Botanical illustration tips on painting white flowers - February 18th 2013

Story posted: Friday, 15. February 2013 by Lizzie Harper

Watercolour illustration of Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). Also referred to as Flanders poppy.

I was painting a snowdrop the other day, and wrestling, as always, with the best way to paint white flower petals. There are as many different approaches to this troublesome aspect of botanical illustration as there are scientific illustrators; so I thought it’d be worth considering.

Sketchbook illustration of a snowdrop flower

A handy trick in the first instance, especially if the flower you’re painting is startling white, is to use the leaves as a background.  This can set the white off really dramatically, and means you can leave the white more or less untouched.  You do have to be a little careful not to make the composition look too awkward by twisting the leaves around, but it can be really useful. 

Botanical illustration example of white flowers agaisnt leaves

Another trick also involves using backgrounds, but in this case a background wash.  All the images below are from my sketchbook studies rather than from finished paintings.  I tend to favour a background mix of Windsor blue, a purple, and a touch of brown.  Apply it to the edge of the petals, then add water to bleed it outwards.  You can use whatever colour background wash you’d like for this approach, just be sure to keep it gentle and to fade it outwards.

Botanical illustration sketches showng white petals set off against background wash

Sometimes, though, you can’t evade the issue, and have to paint the white petals against a white background.  A very light pencil can give a clear, neutral enclosing line to give the petals their shape.  When using colour, the trick is to keep it light when you apply it.  Do trials first to see what colour most closely matches the white in the shadows of the petals.  It may be a greenish hue as with this oxeye daisy.

Botanical illustration of an oxeye daisy

Perhaps it’ll be an ochre, as on the stem and stamens of this autumn crocus.

Botanical illustration of autumn crocus

Some white petals help by being tinged with a colour, as with these daisies.

Botanical illustration of common daisy


It’s also interesting to see how other illustrators have tackled the same issues; look for background washes, use of foliage, pencil lines for petal edges, and very light use of pinks, greens and blues in the following paintings by Chris Hart Davies, Helga Powell and Jo Glover.


Chris hart davies country buttonhole

Country Buttonhole by Chris Hart Davies

Helga powell blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn blossom by Helga Powell

Jo glover wood anemone

Wood anemone by Jo Glover

Browse the gallery: Botanical Illustrations

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