Sunday, June 26, 2011

How To Paint Bougainvilleas, Part 1

Bougainvilleas are a favorite subject of mine.  I'm attracted to the color possibilities and the detailing one can go crazy with.  I would admit that part of the reason I started painting it was because of the challenge.  It looked so intimidating to paint that I felt compelled to unravel the mystery.

Whenever I find myself facing an insurmountable task or project, my first course of action is to chop things up into manageable pieces.  If something looks complicated, I try to simplify.  It also has to do with a learning limitation I have.  I have difficulty with memorization.  But I'm good with concepts and once I get the rationale behind something, my recall is good.  That's part of the reason why I take so long to do things the first time.  For plants and flowers, I go nerdy and do surgery.  I like to see how things work or how things are put together.  Seems excessive just to draw a flower.  Time consuming, yes. But I think of it as time well spent because it helps make successive paintings using the same subject easier.  If you've heard of the story of how an old master taught his students to paint by making them traverse five flights of stairs between their easels and their subject matter, then you might realize it is not really about memorizing the details but getting the concepts that should help them recreate something.  If you do the stair challenge yourself, you'll find that any detail you've tried committing to memory will have evaporated by the time you reach second floor.  Trying to catch your breath and keeping an image is a hard feat.  The objective is not to develop a photographic memory but to exercise the ability to synthesize the essence of something.  So for the bougainvillea lessons, I'll be familiarizing you with how the flower is put together in nature and at the same time will be posting the step by step of the painting process.  Hopefully, I succeed in imparting the essence of it. Mine is just one way to tackle the bougainvillea, I hope it helps make it easier and fun for you too.

Here is the drawing outline for this bougainvillea demo.

This is the basic unit of a bougainvillea cluster.  You have three modified leaves (often mistaken as bougainvillea petals because they are colored brightly like a flower's) that have mini flowers on elongated thingies.  One mini flower per colored leaf.  When formed well, the flowers' bases are erect and plumped up with a slightly cinched middle and hard ridged edges.  The ones that look like spent matchsticks are flower bases that have sustained damage and twisted as they developed.  The three leaves are joined at the base by their attachment to a single stem.  That will be shown on the next demo.

My first objective is to define the areas using very light washes of local color.  I do this because I intend to erase the pencil guides as soon as I can.  I do not like pencil marks on my watercolors (not because I'm mean and like making my viewers guess how it was put together (grin!)) but because I find my colors are brighter and clearer when they are free of graphite residue.  Remember to use a soft white eraser to minimize damage to the paper's surface.

If you're interested in the colors I used for this demo, they are rose madder genuine, permanent sap green, winsor lemon, cerulean blue, permanent rose and permanent alizarin crimson.  (Winsor and Newton).  You may use other color substitutes.  I only picked them because I happen to have small leftovers of the colors from past paintings.  For serious paintings, I always use a clean palette and fresh colors but I save leftovers from finished paintings for practicing with.

The ridges of the leaves are yellow in color but because yellow and pencil marks are a no-no, I left the areas where I picture the ridges to be blank.  Any yellow over pencil marks would make the pencil mark almost impossible to erase.  A phenomena observed by most artist.  So as a rule, using yellow for mapping is to be avoided if you intend to erase your guides later on.

I applied the rose madder genuine to the pink areas using mostly the tip of a no.6 round brush.  As if I'm dabbing spots on and leaving spaces in between.  The pink defines the areas but because they were applied unevenly and spottily, it will help with the illusion of convex textures on the modified leaves' surfaces.

When you apply the second wash over the entire leaf's surface, this will soften any hard edges you may have had in the first step with the spotty paint application. When this layer dries, because we used transparent watercolor, the texture underneath would show but would look more natural.  I also use this second wash to enhance the leaf's bending or foldings.  While the layer is in that state between wet and almost dry (when you tilt it, it still has that sheen or film of water), I drop in warm and cool versions of the local color to enhance the bending effect.  When it is almost drying, (state when you know your next paint application will have a limited spread but will still soften, I would add the yellow ridge lines.  That's because I imagined the central and radiating lines (the leaf's skeleton) to be yellow for this painting.  But if you want it to be another color, use your preferred color to define the leaf's framework.  In the picture, I used a liner brush.  You can see how I am able to add the line but at the same time it is soft enough in some places.  The lost and found lines make for a natural looking painting more than the severely defined lines you see most beginner's tend to make.

When you've finished putting the second layer on, your three leaves should more or less look like this.  Notice specially how on the leftmost leaf, the convex textures are almost forming itself.

After the previous layer has dried completely, I would now work on enhancing some of the shapes that emerged.  For the leftmost leaf, I applied just a slightly darker version of the pink to some of the edges on the "found" textures.  Check out specially the part nearest the flower.  It looked as if a lot of work went into creating the creases but that was just a few additions of defining paint.  Again, try not to use single hard lines but use the broken or "lost and found" line defining technique.  At this point, I've only used the colors rose madder genuine, winsor yellow and cerulean blue.  RMG for the local color.  The WY for the leaf framework (mixed in with a bit of RMG to warm it), CB dropped in on the wet RMG to simulate areas reflecting the sky.  Also a bit of the permanent sap green earlier for the flower stalks.  I started coloring thh right-most flower with a mixture of RMG and WY.

Now we start using Permanent Rose and Permanent Alizarin Crimson.  I start defining the flower stalks using PR mixed in with RMG.  I also used PR to add some defining lines to the leaf skeletons.  Again, use the broken line technique.  And if you're enhancing a previous broken line application, you enhance only 3/4 of that one's length.  The missing parts are supplied automatically by the viewers' brain as it tries to digest what it is seeing.  That's what we're stimulating by the way.  The human brain is a remarkable organ, it is always trying to be efficient.  We are able to process a lot of information because for some tasks, the brain has devised a way to process things faster.  For vision, it stores a lot of information.  We can take advantage of it in painting.  It creates solid lines out of broken lines.  Complete textures on areas.  Even mix colors - something the impressionists realized and took advantage of.   Etc.  Our aim is to stimulate the brain enough so that by the time you finished painting, the subliminal part of your viewer's brain is on hyper mode and it will be hypnotized into thinking this is a busy and stimulating painting... it is beautiful.  I like it.... I want to buy it.  Ok... ok... I haven't figured out how to compel your viewer into buying yet but someday, we'll get there.  (evil laugh!)  :D

As you near completion, you would notice, you're tweaking the painting less and less.  My last touches were made with permanent rose and alizarin crimson. Just minute enhancing on the leaf's skeleton and more definition for the flower stalks.

If this is a painting with a background, my next step would be on how to integrate the bougainvillea into the background.  We'll get to that in future demos.

I hope you enjoyed this one.  Thank you for looking.


  1. Karen, this is a very well-done and well-written posting.

  2. Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you very much. Very glad for your feedback. For a while I was worried I may have gone wrong deciding to go ahead with the longer version. But I was afraid if I opted for brevity, I might not be able to explain things as well. Now I know I made the correct judgement. Thank you.

  3. One of my favorite flowers too. Too cold in the winter here, can only grow as an annual. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful as always.

  4. Hi Pam. Hi Stan. Thank you both very much.

  5. I love your breakdown of how to create something. Excellent.

    I often paint bougainvillea, but as the whole clusters sweeping down walls. I've always been afraid to venture into the individual flowers. I think you may have inspired me!

  6. Hi Rob,
    Thank you very much.

    I love the bougainvilleas spilling over white painted walls specially. I can see why it can be a favorite subject for you too. These blooms add beauty to any garden and painting.