Botanical Illustration: Tips on mixing greens - March 11th 2013

Story posted: Saturday, 9. March 2013 by Lizzie Harper

This week I’ve been painting ivy leaves, as have many members of the Botanical Art for Beginners group.  Comparing the dark greens needed to depict an ivy leaf with those required for something like a yellow butterwort leaf got me thinking that a crash course in mixing greens could be handy.

First, I think it needs to be said that everyone likes to mix colours in their own way, and become used to certain mixtures and certain paints.  Two big watercolour paint manufacturers  are Windsor and Newton and  Daler Rowney.   I tend to source my paints from them but know there are other good companies out there.  I also use Doctor Martin Inks, mainly when it comes to light final washes;  grass green and chartreuse are great for these if watered down enough.

The golden rule of mixing greens is to try to avoid using the colour direct from the tube or pan, these greens rarely match that of the leaf you’re painting, and can make an illustration look artificial.  I often start with a colour like sap green or oxide of chromium,  then alter it by mixing in yellows, blues, or browns.

Dark Greens

The difficulty with painting a dark green leaf is that you need to get real depth to the darks without losing the lighter areas.  I do this by starting off by plotting the leaf in pale graphite, not only the shape and venation, but also the areas which are darkest.  I paint these first, in a bold dark colour such as Prussian blue mixed with a little yellow ochre and a touch of a warmer colour (cadmium orange, burnt sienna, or Vandyke brown).  Then I work out from the darks in lighter versions of the same colour (leaving the veins unpainted).  On top of the whole, once dry, I put a pale wash.  This will often be far yellower than the underlying colours and covers the veins too. Blend it very gently to the highlights which you should try to leave unpainted.  This unites the leaf.  The final touch is to work further into the darks and shadows; I favour a mix of Prussian blue and burnt umber, or of cobalt blue and purple.

Botanical illustration of ivy leaf by Lizzie Harper

Botanical illustration of holly leaf by Lizzie Harper

Lily by Walter Hood Fitch (RHS Lindley library)

These lily leaves were painted by Walter Hood Fitch, the holly and ivy are my own.


Pale Greens

Lots of leaves are very pale in colour, just consider the broad leaves of a tulip.

Tulip by Sievert RHS Lindley Library

The temptation is to water down a more vibrant green, but this may leave the painting looking washed out.  I find a touch of white gouache to be incredibly useful, and pale blues such as cerulean.  The very pale underside of this wooly willow are cerulean, sap green, and a lot of white.

Botanical illustration of wooly willow by Lizzie Harper

If the leaf is pale but yellowish, it’s easier to get the correct colour without adding white.  This helleborine leaf is cadmium yellow, a touch of sap green, and a lot of water.

Botanical illustration of white helleborine by Lizzie Harper

Blue or darker green washes help to give depth and shade without swamping the subject.


Blue Greens

Some leaves are very blue, and they can be a deep dark blue or a pale light blue.  Different colours are required for each.  A dark blue-ish leaf, such as on this rose

Botanical illustration of

can be mixed from raw umber, sap green, a good wallop of ultramarine, and a touch of cadmium yellow or yellow ochre to lift it if needs be.  Make sure to let the white of the paper shine through, it helps show the blues.  Again, work into lights and darks as with the dark leaves (see above).

Paler blue leaves can be found on plants like this Rose by Parsons.

Rosa alba by Parsons, RHS Lindley library

These require a bit of white, which can make them a bit chalky if over-done.  The leaves of this gentian

Botanical illustration of gentian by Lizzie Harper

are cobalt blue, yellow ochre, a touch of brown, and some white gouache.  Putting the shadows cast by the veins in after, with cobalt blue, helps show the paleness of the leaf.  Shadows are a mix of ultramarine and purple, very watery.


Yellow Greens

These strident bright coloured leaves can be a joy to paint, but seem so unnaturally bright that it takes a little courage to mix what colours you see.  The underside of the vanilla leaves in this watercolour by Aubriet are very yellow,

Vanilla by Aubriet, RHS Lindley Library

and I think perhaps he’s relied on yellow ochre in his mixing.

This pondweed done for Harper Collins Flower Guide is the same mix, but with a touch of burnt sienna and yellow ochre to give it the slightly duller, browner hue.


Botanical illustration of P praelongus pondweed by Lizzie Harper

The main trick to mixing good greens is to look really carefully at your plant.  I’ve been known to test if greens are right by painting direct onto a specimen’s leaf.  I’ve also been reduced to tears by the way greens change colour as they dry.  Keep trying new mixes, take courage, experiment, and don’t worry.  Even if a painting doesn’t end up perfect you will have learnt a great deal from the mistakes you made while creating it.  The supplementary images for this blog are all to be found at the RHS Lindley Library in London; well worth a visit to view the originals.  Many thanks to Botanical Art for Beginners for suggesting this as a topic.



Category:  Illustration techniques   |   Comments:  0   |   Viewed:  5759

Go back to the list of news stories

Comments are off for this news article.