Monday, June 9, 2014

Step-by-Step Watercolor: How to Paint a Blue Hydrangea

Everybody loves hydrangeas. They're big and showy, and the range of colors runs from the palest baby blue to deep burgundy and purple. I love them all, but my favorite has always been the traditional blue mophead hydrangea, and I thought you might enjoy seeing step-by-step photos of how I go about painting one.

6-1/2" x 6-1/2". watercolor pencil & watercolor in Strathmore Visual Journal

For this sample, I worked in a Strathmore Visual Journal and used artist's quality watercolors from a number of different manufacturers, such as Winsor & Newton, American Journey, and Holbein.

Inspiration photo

It's okay to draw and paint from a photo reference, but drawing from life is even better. When you have the flower right in front of you, it's easier to see its true colors. Since my hydrangeas aren't blooming yet, I used a photo.

Step-by-Step Instructions
for Painting a Blue Hydrangea

1 - Make a drawing of your hydrangea flower (and a few leaves) with a blue watercolor pencil.  I used a Faber-Castell Cobalt Blue watercolor pencil.

If you're intimidated by the complexity of the numerous blossoms in your hydrangea photo, try this method:
  • Lay a piece of tracing paper over your photo. 
  • Trace the outline of the main shapes onto the tracing paper with a fine-point Sharpie pen.
  • Position the tracing paper drawing behind your watercolor paper or sketchbook page. Use a light table or a sunny window to trace/draw the hydrangea with cobalt blue watercolor pencil onto your sketchbook page.
Step 1 - Watercolor pencil drawing

2 - Spatter on some drops of water using a paint brush, toothbrush, or spatter screen. Don't flood the drawing with water. You just want to have some droplets of water which will help to soften edges and blend colors when you add watercolor.

Step 2 - Spatter water

3 - Begin painting varying tones and colors of blue, loosely brushing onto blossom petals, leaving some areas of white. I used the following blues:
  • Cobalt Blue (closest tube color to hydrangea blue)
  • Ultramarine Blue (good for variety, for darker areas, and to mix purples)
  • Cerulean Blue (not as intense as cobalt and ultramarine, good for lighter areas, and to add variety in color tones)
Drop on water to lighten in places and cause “blooms.”
Soften some edges with a damp brush.
Paint darker tones in shadow areas.  
Wet the leaf areas and allow some blue to bleed out onto leaves. 

Step 3 - Varied washes of blues

Some blue hydrangeas have lighter white and yellow centers. Use the colors required for your particular subject.

Add touches of pink (Holbein Rose Violet) & lavender (Rose Violet + Ultramarine Blue or Cobalt Blue.)

Pink and lavender added

After step 3 - Painting is dry & ready for detail work

4 - Begin to define individual petals using mid-tones of blues. Use areas of violet and pink for variety. Some petals will be painted directly, and some will be painted around (negative painting.)

I like to use hard edges to define shapes and soft edges within the petals to show form.

To soften an edge, use a brush that's damp or wet, but not dripping, and run it along the edge of a painted area to allow the paint to feather out.

Step 4 - Negative painting

5 - Continue painting positive and negative shapes, one petal at a time. Refer continually to your photo or flower to analyze where light and dark edges contrast with each other. Paint the darker side where two edges meet.

Step 5 - Painting positive & negative petal shapes

6 - Keep adding more mid-tones and darks, varying the blues, and adding touches of pink.

Step 6 - Building up shadows

Add the darkest blue and purple shadow tones.

Darkest tones
7 - The flower can be called complete at this point...        .

Step 7 - Completed flower

or you may want to add more detail by using a small rigger brush to paint veins on some of the petals.

Veins painted with a rigger brush

You might decide to add a few more finishing touches to the flower later, but it's a good idea to begin painting the leaves at this point.

Flower with petal veins added

8 - Painting leaves:
Greens may be mixed using yellow + blue, or start with a base color of green, such as sap green or Hooker’s green, and vary the tone by adding ultramarine blue, rose violet, and/or yellow.

Paint a base color of green on the leaf. Vary the color to add interest. Add yellow to the sunny side of the leaf and blue to the cool, shady side. Then use one of the techniques shown below to indicate the prominent veins found on hydrangea leaves.

Leaf technique #1: Scratching in lines
Use a sharp tool such as a toothpick to incise or scratch vein lines into WET paint. Paint will settle in the scraped area, making a dark line.

