Sunday, February 5, 2012


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published.)

Summer Hollyhocks, 24" x 18"

The lively textures and patterns, alluring colors and peaceful atmosphere of gardens have inspired many artists to paint them. People visit a garden to relax in a shady corner or stroll past cheerful, sunlit flowers on a summer day. Spending time there is delightful. Capturing its essence in a painting is appealing. What makes a successful painting of a garden? The answer to this is a varied as the innumerable artists who have painted countless gardens, yet certain generalizations can be applied.

One of the pleasures of painting a garden is the necessity to spend time observing it, studying the ways various plants overlap and contrast, the diverse textures created by foliage and flowers, trees, bushes and grasses. Spend some time examining the details of the garden. Notice the way the garden wall or fence delineates the space; look for the perspective created by the pathway curving away; scrutinize the colors that recede from bright to pale. If you take the time to do a number of sketches or color studies it will help to fix the garden in your mind, allowing you to begin to sort through the complexity to find what underlies it all. You may feel overwhelmed if you try to draw or paint everything you see in a garden, which can look like a confusing riot of tiny shapes.

As you plan your garden painting, notice first the direction of the sun and the resulting shadows. Locate a focal area, perhaps a place where certain blossoms glow in the sunlight, or a pathway that leads the eye to light flowers against a dark background. Contrasts of dark and light or heightened colors help to frame the subject of your painting. If the scope of the entire garden overwhelms you, search out a section to concentrate on so that you’re viewing only one small segment. Limit what you study to begin with so that you aren’t defeated by the feeling that there’s simply too much to paint. Face the garden wall or the nearby hedge with a flowerbed in front instead of looking out into the seemingly impossible density of the rest of the garden.


Whether concentrating on this one little part or painting the extent of the whole area, look for the depth of space, locating the boundaries of the garden and the large overlapping shapes. First make a sketch, identifying these big shapes. Then define the values and add the textures and details you plan to use. This will help you understand where each object is located before putting down any colors. It may help to study each element, doing a drawing of a part—perhaps the values and textures of the bed of flowers or the rocks and resulting shadows they cast on the walkway. Study each element, distilling the shapes to their essence. One way to help refine complex details down to more manageable shapes is to squint until your eyes are almost closed and look for the patterns of dark and light only, then record them on your paper as larger areas of value.
Flagstone Garden, 18" x 24"
Another helpful way to simplify things is to search out negative shapes. Most of the time when we consider negative shapes we think of drawing the sky to define the shape of the tree, but you might also record the dark shapes of the plants behind to define the light shapes of those in front, or the light mass of the flowers in sunlight to define the medium mass of other plantings. In this way you can begin to distinguish the simple light and dark relationships. Then you can work from the large shapes to smaller ones, finally adding details, defining values and colors as you go. If you begin with nothing but details it’s easy to become confounded and miss the underlying organization of the garden.


Consider the dirt—a good foundation for a garden as well as a garden painting. Just as it’s necessary to have good soil to plant, so you need to record the color of the dirt that lies beneath the plants and trees. In some cases, toning your paper a color that mimics the soil can be a good beginning, although this color should not become overly formulized. It may be beige but perhaps it could be lavender, ochre, or rusty orange. Whatever value or color you choose to tone your paper, be sure to consider adding a suggestion of dirt to any area that’s not completely obscured by plants, such as the areas between flagstones or around the edges of flowerbeds.

Whether you’re painting a civilized, formal garden or a more natural looking country patch, it’s necessary to understand the terrain on which it lies. Most gardens are planted on flat ground—but not always. Look for slopes or small mounds, raised planters or beds that elevate the level of plantings. Determine where pathways cut through foliage, whether they are paved with flagstones or are simply a dirt track, in order to indicate how the garden is laid out. Grasses and bushes may make a backdrop to a particularly showy plant or flower. A skillful gardener will plan contrasting colors, textures and sizes of plants to feature their special qualities. Don’t ‘fake it’ when it comes to the underlying layout. You must understand even what cannot be seen in the finished painting in order to be able to adequately explain it, such as where the path turns away or the ground slants. You may use cross-contour lines in your underdrawing to help indicate the different directions of the planes of the ground, plants, walls and sky, if they can be seen, so that as you begin to paint you have no difficulty understanding and explaining these to your viewer. Additionally, seek out and strengthen directional elements, such as the upward movement of tall flowers, the horizontal course produced by vegetation creeping along the ground or a wall, or the downward sweep of overhanging branches, as well as the differing levels created by various kinds of plants. Carefully shift your viewer’s eye using these to create pleasing movement in your painting.

