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Art Masterclass - 130

Botanical Painting for Beginners – how to paint an iris in watercolour with Jarnie Godwin

August 2017

Demonstration – Iris

A light, accurate drawing is essential for a successful botanical painting. To scale up a subject use a set of proportional dividers to measure and position each of the main elements of the subject. Add some of the features, such as deep fold and creases to map some of the finer details, but leave the very fine detail to be applied in the later stages. With the drawing complete, stretch the paper onto a board.

You will need:


  • Saunders Waterford Hot-Pressed 300gsm watercolour paper 22x193⁄4in. (56x50cm)


  • Rosemary & Co Series 22 sable watercolour brushes Nos. 2 and 1


  • M. Graham dioxazine purple PV37
  • Daniel Smith quinacridone magenta, quinacridone rose, quinacridone purple and Hansa yellow deep
  • Winsor & Newton indanthrene blue, lemon yellow, perylene maroon and French ultramarine (stem and spathe).
  • Sennelier yellow light
  • Schmincke transparent yellow (optional)


Stage One

establish palest lilac tones

  1. To begin the painting, work to establish the palest lilac tones seen on the subject. These are found on the upper standards. Mix a warm, pale lilac shade with dioxazine purple and indanthrene blue with a touch of quinacridone rose, adding plenty of water to keep the wash fluid.

  2. With a clean water glaze applied to one of the upper petals, drop in the colour and manipulate with the brush to form soft pools of colour. While the glaze is still wet, continue to drop in more colour to deepen the tones in places where folds and shadows form, and lift any excess with a clean damp brush to maintain the highlights. Work parts of the upper petals of the iris in manageable sections, allowing each to dry. The larger front petal can be worked in two halves.

  3. On the palette, mix a soft grey by using a little of the lilac mix, adding further touches of the blue with lemon yellow and perylene maroon. Use the grey shade wet in wet around the edges of the lower falls of the iris. The main colour of these will be deep purple, but at the edges the petals are much paler, and the grey picks this out at an early stage.

  4. To establish the flower on the paper, lay a foundation wash to the stem and spathe of the iris. The stem has a bluer tone to the brighter, more yellow-green base of the flower so here use dioxazine purple to a green mix of indanthrene blue and lemon yellow with perylene maroon. The brighter green is mixed with Sennelier yellow light and indanthrene blue with a touch of perylene maroon.


Stage Two

use more concentrated colour to build tone

  1. Noting where the deeper shadows are on the subject, use the more concentrated mixes of the colours to build the tone a little more. Work smaller areas of the study with wet-in-wet glazes, concentrating the tone where the folds and creases are seen. Using more indanthrene blue in the purple creates the deep blue tones of the shadows, introducing a pleasing temperature change against the warmer purples and violets.

  2. Wet-into-wet washes across the folding petals produce natural looking tones and highlights. Lifting colour from the surface with a clean damp brush maintains the ripples and soft, fuzzy appearance. Using a drier mix and a just damp brush, begin to introduce some of the sharper details in the folds and creases. Softening the lines with a clean, damp brush prevents them looking too harsh.

  3. Masking the fluffy beards and stripes at this stage with masking fluid protects them from becoming too dark and muddy.


Stage Three

lay wet-in-wet washes to build tone and contrast

  1. Layering several wet-in-wet washes in sections across the petals builds the tone and contrast gradually, and gives more control to the paint. These must be completely dry before further layers are applied. Where deeper creases are seen, and crossing petals form deeper shadows, use the deeper mixes of purple and blue again, this time wet on dry, to define these areas a bit more. Again, softening with a clean, damp brush.

  2. Where the light source hits the petals use a touch of quinacridone rose into the softer grey and violet shades, and glaze over these areas with a watery wash to form a warm highlight.

  3. The upright yellow anther forms a focal point to the centre of the study, and here an initial glaze of lemon yellow creates a point of light on them. Once dry use a richer, milky wash of Sennelier yellow light and Hansa yellow deep with a touch of perylene maroon to deepen the shadow side, and pick out the details. A final overglaze of a soft violet-grey over the dry layers mutes the bright yellow and recedes the anther under the crest. Mix warm violet with the grey on the palette to make a cohesive colour.