Leaf technique #1

Leaf technique #2: Lifting lines
Use a small brush dampened with clean water to lift paint off the leaf in vein lines. Rinse and blot brush between strokes.

Leaf technique #2

Leaf technique #3: Negative painting
Paint the leaf with a base color of light green or pale yellow. Let dry. With darker green, paint the space between leaf veins. Leave the veins untouched. (You can plan where the veins will be by drawing them lightly with a blue or green watercolor pencil before painting with the dark green.)

Leaf technique #3

And that's all there is to it! Here's the finished hydrangea...

It does take some time to paint all those petals and make them look three-dimensional, but if you just take your time and look for edges where there's contrast, then paint the darker side, you'll eventually have a beautiful blue hydrangea blossom!

I hope you'll give it a try, and, if you have any questions, just leave a comment. I'll be happy to help.


  1. This is absolutely wonderful!!! I for one struggle with multiple petaled flowers. Thank you for sharing.

  2. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to put this valuable step-by-step together. The juicy dappled steps at the start are a great way to loosen up mentally and be inspired to trust the freedom, rather than seeking an artificial 'control'. Love it!

    1. I agree. I am going to do this as an exercise to loosen up a bit before I paint flowers next time.

  4. Thank you for posting this! Can't wait to try this! So very beautiful!

  5. Beautiful flowers and great tutorial, thanks for sharing, now if you could advise me on why my hydrangea isn't blooming when all my neighbors flowers are blooming big time.

  6. This is such an amazing gift! Thanks so much for sharing. Hydrangeas are one of my favorite flowers. I will be getting my supplies soon, and starting my watercolor.

  7. What a treat! Can't wait to try this,Leslie...what a sweetheart you are to put it together! Our Cheap Joes manager received the samples from Stillman and Birn and they are trying them out...keep your fingers crossed!

  8. wonderful - can't wait to try this - thank you so much for sharing

  9. Thank you for your very instructive post! I´ll share it with my art students!

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  11. Very helpful tutorial!
    Love your work!

  12. That is a lovely tutorial, you provided so much detail. I was wondering if there is a reason why you don't suggest using graphite paper if one was to trace their photo....

    1. You can certainly use graphite paper. The reason I used the watercolor pencil instead was that you don't have hard dark edges on the petals as you would with graphite. The cobalt blue pencil gives you enough of a line to assist in painting the petals, but the lines dissolve and disappear eventually, unlike graphite. Of course, if your graphite lines were light enough, they wouldn't really show at the end either, so it would be perfectly good option.

  13. Thank you Leslie, a lovely tutorial.

  14. Thank you for a wonderful step-by-step tutorial..I always wondered how these flowers are painted..

    1. You're very welcome, Nima. Glad you enjoyed it.

  15. Zeer mooi ik ben gefascineerd hoe mooi uw bloemen geschilderd zijn .ik volg met passie uw manier van uw aquarel techniek.niet zo gemakkelijk voor mij daar het Engels is op gemaakt .maar doe mijn best dank u wel .jacqueline ik woon in Gent(België) .

  16. Hello Leslie! Thank you so much for sharing this tutorial; it is very helpful for beginners like me! I've tried making a watercolor piece similar to the one you made here. And oh, I hope you don't mind me sharing your tutorial in my blog: :) <3

  17. Thanks for this lovely and wonderful tutorial, it's just what I need right now. I try do it in a few days, wish me luck 😊 Again thank you for share your knowledge Leslie

  18. Thank you. Tried it and it worked.

  19. Gorgeous! My grandmother has so many lovely hydrangea bushes and I wanted to include a drawing of them on a card for her. Love this and all the helpful techniques!


  20. Absolutely beautiful. Tha k you for taking time to post detailed instructions I can't wait to try it as well!!!

  21. My garden is in full bloom with hydrangeas, NOW I can attempt to paint one. Many thanks.

  22. Very beautiful. Now I need to redo mine. You tips and explanations are very clear!!! Thank you.

  23. Beautiful, thanks for sharing your awesome tips!

  24. Beautiful flower, wonderful tutorial. Thank you very much.

  25. Just beginning to paint... cant wait to try this! Thanks, Evangeline W.

  26. Felicidades son unas flores muy bien logradas.

  27. Thank you so much, Leslie. This is really helpful.

  28. Just a beginner painter ! Your Step-by-Step is so clear to do !! You're a good Tutor ^^
    Thank you for sharing :)


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