In the sometimes-intimate spaces of a garden, value patterns can be a bit different from those of the typical landscape painting. Where you can construe a landscape as generally containing light values in the sky, medium-light values along the ground and dark values in the trees, the garden often resists such simple classification. Close quarters make for deeper shade, while the complex relationships of intersecting plants, trees and other elements defy formulizing. This requires you to seek out the underlying value structure that characterizes the garden you’re painting, recording the dark, medium and light values you see there.


Flowers are undoubtedly the stars of a garden painting. There’s nothing more striking than the blaze of colorful beds of blossoming flowers. All the colors of the rainbow can be discovered there, cheerfully nodding their heads in the sunlight or softly decorating a shady corner. Focus on one dominant color to unify your painting rather than trying to include every color you see, which can sometimes result in a painting that is disjointed. Use flowers with complementary colors such as purple and yellow pansies to make a jazzy, bright painting, or choose analogous colors such as soft blue, violet and pink flowers to achieve a quieter serenity.

Bright Garden, 14" x 11"
To paint different blooms, identify the characteristic shape of an individual flower. Study the flounced edges and flop-eared sides of irises. Look at the rounded depths of roses. Notice the spiky cups of daylilies. Every flower can be characterized by series of shapes, which can then be designed into typical strokes, whether flounced, rounded or spiked. The idea is to paint masses of flowers broadly, making a recognizable flower using a carefully shaped stroke. Pay attention to the growth habits of different species, whether they are open and loosely arranged like hollyhocks, or densely packed together in a mass like daisies. Use these strokes, in the proper shape and scale, to create the effect of flowers rather than trying to paint each petal, stalk and leaf.

Color creates energy and depth in a painting. Dashes of brilliantly intense colors should be reserved for the blossoms in the main focal area. Cool, duller shades in the receding portions create a sense of distance, however shallow the space may be. This does not mean that you can’t include flowers peripheral to the focal point, but any further blooms must play a supporting role to direct the eye back to the stars of the show. Keep these co-stars less intense to indicate their relative distance, as well. Soften edges and diminish contrasts of secondary flowerbeds.

Edges, shapes and values are all important elements, but color is essential to the garden. One key to featuring the exciting colors of flowers is the steady influence of green. Green is a color that people sometimes find challenging to use. While it’s

necessary to have a good range of green pastels on hand, from dark to light values, it’s also helpful to have a variety of blue-greens and yellow-greens in your palette. Various pastel manufacturers offer a large selection of greens to choose from but the wise pastelist will think of ways she can layer an exciting assortment of warm and cool colors over, under or amid green to give a lively or subdued effect.


As in painting the foliage of a tree, plants are best painted with a spare hand. Rather than trying to laboriously render every blossom, bud, tendril, shoot and leaf, which can quickly become visually boring, find different strokes that will effectively suggest these details in areas peripheral to the focal point. Use this suggestive stroke where a dark mass of foliage meets a lighter one, or where there’s a dramatic color change. These areas of interest indicate the amount and types of leaves. Use a quick squiggle, a slanting repetitive stroke, or repeated dots and dashes to represent different kinds of foliage. Vary textures to mimic different kinds of leaves, from the long, strapping stroke of the iris leaf, to the rounded dinner plate shaped hollyhock leaf, to the repeated, quick slashes of grasses or stems. Keep in mind that if you detail the painting to the same degree all over the page, visually there will be no detail at all. Only where there’s a deviation in size, boldness or tone is the eye stopped. Detail should reside at or near the area of greatest interest in your painting, drawing the eye to the stars of the show. Here is where you can place dramatic darks and lights, bright colors, interesting highlights or strong individual touches.

Spend time in the garden studying the shapes, contours and values of your upcoming painting, then carefully plan and delineate the space in order to take control of a very complex subject. Develop different strokes that will simply and capably describe foliage and flowers, and then add dramatic contrasts, exciting colors and interesting details to those elements that are the stars of the show. Enjoy the time you spend learning how to paint gardens.

Garden Trio, 18" x 12"