Having a more complex subject doesn’t always mean you have to slave over it. In this demo, painter and patterner Ania Zwara shows us how to paint a peony – with shading – in a quick, yet delicate way that will impress any flower lover!

Step 1: Sketch and Erasing

While it’s possible to dive straight into painting, Ania recommends doing a quick sketch just to get the general shape and layout of the petals and leaves. She also recommends using cold press watercolour paper (100% cotton, A4 size), but you’re free to use hot press if you plan on scanning your painting later. 

Other tools you’ll need are: a size 10 and 4 round paintbrush, a container of water, a pencil, a kneaded eraser, paper towels, watercolour paints and a palette.

For the sketch, lightly draw a circle in the middle of your paper. This will help centre your flower, plus the peony is shaped like a cabbage, where the petals wrap around the middle in a round-ish shape.

Then, sketch in the petals wrapping around the middle, following the reference photo if needed. Note that the petals get smaller as you near the middle!

Also, make sure to draw both the inner and outer curves of each petal, especially the part that curls over. This will help give your peony more depth and dimension, even as a sketch.

Tip: You don’t have to follow the reference photo religiously! Ania herself prefers a loose style and shifts and adjusts some of the petals’ position and shape to her liking.

When you’re happy with the flower, add a few leaves off the side. Peonies have leaves with 3 tips on the end, kind of like a 3-fingered claw.

Curve them, so they’re almost “dancing” around the flower, and add 3 veins for each leaf. You can always readjust your lines, even during the painting phase, so don’t overthink it and just get your sketch done.

Once you’re done, use a kneaded eraser (the soft putty-like eraser) and dab at your lines to lighten them without completely erasing them. You can also roll it over your paper for faster erasing!

Step 2: Painting from Light to Dark

To start the painting portion, dilute a pastel or light pink to get a very pale pink, and use the size 10 brush to paint a few of the top curls of the peony. Try to paint petals that aren’t touching one another, as you don’t want the paint to bleed into one another. 

While the paint is still wet, darken the inner side of the petal with a saturated version of the pink you used. The darker paint will naturally bleed into the lighter colour and create a smooth gradient.

Tip: If you’re unsure which side should be darker, check the reference photo! It should be the side closest to the base of the flower, as it’s where most of the shadows are.

Paint quickly and loosely, working your way around each petal. And while it’s best to keep them from bleeding into one another, if it does happen, it’s okay – you can always add more refining details later.

Step 3: Adding More Depth

While your flower is still wet, you can darken some of the shadow areas even more with darker pink paint. Don’t darken everything; you still want to leave some lighter, more delicate areas to keep the contrast in your flower!

If, at any point, your paper is dry before you’ve added the right amount of shadow, you can rewet the petal with clean water before dropping it in your paint.

Again, you can use the reference photo to check where the darker areas are. And of course, you don’t have to follow it exactly. You can add shadows where you think will help make the highlighted areas pop out more, so I leave it to your discretion!

Step 4: Quick Leaves 

While you leave your flower to dry, you can paint the leaves. Do this with the wet-in-wet technique, where you wet the paper with clean water before dropping in your paint.

You can mix an olive green by adding a little burnt sienna to sap green and adjust the blend as you see fit. Try not to use just one green; add some darker greens, or some Payne’s grey for a shadow colour, or even use pure burnt sienna to indicate some browner areas in the leaf!

You can also mix a lighter olive green by adding yellow ochre to sap green instead and paint some of the other leaves with this. Paint freely and loosely; the only “rule” you should follow is that the darker shadows should be in the areas where the leaf is right next to the flower.

Step 5: Even More Contrast

Next, add more contrast to the peony by using a saturated dark pink to paint the darkest shadows within the flower. You can switch to the size 4 brush for this if you think the size 10 is too big.

If you want, you can also smooth out the edges of your shadows using a clean wet brush, but having a few hard edges here and there is fine, too. Add some texture lines to the outer petals with a slightly diluted dark pink, and again, keep it loose!

You also don’t have to add these lines to all the petals; just pick a few to give the impression of a curled petal.

Mix a dark green and do the same thing for your leaves, which should have dried by now. Paint in some of the veins and darken some of the shadows, again keeping it easy-going.

If you’re not sure where to put the shadows, squint your eyes and try to see where your painting lacks contrast.

Step 6: Final Frills

Hang in there – you’re almost done! Use a very saturated dark pink/red for some final touches to deepen some of your shadows even more.

Again, it’s okay to have hard edges for your paint here. Just be careful not to add too many shadows, and remember to keep your highlights.

The last thing to do is mix a dark yellow-brown and paint the stigma and stamens (i.e. the strands coming from the centre of the flower). Again, keep your lines loose! Once you’re done, feel free to sign it and pat yourself on the back for a great painting session.

I hope that was a quick yet helpful demo! If things didn’t quite work out for you, don’t be discouraged – it takes practice to get a good sense of the “flow” of a flower, especially a peony. So feel free to revisit this and paint some peonies from different angles! 

Alternatively, you can check out Ania’s FREE demo if you watch her in action. You can also share with our online community – most are willing to give helpful advice and pointers, so don’t be shy! All are welcome, from beginners to veteran artists.

If you want to try your hand at painting multiple peonies with different angles, check out her 90-minute art class! 

Want more ideas or lessons to kindle your creativity? Then feel free to subscribe to our email newsletter! Whether you’re following along with our blog, workshops, or live demos, we’ll notify you of all the latest happenings with Etchr.

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 

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