Saturday, May 12, 2012

How to Shade Flower Petals in Watercolor

Shading flower petals in watercolor is easier than it looks. Controlling edges so that some edges are clean and hard while others are soft and gradual takes combining Wet in Wet techniques (for loose, soft flowing edges) and wet on dry - by a very simple process.

Below is a line drawing for a Bird of Paradise flower. I chose to use a Pigma Micron waterproof pen for the drawing so that it would scan easily and also to make it easier for readers to copy. Please feel free to copy my outlines or print this out to try coloring it. The lesson here is about shading, not about how to draw the outlines of a Bird of Paradise flower in detail. If you want to do a different flower, feel free to blow up the photo reference and trace outlines with a pencil, then transfer them onto watercolor paper.

I drew and painted this on my 7" x 10" Stillman & Birn Beta journal, which has bright white 180lb Rough watercolor paper. You may get good results with Cold Press (medium texture) or Hot Press (smooth) watercolor paper instead. The journal pages don't have the big dips and bumps that other brands of Rough watercolor paper do, just deeper dips and taller bumps. The smoother your paper, the easier it is to get a clean line with a pen or pencil - or the edge of your wet area.

The simple trick for shading flower petals is to just wet the area of one petal at a time. Get it good and wet so that it's shiny. Let it soak in and add a little more water so it's still shiny. Stay within the lines if you want those lines to turn into hard-edged forms, like the outside edges of a classic botanical painting against the white background.

Here, I'm using a Niji Waterbrush to wet just the big outer sepal, the leaf-like structure the flower springs out of, and the thick stem. There's a lot of shading in that structure and a variety of interesting colors flowing softly into one another, so that made the best example.

Below, I've swiped my Niji Waterbrush through the Payne's Grey pan and dipped into the Pthalo Green pan to get a greenish dark gray. I'm bringing the color all the way up to the edge of the wet area, but not over the whole structure. Just at the edge where I want that color to show. Be sure to pick up lots of color on your brush. Watercolors dry two steps lighter than they look when they're dry, so if it looks too light, add more color quickly before it dries. Don't be afraid to go too dark because it'll probably turn out fine.

Now I'm adding a band of the next color. I put a band of strong Pthalo Green overlapping the previous layer to make it darker, then I added a stroke of Olive Green right next to it to let the colors mingle. You can put rows of different colors, even complementary ones. A petal that's dark violet on the outside can shade gradually to almost white and get some golden yellow charged in right at the base. Or a rose petal can shade from pink through orange to golden yellow along its shape. Just paint each separate hard edged section as its own project.

When the petal or leaf is finished, let it dry completely before doing an adjacent one. I moved from doing this big petal to painting the orange petals, then while they dried I worked on the blue one, then I finally mixed a thinner mixture of Paynes Grey and green to shadow the waxy white structures connecting the orange and blue petals to the base.

Then I signed it with the pen. If you use a pencil for your sketch lines and work lightly, they can be erased sometimes after the paint dries. If you use a watercolor pencil lightly and do have color right up to the edges, you can dissolve the lines into watercolor and look as if you did it entirely without a sketch.

Another option is to use a light box. Put your line sketch under your watercolor paper and paint with the light box turned on. Then no outlines show under the watercolor and everyone thinks you've got miraculous brush control!

Enjoy this technique! Either try it with my Bird of Paradise sketch or try it with a simple flower that has several large, shaded petals. I will discuss other ways of shading with watercolors in later articles. For now, this is how to get smooth wet-in-wet color changes in a limited area.

Just wet only that area and paint whatever colors work for you. It really is that simple!


  1. Your bird of paradise looks beautiful, Robert, and the description is very detailed and clear--thanks for the tutorial!

  2. Thank you! Give it a try, it's a lot of fun. This is what made wet in wet watercolor painting make sense to me.

  3. Got by chance to your blog. I really like your work,very inspiring. Keep up the good work!These are beautiful!

    Watercolor Video