Monday, 28 June 2021

White Flower Sketchbook

A blank sheet of paper can be a daunting prospect but not so much when it's in a sketchbook, I know others might find the opposite is true but I want to explain why keeping a sketchbook can be such a rewarding experience. I'm currently involved in two sketchbook projects, one is a wonderful joint endeavour with fellow artist and friend Debbie Crawford - I'll write about that one later. The one discussed in this post is a sketchbook dedicated to white flowers. 

The project began in 2020  I didn't really have a reason for it other than the following: 

1. Being in lockdown 

2. Having a Stillman & Birn Nova Trio book 

 3. A large number of white flowers in the garden, so no big idea, it just started and hasn't stopped. 

Work in progress, Anemone 'White Swan' I began this in June 2020  but it stopped flowering, to be honest I though it was dead! but up it came this year, so I'm in the process of finishing it. 

The Sketchbook

The Nova trio sketchbook from Stillman & Birn has three different coloured papers, grey, black and beige. The format is square 19 x 19cm (7.5 inches). The paper isn't very heavy at 150 gsm but I like to paint on lighter weight paper because it's always a good lesson in water management - I paint pretty dry anyway and using too much water is often detrimental in botanical work.  The surface is described on the S & B website as medium grain but I's say it's pretty smooth. There are  92 pages....yes that's a lot to fill! You can also buy different sized books in any of the single colours. 

Lilium regale on the beige paper. I chose this colour for the substrate as I'm planning a painting of this gorgeous plant on dark vellum skin and it's the nearest colour to the vellum, this gives me an idea of how it might look. 

The Inspiration 

I'd always admired Ruskin's sketches, Antoine Berjon's floral studies and Lilian Snelling's botanical illustrations on grey paper but having never really worked on coloured paper before this was new territory for me. My feeling was that this book would be perfect to capture flowers and plants that are predominantly white, using watercolour and gouache. I've always loved the purity of white flowers and have planted many in the garden since moving to my home in Summer 2019.  The plan is now to capture as many white flowers as possible, working on creating form using watercolour and body colour with this sketching approach and a fairly limited palette.  Lighting is very important to me and where possible natural sunlight is best as it shines through the petals making dramatic shadows, the morning sunlight is truly inspirational, if the sun is out I dive out of bed to see how the sun is playing with the flowers.  As with any sketchbook, it doesn't matter if everything works out, it's merely experimentation, if it goes wrong it can be abandoned but I found that I really enjoyed this approach to painting white flowers and continue to seek new inspiring subjects. 

Antoine Berjon Floral Design in Chalk. Copyright Wikimedia Commons 

One of my favourite flowers, Fritillaria meleagris 'alba'- this appeared from nowhere in the garden in Spring this year. 

The Process 

I call this type of painting a 'process' rather than a technique because it feels more relaxed and organic than a specific technique, in fact I use multiple techniques as required by the subject, so calling this a technique feels reductionist and restrictive as an explanation. 

This was my first entry in the book, bindweed on grey paper...a gardeners nuisance but still a beautiful plant.  I always start with he focal point (that's the star of the show) and build from there and never worry about finishing the pages, stopping when I've had enough and feel that it's done. 

The form is created first with pale blues and violets for the shadows, the white goes on top but some areas of the grey paper are maintained for the mid tones. 

The paint goes onto the paper very smoothly and you really don't need a lot of it, you have to remember that this paper is thin and too much water or any scrubbing will make a big mess. I lay down the basic form first and often use violets and blues for this, the colour is applied selectively in the shadows, Cobalt and Quin Magenta are favourites but I also dug out a few opaques, such as Daniel smith Lavender and Wisteria, two odd colours that I never thought I'd use and don't even recall why I had them! also Lemon Yellow Nickel Titanate is used a fair bit in those glowing centres which are found in many white flowers. I use a mix of different opacities from transparent to opaque but if used thinly enough all paints are transparent. The white goes over the initial form painting, first with a W & Newton Series 7 miniature (size 2 or 4 depending on the size of the subject)  I apply white with different viscosities and find this is the best word to describe the thickness of the paint,  viscosity relates to resistance, thus a watery mix has little resistance on the paper whereas at the other end of the scale the dry brush method has a lot of resistance. The watery layers come first and the viscosity increases with each application, the driest application can create a lovely white shimmering appearance as it resists the surface and skips across it like a pencil it leaving little gaps, this shimmer is seen in many white flowers. Sharper highlights at the edges are applied with a little more water and usually a longer haired brush,  a da Vinci size 1 is good or any brush with a decent point. 

Not a flower but how could I leave the dandelion clock out! 

I was surprised how quickly I can capture a subject using toned paper, probably because it fills in a lot of the mid tones for me, it's a great exercise in interpreting tonal values with a minimal palette. 

More recently I've started using graphite and gouache in the book, which is also very effective. This is one of the things I love about sketchbooks,  they seems to nurture new ideas in approach, subject and composition. The confined space of this book could be interpreted as restrictive but it's a sketchbook, so I just paint what fits and if it falls off the edge, who cares, I certainly don't.  It's a place to experiment or play, some things work better than others and that's ok too. The fast succession of work means I can experiment and learn about plants that I don't normally have time to paint in full. 

Papaver study: This is the first time graphite and gouache was used to complement the colour study

The paper that was most perplexed about using was black, I'd never painted botanicals on black before so it was a little daunting. I experimented with photographing white subjects in very strong sunlight first, and taking the contrast up on my iPhone - it's amazing what you can do with a smartphone camera - this gave me a good insight to how subjects might look on black and was an interesting experiment, it definitely made the black seem less daunting.  Below you can see the stages of a white daffodil. 

High contrast photographs in natural sunlight really helped me to understand the approach to working on a black surface.

Sequence of images showing progress, less paint is applied at each successive stage 

What's Next

I continue to add to the book on a regular basis, this is a small selection of the images and I hope to end up with 50 to 60 pages. Currently the task of writing text to accompany each flower is underway, and hope to publish it sometime next year, not for any particular reason other than I think it would make a nice book and for me it is a small legacy of this unusual time, hopefully it might be of interest to others too. Each entry provokes a memory for me, even though I've been home for all of them, I can recall making every single one....its' given me a focus and a project is always good to keep motivated. It's also inspired a few paintings for the future, so everything is good about this...I can highly recommend such a project because it feels good.

Waratah, a reminder of my time in Australia before travel was curbed, created from my sketches and photographs from a previous trip. 

Today, much of the subject material comes directly from my garden, such as this white Foxglove flower, also some from and local walks - Many new bulbs and plants are planned for next spring, when I hope to complete the project. 

Early morning sketchbook time in the garden - my favourite time of day  


  1. Mrs.Dianne, Thank you so much for sharing your valuable information about on this topic.

  2. These are just so beautiful Dianne!