Stage Four

create highlights by lighting wet paint with a clean, damp brush

  1. With the upper standards near completion, begin work on the much deeper falls of the iris. The underside of this one is in shadow but there are still points of light where the surface pattern comes through so create highlights by lifting wet paint with a clean, damp brush.

  2. As before, several wet-into-wet washes are layered to give a dense, complex finish. For the deepest purple mixes, a concentrated pool of quinacridone purple, indanthrene blue and quinacridone magenta forms the base colour for all the falls. Adding lemon yellow to the mix gives a deep, almost black tone that can be used more sparingly into the darkest shadows, while more quinacridone magenta or quinacridone purple gives a brighter hue, perfect for near the edges where the purple meets the grey.


Stage Five

remove masking fuild to reveal tiger stripe pattern

blend and shape the stripes

  1. As each blade is quite large, and the wet-in-wet technique needs time to dry, different areas can be worked on at the same time. Where the depth of colour is near completion, the masking fluid can be removed to reveal the tiger stripe pattern that is a characteristic of the iris. These are bright white and need to be softened and blended against the purples with a soft grey. This shades the stripes and gives shape to the petal. Where the fall bends, more grey along the edge will accentuate the bending form. Deepening the colour here accentuates the bend even further.

  2. By layering light glazes of slightly different tones of violet and purple over each other they remain visible, and by altering the temperature of a mix with more blue, or the warmer quinacridone purple or perylene maroon, these will provide a more interesting and complex finish. With layering, it’s important to allow each layer to dry thoroughly before applying the next, especially when working wet into wet.

  3. The larger front blade can now receive more of the finer details. Using the near black mix, veining can be applied wet on dry between the stripes towards the outer edge. Tapering the ends of the veins as they reach into the grey using the tip of the finer brush softens them to a faint, spidery appearance.

  4. Apply further washes of the greens and browns to the spathe and stem, noting the shadow side by making this darker, and keeping plenty of highlights for shape and form.

Stage Six

use ticking brushstrokes to finish the beards

deepen the tone and pick out forms of folds and shadows

  1. Small details, such as the beards, can be finished with a fine brush and the same yellow mixes as before. To achieve a dense look, use a rich foundation of lemon yellow mixed with a little Sennelier yellow light, followed by a layer of Sennelier yellow light mixed with Hansa yellow deep. The idea is not to cover all the yellow. Use short ‘ticking’ brushstrokes with each colour and the tip of the brush to achieve variations in length and depth of colour, leaving lots of the previous layers visible. Finally, use a concentrated mix of Hansa yellow deep and Sennelier yellow light with a touch of perylene maroon for the deepest shadows and darkest stamens.

  2. The underside of the fall on the right is quite grey and pale, but there is still some deep shadow and lots of detail. Use the grey mix again wet on dry to deepen the tone and pick out the forms of folds and shadows. Soft, blurry suggestions of stripes and small markings are also added by using perylene maroon mixed into the grey, applied carefully into a light damp glaze to allow the paint to spread just a little then by softening the colour with a clean, damp brush to finish.


Stage Seven

Iris, watercolour on Hot-pressed paper, (56x50cm)
Iris, watercolour on Hot-pressed paper, (56x50cm)


  1. Check carefully over the painting to apply any further fine veins. Use some of the grey to pull the veins into the very edges of the falls and standards to complete them, and shade along the edges on the shadow sides to mute and recede any too bright points.

  2. Use the near black purples to break up some of the paler stripes if they appear too bulky.

  3. Blend a watery wash of quinacridone magenta and quinacridone purple and paint along and into some of the edge of the deep purple where the light hits the subject to brighten, and smooth the transition into the grey. Do this just in places to maintain a varied and interesting finish.

  4. Finish the stem and spathe, completing the features with darkest greens into the shadows to emphasise the shape and form. Finish the spathe with a light overglaze of transparent yellow.


Jarnie Godwin

For details of Jarnie and her work email: or visit for details of Botanical so Beautiful, her monthly online video tutorials.



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