Monday, August 1, 2016

Sketches from Maine - Step-by-Step Iris Watercolor

Merryspring Nature Center is an idyllic little gem in the heart of mid-coast Maine. The day we visited, we had the place entirely to ourselves. There was so much to draw that I found myself wandering around for awhile just taking it all in, waiting for something to "speak" to me. Should I do a landscape scene with a grey weathered shed in the background, or a composite page with a variety of flowers? Or should I focus on just one flower or plant?

Finally I chose a stand of iris as my subject matter and sat down to sketch.

I began with a pencil drawing of the iris, then lightly sketched in an idea for lettering across the top of the page. This could change later - I was just trying it out at this stage.

Step 1 - Pencil drawing (Stillman & Birn 10x7 Alpha series sketchbook)

I decided to paint the leaves first using a variety of colors, rather than plain green. There is some green there, but I also used yellow, teal, lavender, pink, red, and blue on the leaves and stems, allowing the colors to blend wet-in-wet. Using a larger size brush (#10 or 12) helped me keep things loose.

Step 2 - Paint base washes on the leaves

While the washes on the leaves were drying, I started on the flowers, painting the yellow centers first.

Step 3 - Paint the yellow centers on the flowers

Next came the lavender and purple flower petals. And this is the point where I got so engrossed in what I was doing that I forgot to stop and take pictures. :(  So, let me explain what happened between steps 3 & 4....

Step 4 - Paint the flower petals

I first painted the light lavender-pink petals. If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you'll see that the light-colored petals on the iris were actually almost white. I chose to make them lavender because I wanted them to contrast with the white background. Artistic license!

Next I painted the darker purple petals, dropping in some red in places, wet-in-wet, to vary the color. After that all dried, I went back in with a few touches of darker color on the lavender petals and added the darkest yellow in the center of the flower (a mixture of yellow + raw sienna).

Since there was so much white space around the flowers, I decided to break it up with some spattering. I am usually careful not to overdo the spattering, because I don't want it to be too obvious, but in this case I thought more was better. The larger spatters were done with a paintbrush, and some of the finer ones with a piece of window screen. (Simply brush some paint on a piece of screen, hold it over your paper and give a strong, quick blow.)

Step 6 - Spatter

The lettering was changed slightly from my original sketch. I just played around with it in pencil until it seemed just right, then painted it with the same colors I had used for the sketch, using a small round brush.

Step 7 - Finalize lettering

Completed sketch 

All finished! Most of the painting had been done on location at Merryspring, out in the wind and sun, but I ran out of time before it was completed. The final touches on the flowers and the lettering were done at home. Total time to paint it was probably 1-1/2 - 2 hours.

It seems that painting directly from a pencil sketch makes me feel a little freer than when I do an ink drawing first. This painting is looser than my usual style, and I like that.

On this trip to Maine, I resolved to try new things. This sketch was a departure from my usual routine in that I didn't use ink lines, I varied the leaf color substantially from what was in front of me, and I minimized detail. I think the sketch reflects the fact that I felt relaxed and happy that day at Merryspring, sitting in the sun in that peaceful garden with beauty all around me and my friends nearby. And it makes me happy again every time I look at it and remember.

PS - The folks at Merryspring Nature Center liked my sketch so much that they have decided to feature my watercolor on some of the products they sell in their onsite retail shop. Now my irises will be printed on mugs, T-shirts and other items to raise money for Merryspring. Awesome!


  1. Very pretty Leslie. I love how you incorporated the same mix of colors into the lettering to bring harmony to the whole page--just lovely and cheerful!

    1. I'm really pleased with the way the lettering turned out. It seems you can't go wrong when you use watercolor for the lettering and repeat the colors from the sketch.

  2. I enjoyed reading about your thought process. The results are fantastic, and even better, you had fun doing it.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post. It really was a wonderful day - so peaceful.

  3. Very pretty. All the colors in your leaves make them come alive. I enjoy skipping the ink in my work sometimes too. I like drawing with both pen and pencil, but it's nice to change things up every now and them.

    1. I'm liking a pencil underdrawing more and more. It seems to help me stay looser. When I'm filling in ink lines, it tends to look more coloring book-ish.

  4. Love this! Glad I still have some pages left in my sketchbook to try some irises now; happy I took photos of them when we were there to use as reference. The varied colors you dropped into your green leaves are stunningly beautiful. xo, gretchen

    1. Stunningly beautiful? Wow! Thanks, Gretchen.
      I miss you - be sure to email me a pic of your irises after you paint them.


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