Notes from the drawing board - irises and the colour purple
Julie Douglas

 Irises and the colour purple. 

    Water colour, Julie Douglas

I don't often give flowers as subject matter but sometimes the colour or shape just gets my attention, and I give in. It’s not that I don’t like beautiful things (I DO!), but flowers are difficult subjects, and often students expect them to be ‘easy’. If we think it’s going to be easy, we may not give the subject our full attention, which then makes the results disappointing. Another difficulty with flowers is that some part of our brain is imagining it framed and on the wall before we even start, which also gets in the way of observation.. But irises are structurally bold, the open petals demanding careful observation right from the offset. If you would like to try this subject, here is a way to go about it.  

Student artwork. Left Sarah M, at the first wash stage. Right, completed artwork, Ruth T

1. Isolate one or two flowers and consider the negative space-shapes both in between the flowers and leaves as well as around the outer edges. Open the arrangement up if necessary by separating the flowers a little or turning the container around. Notice in the top left photo that there is more clarity for observation if you put a piece of paper behind the subject to remove clutter. 

2. Adding a different flower in a different colour will balance the image and provide a ‘resting’ space for the eyes. In this instance I used creamy coloured freesias. They also have a lovely shape when they are in bud, adding extra interest to the composition. 

3. Using F or H pencil, lightly draw your composition, making sure to begin from a central area and observing the shapes provided by negative spaces to help you position leaves and petals correctly. If you have a 'free-falling' stem of freesia, you could paint that directly without drawing which will give you a more fluid result, and get you on to the painting stage sooner. 

4. If you have strong yellow patterns on the inner petals of the iris, be sure to draw these BEFORE committing to the outside edges of the petals and not the other way around.

5. Time to begin playing with colour mixes on the palette, to get a variety of options on the purples. This is FUN. A good stare at the flowers will show you that there are many different colours within the purples. So allow yourself to shift into 'inquisitive' mode, and make friends with your palette. Get yourself 4 jars of water for brushes because you need clean water for mixing.   Good pigments to experiment with are Alizarin Crimson + French Ultramarine,
Alizarin Crimson  + Winsor Blue, Alizarin Crimson + Cobalt Blue, and Alizarin Crimson + Payne's Grey. Varying the balance of crimson/blue ratio will hugely impact the colours you mix. Try them all, noticing what happens when you add more of each pigment to the mix - more Alizarin Crimson will warm the purple, more blue will take it towards blackness. Try also using Cadmium Red instead of the Alizarin - you will find the purples veer more towards the brown spectrum this time. Then try changing the red for Permanent Rose. The differences are DELICIOUS and the variety is almost endless.

L - R above - Alizarin Crimson + French Ultramarine, varying the amounts of each to show the huge differences achievable. 

L-R above - 1 & 2 Alizarin Crimson + Winsor Blue 3 & 4 Alizarin Crimson + Payne's Grey.  
L - R above - 1 Cadmium Red + French Ultramarine, 2, 3, 4  Alizarine Crimson + French Ultramarine with two different strengths of pigment. 

NOTE: These images do not constitute a colour chart! I am using them to illustrate the differences you can get from mixing just 2 colours at a time. Please do your own mixes, it is so enlightening, and the purples you get will be Yours.  

6. On a separate piece of paper, paint a colour dot of each and every mixture as you go along and make a note of what colours you mixed. The results are fascinating, and it's not until the colour sits on paper (and dries) that you get an idea of what you have mixed. When you do the colour dot, make sure your brush isn't too overloaded with water or it will dilute the colour as it dries. Use a small brush, (size 3) to do the dots.

7. Time for a nice cup of tea. Having a break, walking away from the desk, gives your eyes a rest and a chance for your body to move. Stretch your arms out wide and pull your torso UP! It's amazing how tensed-up we can become from sitting still at the desk. When you come back to the desk, take time to consider all the mixes to decide which ones you prefer for your purples. 

8. Once you decide which red/blue combinations you like, it is time to l
ay a light wash layer (ie make your paint pale by using a lot of water to dilute the pigment) over the whole image, using as few colours as possible - permanent Sap Green, lemon yellow on the freesias, and your own mix for the purple. For the yellow centres, use lemon yellow at this stage. Paint the lemon yellow centres BEFORE painting  the purple areas, and paint a little beyond your pencil line with the yellow. This will be covered up with the purple. 


L - R Water colour and (small) colour pencil by Mark McD, and another student colour pencil study. 

9. Be brave with your layering after the initial wash. Imagine that you are actually drawing with your brush, so that you don’t accidentally continue laying on all-over washes. Instead, concentrate of the depths of tones, making sure that the darks and lights are in balance across the image. Use cadmium yellow on the darker yellow spots. 

10. Pay particular attention to where petals ‘touch’ each other ie where areas of the same colours (greens, blues or purples in this case) meet, so that you acknowledge which is darker and make sure you echo this in your painting. 




Weekend workshops in portraiture, oils and drawing. Email me for details! 


The information in this newsletter is written by Julie Douglas and is aimed at refreshing your knowledge of subjects you may have done in the past, and introducing you to new ways of working if you haven't done this subject before. It is for fun and to encourage personal creative growth. 

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