs of the David Austin Garden, so here it is.....a feast of roses!
Renaissance Garden at the David Austin Rose Garden, UK
The Renaissance Garden

Rose archway at the David Austin Garden
Beautiful archways and climbers can be seen throughout the garden. There are several different areas, including a Victorian walled garden, here the doorway looks in from the Long garden to the Lion Garden. 

I took well over 500 photographs and several videos on my iPhone. I returned again the following week for another look and although it was just one week later it's wasn't quite as spectacular. There is also a species garden and it was interesting to note how many bees were found in this area. Here's a short clip of typical of a very busy little bee. If the current paintings go well ( fingers crossed!) I'd like to paint some of the Scottish species roses next year.

Where to start: the study page approach for Olivia Rose Austin
I plan to paint the final works on kelmscott vellum and have a whole skin waiting on top of the wardrobe. But my initial approach is to complete sketchbook and then a number of study pages, the study page is the focus of this post. These studies are painted on A2 Fabriano Artistico watercolour paper ( I40lb HP) but a study page should be painted to suit the size and structure of a plant. 
drawing board with roses
I don't plan a layout for a study page but place the elements randomly with fairly even spacing on the sheet.
Because the final piece will be on vellum a number of small colour studies on off-cuts of vellum will be completed too, I do this because the colour will be different on vellum compared to paper. This study page approach allows me to get to grips with the subject and stimulates ideas for a composition. It's not painted in great detail and probably takes 2 or 3 days to complete. But I don't set a takes however long it takes.  Most importantly though it enables me to get to know the subject and to understand the character of a plant, such as the growth habit, and in this case the changing morphological features and colours of the blooms.
Painting study pages is particularly important to me especially for a plant that I'm less familiar with. It's similar how a portrait artist needs to capture the character of a sitter, so the botanical artist must capture the particular character of a plant. I use this approach with all of my own work and all of my students are 'forced' to do it too. Those student who really commit to study page work, instead of skipping over it,  seem to get the best results in the long term.
rose detail Olivia
Detail from page 1 of the study: Different stages of flowering, with faded older blooms, spent flower and bud.
Rose sketch on vellum
Colour test on vellum. I paint these directly to vellum 6 x 4 inch off-cuts without drawing, they take about 30 mins to complete. I paint the flower rather than just swatches of colour because the layering of colour needs to be understood in an actual subject. I make notes on the sheet and keep for reference, noted include the colours and descriptive information, such as the fact that the opening bud is a stronger pink than the open flower. Fortunately not much adjustment in colour was needed for vellum, slightly less yellow was required because of the base colour of the surface. 
 In a study page the aim is to collect as much information as possible, written descriptive notes and illustrations of the plant parts that may be useful, such as different aspects of the flower, buds, leaves etc. sometimes I make several pages of studies, basically I continue until I'm happy that I've enough information - there isn't a set formula, it's just common sense. This enables me to work through many of the problem areas before committing to the final painting and reduces the number of potential errors. It's an approach that's probably not suited to everybody - I think mabye having a scientific background reinforces my own methodical approach to planning a painting. Having said that I don't always do a study page and sometimes I complete spontaneous paintings but with new subjects for major works, it's a wise move. 

 How to tackle a complex form
A rose of this type has a complex structure of many petals, after making some initial sketches I developed a reasonable understanding of the petal arrangement. I decided after putting in a feint outline in, that it was easier to sketch directly with watercolour. Then working from the outside to the center seemed to work ok, but keeping careful track. The lack of pencil helped me to keep it very clean and avoided any erasing. I only ever draw in very feint outlines use an eraser as little as possible - even light use can damage the paper surface. The washes need to be very light and carefully layered in a pale flower and detail is added with dry brush.

rose watercolour work in progress
Beginnings. A few pencil guide marks and then paint lightly. I used W & N Permanent Rose mixed with Lemon Yellow nickel titanate to give a soft pink. The yellow is opaque but this works to the advantage with a soft pink giving a creamy soft pink. There is a lot of discussion about not using opaques amongst botanical artists and while I agree that most useful colours are transparent, the opaques also have important place in the paintbox, their value is dependent on the order of washes and the light value of the subject ( but that's another post). I wanted to capture the softness of a rose and so this seemed like a good option. I also added Permanent Magenta for cooler pink and used M.Graham Cobalt Violet for the shade. (note: that despite being the same pigment, the M. Graham CV is much cooler than the W & N version).

