Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Japanese Stewartia

Stewartia pseudocamellia
Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden, Federal Way, Washington

I was visiting the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Washington State, and of all the very lovely trees in the garden, it was the Japanese stewartia that caught my attention the most. I came back to it after a first pass of the garden and proceeded to take notes and draw some sketches on site. I took many photos as well, intending to do a much more involved painting upon my return to my studio in California. The way the light came through the large white petals drew me in, and also the soft reflection of colors upon those pale curves at the heart of the flowers.


Not being able to see a plant when I begin painting is always hard, but often I find myself in situations where I don't have access to a live specimen for the duration of a painting. I've learned what kinds of photos I need to take in order to have all the references to paint a subject that I have only seen in person once. Taking notes when I am on site, and using that opportunity to determine color mixtures is also very important because a photo often does not reflect the colors accurately.


 In my painting, a branch of the Japanese stewartia descends into the page with a spray of leaves. The leaves are ribbed with a fine texture of veins. Two buds are on one offshoot, and two full blooms along the larger branch. The petals are white and reflect the colors around them, from the green of the leaves, to the golden centers of the flowers. There are a variety of textures throughout, from the very regular rhythm of webwork veins that run along the leaves, to the much softer ruffles of the white petals. The golden anthers provide further contrast, as well as reflected color along the surrounding white. I painted the piece in watercolor, and a large portion of it was done with drybrush technique.       


Creating the leaf texture was a challenge, as I wanted to capture the shiny and vibrant upper surface, contrasting with the more dull and fuzzy underside. There were also the many veins with their creases and crevices. I wanted to have that detail but not overwhelm the viewer. To paint them, I started with a light wash of color for the overall tone. My pencil lines were very light, and before painting each leaf, I went back and removed even more of the graphite so that there was only the faintest hint to guide me. I only sketched the main lines of the veins, and not the myriad smaller crinkles. After the initial wash was dried, I went back in with the darker tones and started to paint with dry brush technique the shadows and bumps and creases. I made sure to leave the veins themselves with the lighter base layer of wash colors showing through, as highlights, as well as the more reflective planes of the leaves. The fuzziness of the undersides was achieved again with dry brush, feathering the strokes lightly outwards.

Read more about this artist’s work: 20th Annual International
  • © 2016 Stephanie Law
    Japanese Stewartia
    Stewartia pseudocamellia
    Watercolor on paper
    19" x 14"