Watercolour & Flowers (For Russell Sharp)
So sad our collaborations are now over, Russell. With heavy heart, we will miss you.
Flowers have always fascinated artists, it's not just their beauty and unlimited hues or the mathematical precision of petals and the architectural structure of the plant. It’s also the ephemeral nature of flowers that captivate our imagination.
Flowers symbolise two polar opposites, the sweet flush of youth and the inevitable decay and demise of us all. Who hasn't watched, astounded by time lapse films of flowers growing?
Tiny seedlings pushing through the soil, seeking the sun, budding, blooming and disintegrating within moments.
Fascination also lies in the sexual imagery of the bud that unfolds, after all flowers are the genitalia of the plant, so it makes sense that they should be outrageous and exhibitionist. They are designed to seduce us along with their pollinators, the bees and the butterflies.
Georgia O'Keeffe's extreme close up paintings of flowers sometimes entwined with skeletons and decay seem to comment on the life force and sensuality that flowers emit. This interpretation was something she firmly denied but no matter how much she did, it is hard not to read her meticulously painted images as referencing female genitalia.
The list of artists and their obsession with flowers goes on and on. The impressionist, Eduoard Manet captured gardenias with minimal dabs and strokes, using just a few pigments, of pink and yellow combined with white and grey. They are so convincing you can almost smell the fragrance.
Vincent Van Gogh is synonymous with his bright yellow sunflowers and vivid blue irises imbuing them with energy and drama whilst Claude Monet is forever linked with his dreamlike, smudgy, water lilies and reflections.
Flowers make wonderful models because they don't complain or get leg cramps like human models. You don’t need to pay them and they allow you to place them in whatever position you like. They keep still. Using fresh flowers and working from life has its constraints, you need to work quickly as they change continually as they wither and die, this is especially the case in the heat of summer.
TIP 1: Source Your Flowers
Painting from life is best, Real, fresh flowers provide amazing variety and subtleties that are made for watercolour.
I started preparation for my next watercolour floral workshop with a trip to the Sydney flower market with the 'King of Flowers,' Russell Sharp. He is a well known character on the flower scene with over 30 years experience who happens to be an art lover himself. I needed to research some blooms for my students to study and paint and he knows just where to source what I need.
Russell is a member of the Sharp clan, a family steeped in the arts, his cousin was Martin Sharp and his sister is the photographer, Roslyn Sharp. He owns an impressive art collection, naturally containing some lovely floral still lifes and when I told him I wanted to source some interesting paintable blooms he was right on it! In exchange for his expertise I promised to paint him a watercolour wreath to add to his walls. Our market visit starts at 5 am! Russell is chirpy and chatty as we drive along Parramatta Rd but as soon as he has parked his van; he is off and literally running, checking out what's on offer from the growers.
I trotted after Russell as he swiftly cut deals, inspected bunches of flowers, joked with the traders and in between doing business he talked me through what he thought I would like to paint.
I took along a camera as the choice was overwhelming. I prefer to work with live flowers but photographs work well as a reference, when the real thing isn't available. Taking photographs also helps you to focus on the flowers and view all the elements more clearly. I kept my eyes peeled for flowers with softer petals and varied hues. These are ideal for loose watercolour techniques such as blending and wet on wet brushwork. Roses seemed to win hands down.
Here are some gorgeous blooms I found on the day. These roses are maroon, navy and purple, with shades of orange, hot pink and white, all blending together against their green and grey leaves. An incredible choice to paint.
Some flowers looked as though they had already been painted; like this white and purple flower. I forgot to ask Russell whether these may have been dyed?
As I snapped I could see the inspiration for such artists as Thea Proctor and Margaret Preston among the Australian natives, such as bottle brush and gumnuts. It's inspiring to consider the source of these paintings.
TIP 2: Source Your Materials
Water colour paintings really are affected by the level of the materials you use. Good quality rag, rich paper is best, as you do need to use a lot of water to paint, so the more rag or cotton that makes up the paper fibre, the stronger it will be.
So start with good quality watercolour paper (250g - 300g in weight)
There are basically two textures to choose from, cold pressed which is rough and textured and hot pressed which is smooth. I love cold pressed, the texture creates more depth to the image and provides interesting crevices for the pigment to settle into.
Water colour paints come in tubes, inks, pans and cakes.
There are many grades of watercolour paint, the cheaper the paint the less pigment it contains. Cheaper watercolours contain talc and can appear more milky once dry. All watercolour fade in light. So keep your finished pieces away from the sun and windows. Some pigments are extremely expensive and are these are used by professional artists. For everyday folk like us, buy what you can afford and don’t go crazy! You can blow a fortune on art materials.
