Have you ever painted crocuses? They can have lots of different shapes and colors, but I think most common ones are purple and yellow. Purple crocuses may have a really interesting veining on the petals. In this post I will show you how we can tackle petals of crocuses. This is my basic process which I follow more or less when I paint anything else as well. Of course there may be some changes here and there, it’s impossible to say that this is the only and the right way to paint something. These are just general guidlines.

1 – Mapping out color

This is the first stage. At this stage we look at our subject and try to identify basic colors and highlights. The subject may have colors from one color family (like in our example – different shades of purple), but it may also consists of various colors (for example the petal may be yellow close to the center of the flower). No matter if it’s one color family or various colors at this stage we apply a light tone of those colors to create the base for next layers. In our example we apply a light tone of purple in areas when we see purple. If there are highlights we need to preserve them. We can mask them out or like in this case just leave the white paper unpainted. We usually use wet on wet technique, especially if there are various colors, because it allows us to: (1) create smooth tonal transitions from dark to light, (2) create smooth color transitions if there is more than one color. Wet on wet gives us also a bit more time to work with the paint. You may also apply the paint wet on dry, but remember to keep the paint watery so that you don’t get unwated hard edges. At this stage we also need to preserve highlights, so when we apply the paint, while it’s still damp we can use our clean damp brush and lift out the paint from the highlights. The drier the paint, the more paint we’ll be able to lift out. Usually several brush rubbings is required, because when the paint is still damp it may flow again into an area from where we lifted out the paint, so we need to repeat lifting out a few times until we’re satisfied.

2 – Core shadow

Core shadow is a shadow created by the form of an object. In most cases a core shadow has a soft edge so it’s good to use wet on wet technique to paint it because applying paint on a wet surface creates beautiful diffused edge. Core shadow may have a sharp edge on one side and a soft edge on the other side so in this case we apply the paint on the side where we need a soft edge, we start applying the paint wet on dry and we pull the paint untill it meets water and creates a soft edge (there will be a separate lesson on shadows). Now what we need to remember is that creating a core shadow is basically repeating the previous step in the same places or in just a few chosen places. At this stage we deepen the colors, we make them more saturated and we build the form of an object. We can use the same value of color as in the previous stage or slightly darker. It doesn’t have to be very dark, because we build the values gradually, layer by layer. Applying the same tonal value as in the previous layer will result in a darker value anyway because this is the second layer. Each next layer will further darken the colors. We can repeat this step many times, we can apply several thin layers until we’re satisfied.

3 – Cast shadow

When everything is totally, absolutely, thoroughly, completely, bone dry we can apply cast shadows (if there are any). A cast shadow is a shadow cast by another object. A combination of highlights and cast shadows creates a deep sense of strong light, because we juxtapose light tones of highlights and dark tones of core and cast shadows. Such contrast always brings light to a painting. We can apply cast shadows wet on wet, but in most cases they have a sharp edge so I would choose to use wet on dry technique which allows us to create hard edges (which, if needed, we can soften with a scrubber brush). Keep in mind that the paint should be well diluted, not too thick. You should feel like there is almost like tinged water on your mixing area. You should be able to move the paint very easily. This way you may be sure that the only hard edge will be on the edge of the shadow and not anywhere within the shadow area. This example petal is a good example of not the best cast shadow. Why? Because it doesn’t look even and smooth. There are some lighter and darker spots instead of one even smooth wash. Why this happened? Because: (1) I used a hairdryer to dry the previous layer and even though I though it was dry, in fact it wasn’t. When I applied the paint it disturbed the previous layer; (2) My paint was not diluted enough and the paint was drying too quickly on the paper.

4 – Veining

When you finish relaxing after the previous stressful stages :) it’s time to add veining. This stage is easy, because we have full control over the paint. We paint the veins using wet on dry technique because veins are clearly defined lines. Sometimes veins can be more diffused – we would apply them wet on wet or soften them with a scrubber brush, but in this case we can just use wet on dry technique. There are a few tips I would like to give you to help you master the veining.

  1. Start with establishing the main veins first and when they are in place add the ones that branch out from the main veins.
  2. In general I don’t draw the veins with pencil first, especially if the veins are light, but if you like you can help yourself and draw at least the main veins lightly with a pencil. I usually paint the veins first with a very light tone just to establish where they should be. Then I apply another layer with a darker tone and I follow my lines I just created.
  3. Veins can shift our plain petals to the next level of gracefulness, but they can also ruin the petals. Make sure that: a) your veins are thin (or thick) enough, b) your veins go in the right direction, c) you don’t exaggerate with the number of veins. Usually a few veins is enough just to indicate there is some veining on the petals. On some flowers, like in our crocuses, the veining is more prominent, so here we can go crazy. But too many too prominent veins can easily kill the petals. The direction of the veins is crucial – their direction contributes to the form of the petal and we can easily create some folds of the petal just by painting the veins in a specific direction.
  4. Veins in the shadows are always darker, so keep in mind that in shadows you should use a bit darker value.
  5. Veins will look more interesting if you introduce some variety in values. As you can see in this example some of the veins are darker close to the upper edge of the petal. This tonal change also brings some smoothness to the whole petal and a bit of silky effect.

5 – Unifying glaze and lifting out

Take a break, eat chocolate, dring coffee, go for a walk and come back. Look at your painting with the fresh eyes. Is everything fine with your petals? Maybe in some places they need some further darkening? Look at your painting as a whole. Does it look well? Is there enough contrast? Usually at this stage some areas of a painting (or our petals) need some small adjustments. In most cases we need to apply a unifying glaze either to darken some areas or to change the temperature. We can apply unifying glaze wet on wet or wet on dry. Either way will be fine, because a unifying glaze is just a very thin layer of paint (I most often use a well diluted paint and wet on dry technique, but it always depends; sometimes wet on wet may be risky if there are already some details – too much water may blur them). It can completely change our subject: from a dull green to a full of life fresh green, from cool pink to a warmer pinkish-red etc. Maybe some shadows need further darkening? This is the right time to do it. When the tonal values and temperature of our subject are correct the last thing we can do is to lift out the highlights. I think this stage is underestimated and it deserves more attention. Lifting out the highlights at this stage can really bring life to our subject. A subtle highlight on the edge of a leaf (or petal) can add some three dimentional look to it. A stronger highlight on a petal may create more light. We can create a soft glow around the subject. It all can bring more light and more life to a painting.

This is a part of my full lesson on painting “Early Spring”. The full tutorial is available in my Online Watercolor School. Take a look at the preview: