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Art Masterclass - 115

How to Paint Bluebells in Watercolour using a Splattering Technique with Ian Pethers

We are approaching that time of the year again when our woodlands are filled with the aroma of purple blue scent, as the annual carpet of bluebells spreads across the forest floor. It’s an irresistible scene to the landscape painter.

As a long-standing member of the Society of Botanical Artists, I present five paintings of suitable botanical content to its spring exhibition each year.

As my interests lay largely in trees and forests rather than plants in general, I find myself searching through dozens of photographs I have taken over the past 12 months to choose various aspects from several to create new compositions.

As you can imagine, much of my work contains detail, using my favoured method of pen and ink drawings with watercolour washes, but the demonstration shown on the following pages requires a much quicker and freer approach. This involves a great deal of splattering using a medium-sized stiff oil painting brush, or a brush from a cheap pack you can find for under £2.

Splattering requires a little practice before launching a major assault. I usually hold the brush in my painting hand and flick the pigment from it by stroking sharply from an opposite finger. It is important to make the consistency of the pigment just right to ensure the splattering reaches the required density.

You will find this process therapeutic and rewarding and, of course, your palette can vary according to whichever season or floral colour you wish to portray. Please read through the demonstration and practise the technique first before you begin work in earnest. And, most of all, have fun with it.



  • Bockingford 300 gsm watercolour paper (29x20cm)

Daler-Rowney Artists’ Watercolour:

  • Ultramarine
  • Transparent Turquoise
  • Violet
  • Lemon yellow
  • Cadmium orange
  • Burnt umber
  • Lamp black
  • Oxide of chromium


  • Masking fluid
  • Watercolour palette
  • Round brushes Nos. 1, 3, 6 & 12
  • Small Colour Shaper for applying masking fluid
  • A low-quality stiff Round brush for splattering
  • HB pencil

  1. Anchor your paper down to the drawing board with gummed tape around the edge and apply a liberal layer of clean water to stretch it. Allow it to dry thoroughly, which can take up to 15 minutes.
  2. Draw a line across the paper with an HB pencil approximately one third up from the bottom to establish your horizon.
  3. Use points of masking fluid to scatter the forest floor with white flora, such as wild garlic or campion. Allow to dry thoroughly.

  1. Wet the lower third of the painting with clean water using a No. 12 brush.
  2. Immediately apply a thin wash of a mix of ultramarine and violet, but not too much violet. Make the wash stronger at the bottom (foreground). Allow to dry.
  3. To give the hint of a sky, wet the top third of the paper and apply a light wash of turquoise, adding slightly stronger colour to the very top. Allow to dry.

  1. Using a No. 6 brush, apply a generous coat of lemon yellow, wet in dry, above the pencil line, keeping the colour solid at the horizon and becoming ragged as you progress upwards, This will represent the fresh spring foliage.
  2. Use a torn edge of a sheet of paper to mask above the horizon and apply weights (I used coins). Then, using a large stiff low-quality oil painting brush, splatter horizontal layers of ultramarine and violet mix across the bluebell area to create layers.

  1. While this is drying, apply elongated marks of masking fluid onto the lemon yellow area above to save a host of bright spring leaves. I applied around 300 to this painting.
  2. Once dry, use your splatter brush to add finer yellow spots to the upper area.
  3. Turn your sheet of torn paper up the other way and mask off the bluebell area. Splatter a 4cm band of cadmium orange along the horizon. This represents the remains of last year’s beech leaves, which have survived the winter, and helps to enrich the colour range in your painting. Allow to dry.

  1. Mix lemon yellow with a hint of turquoise to make spring green and use it to give a liberal splattering to the leaf area above the horizon.
  2. Allow to dry and repeat the process using oxide of chromium with a little to the bluebell area to break up the mass of blue. Oxide of chromium is an opaque pigment, which will sit happily on the surface of the bluebell area.
  3. Mask off the bluebell area again and splatter a 2cm band of burnt umber along the horizon; this will add further depth to the distant forest. Allow to dry and repeat with a narrow splattering of lamp black to give a sharper edge.

  1. Once dry, remove the masking paper and enhance the black horizon, shaping it along the distant flora; this will really make the bluebells glow.
  2. Turn your painting through 90 degrees and splatter a few areas with lamp black to break up the bluebell area and create separate plants. Allow to dry.

It’s now time to lift off the masking fluid by gently rubbing across the whole painting. Bockingford handles this well, but some of the more expensive papers are not conducive to masking fluid. This reveals the yellow spring leaves and wild garlic flower heads, which will need re-shaping with a No. 1 brush into more realistic shapes.


You can now start adding trees. Use a No. 3 brush to thread the tree trunks through the spring leaves by carefully painting around them. I like to balance the composition by including a broad trunk one side of the painting mirrored by a much narrower one on the other. Bring your trees down into the lower third at varying positions and ‘plant’ them among the bluebells; adding a few stalks and suckers around their base areas will help to anchor them down. Try to paint the trees from nature or from photographs rather than memory: nature is not easy to invent.


  1. Add slimmer trees receding into the distance, remembering to thread them behind the banks of leaves, which will then project themselves forward. Add as many branches as your painting will allow.
  2. Finally, the finishing touch, paint the trees’ shadows in ultramarine and violet across the bluebells with a No.1 brush. These should be applied in perspective, with those at the centre appearing vertical, those on the left slanting to the left, and those on the right to the right.

The finished painting Bluebell Woods, watercolour, (29x20cm)


Ian Pethers

Find out more about Ian and his work, both miniature and botanical, by visiting or telephone 01822 834289.

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