Watercolour is often the medium of choice for botanical illustration, and it’s easy to see why! The delicate nuances you can achieve with watercolour layers are perfect for flower petals and intricate leaves.
However, since watercolour often seems to have a mind of its own, especially when you’re first starting, it can be helpful to break a botanical illustration down to its basic elements and practice painting those before you tackle the scene as a whole.
Jola Sopek shared her insight about this in her Live Demo, so let’s follow her process and learn to paint cherry blossoms!
Step 1: Colour Mixing
Watercolour dries quickly enough to get better results by mixing the paint ahead of time rather than while you’re in the middle of a layer. For this cherry branch project, we will need varying shades of pink and brown, so let’s see what combinations we can get.
The top three squares in my colour swatches are all default reds from the paintbox, specifically Sweet Red, Rouge Red, and Simply Red from the Etchr Watercolour 24 Half Pan Set. First see what your reds look like diluted with water, because if you like those pinks you might not even have to mix any pinks.
My favourite pink for this project was the Sweet Red, because it stands out so easily from the brown tones I chose later on. For the purple tones toward the bottom I experimented with adding ultramarine to the two cooler reds, and as you can see I got some drastically different results!
The Sweet Red and ultramarine combination was way too blue for this project. For the browns, I mixed yellow ochre into the paints I already had on my palette and added different amounts of things until it looked nice to me.
Step 2: Practising Petals
Next, let’s try painting a cherry blossom petal the way Jola does it. She starts by wetting the paper in a petal shape, then painting the outer edge pink and letting the paint flow inwards in a nice gradient. She then paints the centre of the petal with one spot of highly concentrated reddish purple.
To get the fullness and contrast of a real petal, you will want to use multiple layers, but make sure you let the first layer dry first or else the gradient effect will go away.
Experiment with different shapes, angles, and colour tones with each petal you practice and soon you’ll know how it works!
Step 3: Putting Things Together
Now that you’ve made some nice petals, it’s time to put them together and work towards the complete flowers! By mixing some brown into the pink you will get a muted colour to use for the leaves around the buds, and by adding those leaves you’ll get a sense of place in the scene right away.
To combine flower petals, paint them the exact same way you did separately, but make sure that no edges are wet at the same time or else they will spill into each other.
Step 4: The Branch
Take your brown and carefully paint a branch. You don’t want to overpaint, so try to accept the imperfections and keep going even if you’re not a hundred percent satisfied.
Your branch will look the most real if you avoid making any one part of it bend in a pattern that’s inconsistent with the rest of it. Use the point of your brush as much as possible rather than the side.
Step 5: Adding Texture
Real botanicals have veins and other textures, so let’s indicate that here using some brown paint. Once your petals and buds are completely dry on the page, paint some delicate veins on them. Make sure to follow the contour of the object while painting, so that the veins don’t come out looking like stripes or shadows.
Also, don’t paint back over the details more than you have to, because if you paint over them too many times you will start lifting paint and undoing your hard work from earlier.
Texture and shading go hand in hand, because the only reason we can see texture rather than only feel it is because light casts little shadows over the contour of the object and lets us see where each little bump and crack are. Take a dark brown mixture and gently shade the branch, adding detail and texture simultaneously.
By following Jola’s demo and painting each part of a cherry tree branch on its own, you’ll feel much more confident about painting the entire thing in one composition! In her 90-minute art class, she puts everything here all together into one illustration, so be sure to check it out!
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