No Really, That's How I Do It

Painting Whites on White

By Elaine Searle

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 16, Issue 3


Are you daunted by the thought of painting a white flower or vegetable on a white ground? Rise to the challenge and have a go! You may find, as I did, that painting white flowers can be addicting. In fact it took a great workshop on color with Jean Emmons at the Arizona Conference in October 2008 to break my ‘white’ habit. Sadly I am now also hooked on painting vibrant dark there really is little hope for me! 

In essence, success with whites on white is all about building form gradually by observing and painting tonal values and shadows using a subject specific shadow palette, whose subtlety and variety gives realism to the finished art. The watchwords are definitely ‘subtle’ and ‘varied’. 

Last summer I was commissioned to paint Rosa ‘Madam Alfred Carriere’ a beautiful white Noisette climber whose flowers blush with pink and apricot. The examples in this article come from that painting. 

Getting started

Good light conditions help enormously when preparing to paint a white subject. I try to use only natural daylight for this, as I want to see the subtle colors that reflect into the white. I set up with strong directional light from the left. A small screen from scraps of mat board, hinged with masking tape placed around the right side helps to shield your subject from stray light and intensify the effect of the light source. If you need to use artificial light, go for a daylight bulb. 

Do not place the lamp too close to the subject as this will create too much contrast between highlights and shadows. I like the lighting to be fairly dramatic but also to create a good range of tones. I usually produce a quick tonal drawing to capture the effect of light sculpting the form – this is so useful when painting as the light can often change. 

I produce a master drawing onto tracing paper (often this is a composite of several drawings) which I transfer very lightly onto my watercolor paper. This drawing concentrates on accurate scale, habit and perspective rather than detail, as on white subjects I prefer to paint detail straight on to keep pencil marks to a minimum. 

How composition can help 

One trick I use often – which I call strategic composition – is placing a white flower against a leaf or stem when composing the image. This avoids all the white elements falling against the white of your paper and provides contrast that will help the white flower look truly white. So think this through when you plan your composition and look for opportunities for this. 

Another benefit of using contrast areas is where the petals are thin and delicate. You can create a convincing illusion by allowing small areas of the foliage or stem colour to show through. I usually do this in only one or two areas on a painting. 

Shadow mixes

It puzzles me that so many of the ‘how to’ books suggest a neutral grey for shadows. White subjects are full of subtle colors. Stamens, petal markings and foliage are often reflected into them, as are the colors of your clothing and even the furnishings of your studio. Unless you have north light, the time of day and weather conditions will also affect your perception of white. Sunlight will add a golden reflection that would not be apparent on a dull day. Experiment with a range of ‘shadow’ mixes to handle these reflections.

I work with a small china palette known as a tinting saucer, with four deep wells. Before I start to paint I look closely at the subtle colors in the shadow areas and mix a shadow palette specific to the plant or vegetable. 

I start by filling each of the four wells with clean water (I use distilled water to avoid impurities) and then slowly introduce minute amounts of pigment with the tip of a brush. Most often I restrict my pigment to three or four hues which I mix together to get subtle tints. I aim for the strength of green tea, so they are really tinted washes rather than pigment mixes. 

Always test out your mixes first! The shadow palette looks far stronger in the palette than on paper. Always go paler rather than stronger. You can always add another layer. For the rose Mme Alfred Carriere I used various mixes based on a limited palette of aureolin, permanent rose and French ultramarine. 

If I have any areas of foliage or stem which fall behind a white flower I would paint these in first so that I can then judge the relative strength of shadow in the darkest area of the flower. 

Sculpting form 

When I am satisfied that my shadow palette is accurate and subtle enough I begin to lay down layers of wash which are intended to replicate the effect of light on form. I like to move around the painting rather than finishing up one element at a time, I erase pencil as I go. In a large complex painting I will usually choose to work three areas up together – one in the foreground, one in the top left and one in the bottom left. This ensures that I do not go too dark too soon as I can judge the relative strength of the shadow in these three key areas and use them to guide the areas in between as I build the painting. 

As shadows often grade out into unpainted paper (our equivalent of local color) avoid hard joins by feathering out the edge of the wash with a clean damp brush. 

When I think I am finished on this stage I find it helpful to leave the painting for a few days (preferably out of sight) so that I can come back to it with a fresh eye. I often spot that there is more I can do to add impact with another layer or two in the most shadowed areas. 

Exploit every petal curl and crinkle 

Devoid of showy color, the challenge of white subjects to the botanical artist can lie in capturing the unique character of the specimen through botanical detail and surface texture contrasts. Look carefully again at the detail in your specimen. Are the petal margins frilled or smooth? What texture are the petals – satin or matte? Pay particular attention to flowers, stems or leaves which appear in the foreground of your composition. This is where we can exploit every petal curl, frilled margin and even petal transparency to add interest and impact. 

At this stage of the painting I change both brush size and paint technique. Until now I have been working with a medium Kolinsky sable brush with a good point. For the detail I drop down to a tiny brush 000 or 00000 so that I can get into every tiny area of overlap and crinkle. I work with the same colour palette but mixed just a bit stronger and spread them out as ‘skins’ in the bottom of my china palette wells. This allows me to pick up minute amounts of pigment with the tip of a damp brush. Using a dry brush technique of small adjacent strokes I build detail in a very controlled way. It feels much more like using a pencil than a brush as the color is stroked gently onto the surface of the paper. The final result pulls form, detail and color together to good effect.  

White on White Guidelines

W       Work your composition strategically 

Leaves and stems strategically placed behind white flowers can enhance their perceived whiteness.

H       Highlights matter

Remember to leave the ‘light’ – what you leave out is as important as what is painted in.

I         Is white really white?

Analyze your specimen carefully for the type of white – is it cold, warm, green, creamy?

T       Take care!

Keep graphite drawings light, build up color gradually and change painting water often.

E        Exploit the detail

Every petal curl and crinkle you show can help describe form and add interest.

S        Shadows vary

Vary the intensity of your shadows according to their spatial relationship (less intense in the background) and make use of subtle color tints as shadows are rarely just gray. 

  • Stage 1. A shadow palette with 4 hues in dilute tints
  • Stage 2 and 3. Filling in the softest of tones in petals with tender washes, and creating areas which touch the edges of the white flower.
  • Stage 4. Creating form with careful attention to edges where tonal values fade out.
  • Stage 5. Creating detail in depth
  • Rosa ‘Madam Alfred Carriere’. Watercolor on paper, © Elaine Searle 2009