Watercolor Painting Exercise Two: Flower

For the second watercolor painting exercise, you’ll work again with Beginner’s School instructor Christine Oliver to make a simple flower painting.

We have broken the painting process up into 4 parts, and the student should plan on spending a minimum of one hour (including first complete watch-through and cleanup) on each section of each part. We suggest convenient stopping points about halfway through each video tutorial in case you need to stop for the day.

Here’s the finished painting:

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 11.43.47 AM

Here’s a list of the tutorial videos in order:

Part One: Sketch And Color Blocking

Part Two: Adding Shadows

Part Three: Adding Details

Part Four: Completing The Painting


Download this image here by right clicking and saving it to your computer, then print it out (if you have a printer available) for handy reference as you’re working on your painting.

We recommend with all our videos that you watch it once all the way through without attempting to follow along then watch it a second time while painting. You can view them full screen by clicking on the box in the lower right corner of the video, then click on the same box after you are finished to minimize the video screen and return to the text. See here:

full screen annotation


Don’t forget, you can pause any time you need by clicking on the two vertical lines, then restart by clicking on the triangle. When you begin following along, don’t expect to be perfect! This is your initial learning experience. If at any point the video is moving too quickly for you, remember you can always pause!

Before you begin painting, make sure you have a prepared piece of paper to work on. This means either a block of watercolor paper or a sheet that you have stretched so it doesn’t wrinkle when you add water to it. For a reminder on how to do this, see our Watercolor Paper and Other Surfaces lesson.

Also be sure to have two containers for water, your brushes, some paper towels, and a pencil and eraser for drawing your flower onto your paper.

We expect that this lesson will take about three hours to complete, though this may vary from student to student depending on your individual pace. Take your time, don’t rush, and if you need to stop you can. If you have more than an hour to spare, then work as long as you feel comfortable!

Part One: Sketch And Color Blocking

Don’t forget to set up your work space before you start painting. You’ll want your paper lifted up off the flat surface of your work table a bit, using either an angled box (see Locating And Setting Up Your Work Space: Watercolors)  or another sketchbook/book/other small item to set your paper at a slight angle. Set out your paints on your palette. If you need to stop for the day, we suggest pausing this video at 10:57, then resuming when you have time again to paint. Don’t worry, we’ll remind you in the video.

Christine begins again with a value sketch of the reference photo. If you need a refresher on this, see the previous lesson, Watercolor Exercise One: Lemon. While Christine is laying out her value sketch, she mentions that you don’t have to paint every single detail exactly as it is in the reference photograph. This is called artistic license (or as Christine puts it, “artists prerogative”). If there’s a tree branch that you don’t feel like painting, that’s fine. If there’s a building you’d like to remove because it disrupts your idea of a “natural” setting, go ahead and remove it! The value sketch is a good time to think about these things and eliminate any pieces of the photo you don’t want to include. You can see how Christine has left out certain elements of the photo by comparing the finished painting with the reference photo at the beginning of this lesson.

Calla Lily Value Sketch

Remember to start your value sketch after the first time you watch the video. You can continue to work on it while you watch the video for a second time as Christine is drawing her value sketch, or you can complete your value sketch before watching the video the second time, then skip ahead to around 6:30 when you’re ready to start painting.

While Christine is making her value sketch, she talks about giving the viewer’s eye a “way to get into the picture.” This is a little bit of a difficult subject as it has to do with composition, and good composition is something that is learned over time.See our Composition For Beginners if you need a refresher. Basically, you want to lead the viewer’s eye into the painting and guide them so that they end up on your focal point, and not get drawn out of the painting by leading lines that go out of the picture frame.

After you’ve completed your value sketch, lightly draw out your composition on a clean sheet in your watercolor block (140-lb. cold press). You don’t need to add the values into this sketch–you’ll do that with paint later. These should just be very light guidelines so you know where to lay your paint. Keep the pencil lines very light so they don’t smudge when you add paint over the top of them. Later, once you have your painting nearly completed and the paint is completely dry, you can erase your pencil lines with a soft kneaded eraser, which you should have if you’ve completed the Drawing Course.

One of the things Christine mentions is that she had a student once ask her how to paint a white flower since in watercolor, the white of your blank page is the white in your painting. Basically, she says, you have to paint the shadows. Look at your reference photo and squint your eyes to define the shapes of the shadows better. Remember that just because it’s a white flower doesn’t mean it’s all stark white–there will be some slight variations in the tone of the flower coming from shadows and reflected light. Look for those slight variations and paint those, leaving only the whitest whites of the flower the blank page.