rose detail in watercolour
Gradually work into the centre building up the colour
A confusing aspect of rose paintings is the change in the flower, they expand from a fairly simple bud and end up with a mass of petals. The colour changes quite dramatically too, so I painted the rose at different stages of maturity.  
The leaves are quite a challenge with roses and of course any study needs a number of leaf studies. I have a few simple ones on this sheet but will complete more before proceeding with the painting. 
Rose leaf study in watercolour
A simple study of a leaflet. The leaves are all important to any painting, so many paintings are ruined by poor leaves. Roses are pinnately compound leaves, here just the terminal leaflet is shown.  I think rose leaves are possibly one of the most difficult to get right. There is generally lots of fore-shortening involved too, with fine veins and some puckering in the older leaves! I always tackle the leaves first on the painting because to me if the leaves aren't good enough the painting is ruined. For these I used a mix of Indanthrene Blue, Transparent Yellow and Permanent Rose. For greens I pretty much always try to use transparent colours. I keep the mix to 3 or less colours of single pigment and generally use a small amount of 'red'  to make the green more natural colour. If the red is one I used in the flower I use the same in the green mix.
I also did some research on other paintings of roses, from the obvious Redoute paintings to some contemporary painters. One of my favourite paintings of a rose is Martin Allen's beautiful single pink rose, also Kate Nessler's roses on vellum are old favourites of mine.

Munstead Wood 
I wanted to capture all of the roses and they were all flowering together, so decided to complete the study pages for all first. Munstead wood is an English old rose hybrid and very different rose from Olivia with its rich dark wine and magenta coloured blooms. It's another beautiful fragrant rose and reminds me of childhood days spent collecting rose petals from my grandmothers garden.  
Munstead wood rose watercolour painting
Munstead wood study page underway. A very dark flower which changes colour from a crimson bud to a deep magenta or burgundy flower.
Colour testing for Mustead Wood rose
A difficult coloured flower, that changes colour over time. I used a combination of Permanent Magenta, Permanent carmine, Violet Dioxazine. Also for the bright glazes Quin Magenta and Quin Rose. An a little neutral tint for the deep shade.
Munstead wood flower in watercolour
The open bloom has many petals and appears two-tone in colour as it changes.
I've a little more work to do on the study pages and will then move on to the composition, so will continue with this post at a later date to describe the process of composition. Thereafter the final painting on vellum will begin. Hopefully I can complete it this year while the roses are still flowering. If not I prefer to wait until the following year when the plants flower again. I could continue from photographs but only do this if I absolutely have to. 

One thing I have noticed is that painting roses is a messy business! All of a sudden the petals drop on mass! they fall into the water and on to the palette, resulting in this rather nice effect!

paint palette wit impression of rose petal
Petals in the paint, leave beautiful patterns


  1. Do you sell the complete study sheets, along with your colour strips? I find these far more interesting than a pure presentation and images of the hips or fading roses far more 'exciting' than the perfect bloom. Just interested. I also am NOT a fan of paintings of roses (too much Redoute?) but these are stunning especially the Munstead. Please reply to

    1. Thanks Liz, Sometimes I do sell them if someone asks, occasionally I give them away to good friends. In the past I've put things like this in my Etsy shop when I've finished with them, they always seem to sell. I tend to lose them in the large pile of preparatory work if I keep them so I'd rather someone else had them

  2. Beautiful studies, Dianne--you are always an inspiration!

  3. Thank you Janene, very kind of you :)

  4. Elegant and beautiful, graceful, and artfully arranged on the page. I love these gorgeous study works.

    1. Thank you so much Coral, your kind words mean a lot to me

  5. I have no idea how you manage to do something so complicated Dianne!! Your flowers are amazing - such a great, informative post. Thanks