Depicting realistic flowers in watercolour paint largely depends on understanding the parts that make up a flower, and how they interact to create the whole flower structure, from pistil to petal, and stem to leaf.
Each painting is going to be unique based on the flower that you are attempting to depict, but there are several broad classifications of flowers that can be good starting points, since they contain many of the basic shapes and structures that are found throughout flowers in nature.
For example, you have composite flowers or complex flowerheads, which are both flowers that are actually made up of many smaller flowers. A sunflower is an example of a composite flower, and hydrangeas are complex flowerheads, made up of many overlapping flowers, some with leafy petals, and some without. Other flowers, like roses and peonies, form cabbage-like mounds of petals which spiral out from the same point of connection.
There are many, many different types of flower structures, and many that only ever show up for one unique species of plant, so we will not be going over all of these types. However, in learning about how to paint different parts of the flower, and some of the unique ways that they present themselves in different plants, we can begin to hone the skills necessary to paint any flower out there with just a bit of research and geometry.
At the base of nearly all flowers is the pistil, the reproductive organ of the flower which receives and disperses pollen. A flower can have many pistils, or have the pistil be hardly visible at all, covered by petals or hidden at the base of the flower, away from sight.
Generally speaking, the pistil is the centre of the flower, and can be a flat structure, or it can be antennae-like.
When it comes to painting the pistil of a flower in watercolour, it can actually be wisest to leave this structure last, painting around it and leaving room for it, because it is often a very different colour or texture to the rest of the flower.
Sometimes, the stamen on the pistil give it the impression of a velvety texture, which can be difficult to depict in watercolour. One way to paint it is to add texture artificially, through glitter or textured paint, but a more natural way of adding texture to watercolor, especially when it comes to painting the pistil, is to sprinkle flaky salt onto the paper after putting down paint. The water is then absorbed by the salt, which flakes off the paper, leaving a mottled, velvety texture onto the paper.
Moving onto the petals of the flower, they can have any variety of texture or colour, from the buttery yellow petals of a sunflower, to the small, crinkled petals of baby’s breath.
When it comes to painting petals, the first thing to do is to spend some time looking at the flower that you’re painting, and to study how the petals connect to the body of the flower, and the way that they furl around the pistil. When it comes to cabbage-liked flowers that were mentioned before, the petals stay curled almost until the flower has come to the end of its life, with a curved oval shape that wraps around the pistil, so that it is entirely hidden from sight.
When it comes to painting roses and peonies, then, it is important to have the inner part of the petal darker than the outer part, creating the shading that implies curve and weight.
Other flowers, however, have thinner petals, with a papery texture that allows light to pass through their surface; as is the case with buttercups and daisies, and even the small flowers within the complex flowerhead of hydrangeas. When it comes to painting these flowers, further attention should be paid to the miniscule lines on the surface of the petal, which guides bees and other pollinating insects further onto the flower.
These structures aren’t as visible in thicker petals. But in these finer, more delicate ones, they are very distinct, and can be painted by applying thicker lines during the sketching phase, and painting delicate layers of watercolor to create the translucent petals. Some painters even choose to paint these more delicate petals by sketching minimally, and allowing the flower of the watercolour itself dictate the shape and outline of the petals naturally.
The third and final section of the flower is the two-part process of painting the stem and plant leaves that the flower bud is connected to. There are many different types of stem in nature, with some, like rosebushes, having a woody, stiff stem, framed by waxy leaves and sharp, hooked thorns.
Others, like wildflowers and the flowers and grassy bushes, are attached to their base flower by delicate tendrils and gentle stems.
Just as important as studying the flower you’d like to depict, it is vital to spend time learning which plants have what types of stems and what shape of leaves. Whether those leaves are waxy or matte, have distinct, symmetrical vein structures or are rounded and coin-shaped, with little to no visible veins. Some leaves even have toothy hooks at the end, which deter pests and hungry herbivores!
Whenever you paint the stem and leaf structures, your best friend is the sketch layer, with the veins being easiest to depict through negative painting, which is when you create a structure using the negative space created by painting strategically around an outline. In the case of well-defined veins, as well as the distinct shine coming off of waxy leaves, you’ll want to paint in segments, leaving a visible outline around the sketch layer that you can then carefully apply a light colour onto using a very fine paintbrush.
With this part being completed, you should have most of your realistic flower painted, whether it be a rose bud or a complex sunflower. And with a little bit of careful colour blending and shading, you should be ready to paint any flower out there, using the same strategies that we went over together here.