In this video, she talks again about her four-step painting process (starting at 11:15)–color blocking, medium tones and textures, darker tones, and shadows. Review this step in the previous lesson, Watercolor Painting Exercise One: Lemon, if you need to.

When Christine is finished with her sketch, she begins mixing up some different greens to use for the leaves. The first mixture is made up of Aureolin Yellow and a little bit of Cobalt Blue. She adds a few puddles off to the side of Aureolin Yellow, New Gamboge, and Cobalt Blue to pull from as she paints to change up the greens slightly. She starts painting with just a bit of pure Aureolin Yellow on her brush and adds it to the areas where she has drawn her leaves in. Later on, she’ll add some blue to the still-wet yellow to turn it more green.

As a reminder, you’ll want to mix up a generous quantity of your paints so that you don’t run out part of the way through your painting.

While Christine is adding in the blues on top of her yellow paints, she talks about staying loose with the painting. She’s not trying to make a photorealistic painting of this flower–it’s an artistic representation of the flower. We have photos to be perfect…paintings are more about expression. “Loose” in this context means not too controlled or tight. Painting loosely means you’re not using tiny brushes to make exact, precise marks–it means you’re making confident brush strokes with bigger brushes and allowing the paint to flow and be more expressive.

If your green is too bright, you can always add a bit of red into the mix to dull it down a little (remember when we talked about this in Basic Color Theory?).

Paint from the top of your page to the bottom so you don’t accidentally smudge your wet paints at the bottom of your page as you work on the top! Because your paint is all wet at this point, remember to leave little hairlines of dry space between two areas so they don’t bleed into each other. Conversely, you can also wait until the paint has dried in one section before painting the section next to it to prevent unwanted bleeding or mixing of paints.

Part Two: Adding Shadows

If you need to stop for the day, we suggest pausing this video at 11:12, then resuming when you have time again to paint. Don’t worry, we’ll remind you in the video.


In the second video, Christine begins to paint the white flower. It’s not entirely white, she says. So she’s adding color in the shadow areas of the flower, giving it its shape. She makes a neutral grey by mixing together a little bit of blue, a little bit of red, and a touch of green. This is not an exact science–just mix until you have a nice, lovely grey color. Add in your grey to the shadow areas and then using a clean, damp brush, soften the edges of the shadows so you have a nice transition to the white (instead of having a hard line at the edge of the shadow). Work quickly to do this, otherwise, the paint will dry before you have a chance to soften the edges. You can always darken the shadows in a minute, as you’ll see Christine does in the video.

Christine also mentions that it’s important to work on all parts of the painting simultaneously. This is a very clever thing to do and something you should pay attention to in your own work. The reason you want to paint everything simultaneously–or “bring everything up together”–is that background and foreground colors affect each other. We talked about this in Basic Color Theory. If you only paint the flower and finish it completely, then add the background, chances are likely that you will not have enough shadows in your flower. This is because when you were painting the flower, it was on a white background. When you add in a dark background, it’s going to shift the way you perceive the objects in the foreground and vice versa. So it’s a good idea to work on the background and foreground at the same time so you can properly gauge how the overall painting works as a whole.

When Christine begins adding the dark “black” of the background, she starts with the leftover neutral grey she used on the flower then adds some Prussian Blue to it to deepen the color so it’s nice and dark. She then begins adding it in the spaces between the leaves in the background. It’s a good idea to finish all these areas at once, Christine says, because it’s hard to match the colors exactly if you have to go back and finish a section later. Also in this section, Christine mentions that she’s using her size 16 brush. We recommend you use the same brush (remember not to use small brushes–bigger is better!).

Right now, Christine is working on what she calls “color blocking”, which means that basically she’s adding in light tones of the colors she’s planning on using for the whole painting. It’s  the first layer in a four-layer process. These light pastel colors (pastel in this context means “a soft and delicate shade of a color”) are just sort of “standing in” for the richer, deeper colors that will be there later. Watercolors always dry a bit lighter than they look wet, so you’ll need to add several layers of color in order to achieve a really nice, dark tone. For instance, her leaves are still very pale green right now. Later on, she will continue adding layers until they are a nice deep green. So don’t worry about these colors being perfect just yet–they’ll get there as you keep working on the painting!

And speaking of “perfect”–Christine also mentions here that this is a painting, not a photograph–so it’s okay to be a little bit loose! Don’t feel like you have to make a perfect painting with every little detail included. This is why it’s a painting–so you can express yourself and allow the paint itself to be expressive.

If your paint is too wet or starts to bleed, you can use a facial tissue to blot up some of the extra moisture. Don’t use a paper towel because they have patterns on them and it will leave those patterns in your painting!