Professional grades, like the Windsor and Newton pictured above are the best quality, a set of 26 colours can cost $150 -$200. Whilst student grade, called 'Cottman' (which are fine when you are starting out) can set you back around $50 -$80. Check out e-bay for competitive deals.
If you are just dabbling then the bottom of the market water colours are appropriate. You can pick up a set of Micador watercolours for around $15 at officeworks and to be honest these are pretty good for the price, just don’t expect to achieve punched out vivid colours.
Reeves do a set of student grade watercolours in tubes for under $30 and these are good value too and will last you a long time. In my workshops I provide the full range of paints for students to experiment with. This is a good way to get a feel for what you prefer to work with, without blowing the bank.
For my own work I use a mixture of Windsor and Newton professional grade and cheap paints. The picture here of dandelions is painted in Micador watercolours, you can see the milky quality of the pigment.
Again, the more expensive the brush, the better the results, a top of the range Kolinsky sable brush can cost $1000, but buy what you can afford. A budget of $10 for a brush will buy you a synthetic brush that will be perfectly adequate.
You will need a couple of soft brushes – one medium sized, another fine. Avoid really cheap brushes as the hairs won't hold shape or form a point and irritatingly often shed hairs as you paint, potentially ruining your picture.
Lots of clean water
Keep changing your water to keep it clear, as if you dip your brushes into dirty water and then mix your paints, they will contaminate the colours and make them look muddy.
Use a white plastic or porcelain plate to mix paints on. Remember, you can let your paints dry out on the plate and at a later date re-constitute them with a little water, unlike acrylics or oils. Once those dry they are 'set.' Another win-win for watercolours.
Kitchen roll or toilet paper
Use paper to absorb runs and soak up excess pigment or water on your image.
Use a lead HB Pencil to draw out your design.
Watercolour pencils (optional)
These are pencils that are watercolours in pencil form, they can work well at the end of the painting process to add lines and details to enhance your drawing, especially if you aren’t that skilled in fine brushwork.
TIP 3 : Let's do it - a watercolour wreath
You can compose your flowers into a wreath by first drawing a circle on your paper in pencil.
Use a saucer or plate as a template for the circle. Make the pencil mark is as light as you can. Once a pencil line has been drawn and then painted over with watercolour – it will not rub out. So keep your pencil work light and loose as it will show through the watercolour. It can actually can look attractive and make your painting feel more energetic.
Sketch out your leaf shapes first. You can create your own basic chart of leaf shapes to guide yourself before you map out your final piece.
Next sketch a light outline of your flowers. It is best to study some real flowers and practice drawing their outline and details on a scrap of paper before you construct your wreath design.
Once you feel satisfied that you have captured the floral shapes, practice mixing colours and try to match them to the colour of the real flowers. If you can get the colour right, half your job is done! When using watercolour also remember that colours dry ‘lighter’ than when they are wet, so use more pigment than water and don’t worry if your flowers seem too strongly coloured, once the image is dry they will be lighter in saturation.
Once you have some shapes you like, start adding them to your pencil circle. I usually start with the leaves as the base. Add flowers but don’t make it too symmetrical, sketch in some vines and tendrils.
Now colour in your pencil outline.
If you have observed your flowers closely you will notice that a pink or red rose for example contains more than one colour, there is often a tinge of mauve or blue or brown in a red rose, so blend in all the colours you have observed as you paint.
Wet on wet is a great technique to get your colours blended.
This is how you do it.
Before you add pigment, fill in your petal outline with clean water. When you add a drop of red the water will take up the pigment and the pigment will not travel past the border of the puddle of water. Add a tiny dab of another contrasting colour and the two colours will meet and blend together. Yes, it's unpredictable but blending wet on wet can give you great results. Below you can see the red is blending with yellow and is being guided by the water. It almost paints it self!
Once you have created your flowers you can highlight and draw in the shapes of petals with your watercolour pencil, choose a contrasting colour to give your flower the most impact.
When you paint, try not to overwork, a leaf can be formed with a simple dab of the brush, watercolour is light and translucent. Start with your lighter colours first and layer. And where you want a white area, just don't paint. The white of the paper becomes the white in an image.
If you would like to come along to a watercolour class with classbunny it is best to join our mailing list to find out when the next one is being held. Our classes are perfect for beginners.
I also recommend trips to art galleries to see how other artists have tackled floral still lives and of course a trip out to the Sydney markets to see mountains of incredible, fresh blooms.
You can find the Flower King at his floristry stands in Balmain and Kings Cross
39 Terry Street
Every Friday 10am - 7pm
and Saturday 7am to 4pm
Kings Cross - El Alamein Fountain
Rotary Markets Macleay St
Every Sunday 7.30am to 5.30pm
And see his daily arrangements on instagram
Photos are by Pamela Woods excepting those of the artists paintings,
Manet, Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor which are in the public domain.