How to Paint Flowers in Oils
It’s time to paint flowers! I had these beautiful and exotic Amaryllis flowers from a house warming gift. They were blooming nicely. So I decided to paint them. The painting is a Christmas present for my mother-in-law.
Flowers are easy to paint in oils since you can set them right up in front of you and paint them from life.
If you’re new to oil painting, make sure you quickly read Beginning an Oil Painting – My 5 rules before you start.
This is how I painted these flowers mostly alla prima (wet-in-wet) in oils:
How do you paint flowers in oils step by step?
• Set up the flowers in front of you in a pleasing arrangement or composition.
• Make sure your lighting won’t change dramatically while you’re painting. You may need to set up artificial lighting. But make sure you don’t put any hot lights near the flowers, or they’ll wilt. If you’re using natural light from the sun, you may only have a small window of time before the light and shadows change, so plan ahead.
• Think about the colours or pigments you’ll be using. Limiting your colours can create a more harmonious colour palette and simplify things. But consider the natural colours of the flowers themselves and how you would accurately replicate those colours.
• Once you’ve considered your pigments and laid them out on the palette, think about toning your canvas or panel to create a ‘base’ colour. You can of course paint directly on a white canvas if you wish. But I chose to tone my canvas with arylamide yellow because of the brightness of its chroma. Which would make a perfect base colour for the bright red flowers and the green stems. This technique is called tonalism. Since I am painting wet-in-wet, the relatively weak film properties and slow-drying time of arylamide yellow isn’t really an issue.
• With the canvas toned, you can now draw directly into the wet paint with a smallish flat or filbert hog hair brush and a darker colour like magenta. This is called ‘wet-in-wet’ painting, since you’re applying fresh paint onto a wet paint surface. The paint glides more easily over a wet surface.
• It’s important to plot out your composition and get a basic rough overall drawing down to determine sizing and perspective. This is especially important for a small canvas. You don’t want to run out of space!
• Think about the height or angle of the table or surface that the flowers are set up on. This will determine your perspective.
• Once you have your brush drawing down with the simplified shapes and perspective, you can begin ‘blocking-in’ the basic colours. Since the petals were bright red, I began with those, and avoided adding white to the mix. White would make the red more pink and desaturate the brilliant red chroma. I then continued with the greens of the stem and leaves, the pot and table top.
• With the blocking-in stage done, you can begin adding definition and details by adding lights and darks, beginning with the darks. I painted the basic shadow shapes cast by the petals with transparent colours like magenta (quinacridone) and Winsor Blue (phthalocyanine). For the leaves, I used sap green and blue. For the dark areas, I added a bit of linseed oil to the paint in order to make the shadows more transparent.
• Once most of the darks are done, you can begin adding white to your mixes for the lighter areas and highlights. Adding white immediately makes your paint mix more opaque and ‘milky’ or ‘chalky’. It also desaturates the chroma of other colours dramatically. So I usually leave areas that need white in the mix until later. I made a few greys by mixing complimentary colours and white. And used these mixes to paint the light areas of the petals, stem, leaves and the pot.
• Continue to refine the details as much as possible, painting wet-in-wet. Make sure you always have a dry rag to continuously clean your brushes of excess paint as you go. Be confident with your brushstrokes when putting down fresh paint. And don’t over blend or you’ll end up with muddy colours and no definition.
• Add the background and refine your edges. You can soften your edges and adjust your drawing this way.
• Allow the painting to dry if you wish to add glazes for more refined cast shadows. Or to add saturation to certain areas and more definition. Otherwise, you can complete the painting entirely alla prima.
What does alla prima painting mean?
Alla prima is the Italian term used for painting wet-on-wet in oil painting and means ‘at the first’. Also known as ‘direct painting’, it usually specifies a painting that has been done in one sitting, without allowing drying in between the stages.
This produces the lovely ‘painterly’ effect so often found in looser or Impressionist-style paintings. Also known by the French term ‘au premier coup’.
Why paint flowers in oils?
• Flowers are inspirational to paint because they are glorious expressions of nature.
• Almost everybody has an emotional attachment to flowers and loves their brilliant colours, fragrance and designs. There are endless species to choose from.
• Flowers are one of the easiest things to paint because they don’t move. And you can paint them directly from life by setting them up on a table in front of you.
• Painting from life is the best way to learn painting. And painting flowers is less demanding since you have plenty of leeway with the accuracy of your drawing. It doesn’t have to be exact. That’s why you shouldn’t get stuck in the tunnel-vision mode of painting from photos.
• Painting in oils also allows you plenty of ‘open-time’ because the paint doesn’t dry immediately like acrylics do. So you don’t run the risk of dried patchy colour mixes that is my chief frustration with acrylic paint.
• Painting flowers can teach you a lot about colour mixing, as well as achieving delicacy with your drawing and brushstrokes. It can teach you a lot about textures, and opaque and transparent colours. Achieving the believable transparency of a flower’s petals is a worthy challenge.
• Leaves droop and petals wilt, so you have to be dynamic, loosen up and plan ahead when you paint flowers. By the end of the day, they can change quite a lot, so you’ll learn to expect this and paint quickly, convincingly, and with confidence.
• The light will also change if you’re painting outside or if you set up your floral still life near a window. So you’ll learn to paint your light and shadow areas quickly in anticipation of this.
• The beauty of a flower fades quickly as it wilts away. But a painting represents and immortalises that fleeting beauty or that moment in time while the blossom bloomed. And that beauty will continue to inspire through art long after the flower is dead.
• Paintings of flowers are reminders of the transience of nature, of the impermanence of all things and of our own mortality. This temporal nature makes it all the more precious; an ephemeral moment in time.
• Flower paintings are a celebration of nature and an honouring of life on earth. They fill the heart with a feeling of peace and the home with bright colours.
• Floral paintings are a very popular subject matter can fit in almost any setting or décor.
Easy flowers to paint
Species of flower that are particularly easy to paint in oils, even for beginner artists are:
- Arum Lilies
- Oriental Lilies
Flowers have always been a favourite subject for painting. Particularly when first starting oil painting.
But it takes a great deal of mastery to move beyond painting just another pretty flower painting. For further reading, see Flowers: Approaches & Techniques by Oil Painting Techniques.
If you would like to learn more about painting in layers, or the indirect painting method, go to this detailed step-by-step still life tutorial I wrote: Still Life Painting of Apples.
I hope you enjoyed this brief flower painting tutorial. If there is anything I left out and you would like to know, please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments below. Happy painting!
Check out some of my figure drawings here.