Once you’ve finished your color blocking, you’ll continue to work on building up colors and stronger values throughout the painting. Think of it sort of like a circle: you’ll start with the leaves, then move around the circle to the flower, then to the background, and once you finish there, you’re back at the leaves and start the cycle over again. Each time you make a pass, you’ll add more color and more details. That way you’re bringing everything up at once and allowing sufficient dry time between portions of the painting.


Part Three: Adding Details

A convenient stopping point in this video is at 12:25. Again, we’ll remind you in the video!

In this video, Christine begins by continuing to paint the foliage in the background. She notes that you will get a different mix of colors than she has, and that’s okay. This is because all paints are different. Even if you buy the exact same colors Christine has (and that are on our Watercolor Recommendation List), the colors tend to vary slightly based on manufacturer and quality (artist or student grade) as she describes in the video. So don’t worry about matching Christine’s color mixes exactly. She does mention a helpful book, the Wilcox Guide To The Best Watercolor Paints, which can be found on Amazon for about $25 if you’re interested in furthering your watercolor paint education!

One term that Christine brings up in this video is “color weaving”. Basically, if you use a color in one area of your painting, you should also use it elsewhere in the same painting. This helps to create a sense of visual harmony. The example she gives in the video is that if she’s painting a landscape with a red barn in it and she doesn’t use red or a shade of red anywhere else in the painting, then the red barn would stand out a lot. So even if you want that to happen, it can be more visually pleasing to incorporate at least a hint of red elsewhere.

A portion of one of the leaves Christine is painting has started to “go bad” or turn brown. Since she doesn’t have a brown paint on her palette, she mixes New Gamboge with Alizarin Crimson to make a sort of orangey brown color (or yellow ochre shade, as she calls it). Now because of what we just talked about with color weaving, Christine is also going to use this color somewhere else in the painting so that it doesn’t distract the eye and make that dying leaf a focal point.

Another good point that Christine brings up is that the nice thing about painting flowers, landscapes and vegetation is that no one can say, “That’s not how that leaf looked!” Remember that when people look at your painting, they won’t be looking at the reference photo at the same time. So if your painting doesn’t look exactly like the reference photo, don’t worry–no one will know! This becomes a very different matter when you’re painting a portrait because it needs to look like a specific person.

After she’s finished painting her leaves, Christine makes up a nice dark color for the background. She’s mixing quite a bit of paint so that it’s fairly dark. She’s using Prussian Blue and Alizarin Crimson to make a deep purple then adds a bit of Winsor Green (blue shade) to tone down the purple and make it more of a neutral dark that’s very close to black (see? you don’t need to buy black paint!).

Christine begins adding in this deep, dark, almost black color to the background, which is going to help her to be able to see if her flower has enough shadow on it or if she needs to darken the value so that it stands out against the dark background. She is still using a fairly large brush for this part, so just take your time and be careful not to mess up any of your leaf or flower edges. You don’t want to use too small of a brush for this because it won’t cover enough ground and you’ll end up with tiny little streaks from where the paint dried before you had a chance to blend it all together.

Christine mentions in the video that she composes her paintings with “escape hatches” for herself. “Escape hatches” are smaller areas that are bounded by leaves or flower petals and that run off the page. This makes smaller areas of the background so you do not have to complete the entire background in one sitting. It is difficult to mix enough background color to finish the background all at one time. By the time you get to the area where you started the paint could already be dry and therefore you will have a line. By dividing your background into smaller sub-segments, you can paint them individually and not have to worry about “seaming” the beginning of the background and where you finish together.

Another good point that Christine brings up in this video is that you don’t want to have your coffee (or tea or water or other beverage) next to your workstation because you may accidentally try to wash your brush out in it! I know it sounds silly, but we have all done it at some point. Just be aware of your surroundings and put your drink somewhere besides your workstation.

You want to make sure you keep the paint on the tip of your brush. The belly of the brush is where the water is and controls the amount of water you have in your paint. You don’t want to get too much paint in the belly because it will soak up under the ferrule and start to dissolve the adhesive that holds all the bristles together. We covered this in Watercolor Brushes in case you forgot.

At the end of this session, you should get up from your workstation and walk away from it and view it from several feet away. This is a very important step in the creative process! Christine mentions that when she does this for students, they’re often surprised that it looks so much better than they thought. No one else is going to be viewing your painting as close as you are while you’re working on it, so you want to be sure that your painting looks good from farther away too. Try to get into this habit and step back from your painting periodically as you’re working on it. Before you begin video number four, step back and look at your painting for 5-10 minutes.

Part Four: Completing The Painting

A convenient stopping point in this video is at 12:58. Again, we’ll remind you in the video!

To begin with, Christine is mixing a green but in order to make it less vibrant (bright), she’s mixing her Winsor Green with a little Alizarin Crimson. She wants to make sure her paper is dry enough to continue painting so the paint doesn’t bleed, so she feels the paper with the back of her hand. Once she’s determined that the paint is dry enough, she begins adding in the shadows on the leaves. Christine mentions that her brush has a lot of water on it during this point and sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad–you’ll get the hang of it the more you paint. You can control the amount of water that’s on your brush by dabbing it off on a kitchen sponge. Make sure that if you decide to use a kitchen sponge that it’s new and clean (you don’t want leftover spaghetti on your painting!) and dampen the sponge just slightly so it’s not completely dry, but is able to pull water from your brush. You may notice that in the videos, Christine also squeezes the bristles of her brush gently after she dabs it on the sponge. This helps her to tell how much water is in the brush by touching it and feeling it. You don’t necessarily need to do this–it’s just a technique that works for Christine. If you don’t have a sponge, you can use your paper towel or rag. If the brush is relatively dry, it can pull up some of the paint from your paper, which can be a good thing. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. It takes practice to get this right!

As she’s painting her leaves, Christine explains that she wants darks next to lights and vice versa. You’re always looking at the value of objects in relation to each other, which is why it’s important to make your value sketch in the beginning before you start painting.

Now that you’re working on your details, it’s important to reference your photograph more and more so you can be accurate in your details. She’s adding in darks now and references her four-step process again. Remember, the first step is color blocking and pastel (or light colored) paints, then medium tones in the second layer to start to build up the shapes, then adding darks, and the last step is adding in shadow and detail. The shadows and darks in this particular painting are really important and the better contrast you have between the two, the more stunning your painting will turn out.

As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to stop periodically and analyze your painting. Take a step back and look at it now and ask yourself, “What have I done well? What can I do differently?” Now is the time to make those changes so that you’re happy with the completed painting. As Christine is looking at her painting, she realizes that she’s close to finished with the right side of the painting, but not yet on the left, so she’s going to continue working on the left section until she’s happy with it.

You’ll notice that Christine is constantly turning her painting around and this is because, as she explains in the video, she doesn’t want to be working over wet areas. There’s a greater chance of smudging if you work over wet areas!

She’s pretty happy with the background at this point, so she’s going to leave it alone and go back to work on the calla lily. The first thing she is doing is lifting some color off of the tip of the pistil of the flower because it’s lighter in the photo than she has painted it. To do this, all you need to do is put some clean water on your brush and touch it to the area you want to lighten, then use your Kleenex to pull up the color. Christine then repeats this process on the edge of the pistil to get some nice highlights. After that, she adds a bit of shadow to the opposite side of the pistil and softens the edges with her brush so that it blends nicely with the other colors. This will give it the effect of looking round.

Using a nice neutral grey, Christine goes in and emphasizes the area around the pistil, darkening that shadow that can be seen in the reference photograph. You’ll notice she adds the shadow in lines, then washes out her brush and uses clean water to go back (quickly!) and smooth out the lines. Because the paint dries so quickly, it can be difficult to smooth out the lines before they dry and stay where they are. Christine says that it could be better for something like this to wet the paper first with some clean water and then add in the shadow lines–it’s something she just learned during the taping of this video! See? Even professional artists are still learning new things all the time! This brings up a GREAT point: even if you mess up, don’t see it as a failure. See it as a learning experience. You’ll mess up and make mistakes, but instead of berating yourself, put the memory of it in the back of your mind so that you can learn from that experience and grow from it and become a better painter. You will never learn if you don’t make mistakes.

Christine is going to work on fixing her mistake now by using another kind of brush. She’s using a hard, bristle brush (made for acrylic) that she’s dipped in clean water and using it to gently scrub the area that she wants to fix. She mentions that while this can be effective in fixing some mistakes, it can also damage the paper slightly, so use this trick diligently.

After just a little more finessing including the addition of a slightly darker shadow around the pistil, Christine is done! At this point, she brings up another really good point: know when you’re finished. A lot of beginning painters especially will fuss and fuss thinking they’re making the painting better, but really they’re not. You need to know when to stop painting and just leave it alone. Don’t paint too long on any piece! Get to a point where you feel like you’ve done what you can, then set it aside. Plan to look at it in a few days. If after a few days you decide you really need to fix or add something, you can, but it’s best to have a little space between you and your painting before you overwork it. Remember, more is not always better!

Next lesson: Watercolor Painting Exercise Three: Landscape


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