Flower painting makes the perfect meditative activity, forcing us to slow down, connect with nature and appreciate the changing seasons. Monika Radojevic shows us how she went about creating soft watercolour hues with petals from the garden.
Making and crafting in a time of uncertainty or crisis is an inherently human trait; a useful coping mechanism when things feel out of control. And there’s something special about flower painting the way it draws you away from the screen and back into nature – albeit from the safety of your home.
One of the reasons making watercolour out of natural flower dye is so perfect for our current situation is in the methodical process of extracting colour and then applying it to paper. Although it is not a difficult exercise, it requires time, attention to detail and patience, for which the normal rush of life rarely leaves room.
In the time it took me to gather all my flowers and create with them, I paid more attention to the incredible diversity of plants than usual – the shapes of the petals, the blend of colours, the symmetry of each stem. Then I put on a podcast and spent a happy Sunday afternoon painting an iris flower with my new watercolours – very meta!
You will need:
Flowers with strong or bright petals
Small bowls (one for each colour) that you don’t use in the kitchen
Bicarbonate of soda / baking soda
Chopsticks / wooden sticks for stirring
Paper – ideally watercolour (see below for more information)
Before you begin, here are a couple of pointers to help:
- Don’t expect the colour to be as strong as professionally made paint. Types of flowers ‘bleed’ differently. Coreopsis or dahlia petals bleed well – but any flower type will do. The key is strong colours.
- The colour doesn’t always correspond to the flower. I collected some white petals that I was almost certain would yield some transparent water, but as the swatch will show, it actually came out a fantastic brown/yellow. Similarly, a gorgeous yellow I was excited about came out poorly – I used it as a highlight instead.
- Use watercolour paper if you can – this will absorb the water more effectively so the colour will come out stronger and allow you to layer on colours and shades without causing the paper to disintegrate. I have included a colour swatch done on regular paper to really highlight this difference.
- There are no preservatives used here so the colours will eventually fade, especially if left in sunlight. It’s the perfect technique to make greetings cards or other small, seasonal projects.
Step One: Gathering your flowers
You will only need one or two heads of each colour you want to paint with – don’t take too many. Aim for flowers with big petals to minimise how many you will need to use. I found all of mine in my local park but even better if you have a bouquet at home to make good use of. Also, as I discovered, you don’t need more than one type of each colour. I gathered three different shades of purple hoping for various tones, but they all gave me such similar colours it was impossible to tell the difference once on paper. Creating tone will come later with the lemon and bicarbonate of soda.
Once you have your flowers it’s best to use them whilst fresh. Carefully pick the petals off each stem and separate into bowls. Using boiling water, pour a small amount into each bowl – just enough to cover the petals. You want a maximum of half a centimetre of water in your bowl, or the colour will be too diluted to show up on the paper.
The colour should start to bleed straight away, but if they don’t, take your chopsticks or wooden equivalent and use the thicker ends to squeeze and crush the petals. Feel free to use your hands if it’s easier – I have the world’s most sensitive skin and so will be relying on my chopsticks! Once the flowers are pulpy, set aside and leave to bleed for half an hour or so. Leave the petals in the bowls the entire time you are painting as they will continue to release colour.
Step Two: Alter the shades
Use lemon to lighten your colours and bicarbonate of soda to darken them. The acidity of the lemon will alter the pH of the colour and take it to almost neon levels, whilst the bicarbonate of soda will make the dye more alkaline and deepen the colour.
How you proceed is up to you. I was wary of adding lemon or soda directly to my dye, so I instead opted to make a watery paste of bicarbonate, and squeeze the lemon into separate bowls and layered them over the top to bring out shades as I painted. If you opt for this method, a colour swatch like the one I’ve made is a helpful reminder of the effects of the acid or alkaline.
Step Three: Start painting
It may take a few layers of colour before anything shows, so you will need to be patient – and don’t worry if the colours seem weak at first. This is why watercolour paper is so handy, as you will be able to apply colour to an area several times without any damage.
Unlike traditional watercolours, these colours won’t blend quite the same way, so make sure each layer is dry before you add new colours. The rest is up to you! As I mentioned, I painted a flower and found that purple and blue tones dried into rich greens, and the red and orange tones dried into soft pinks and purples.
I found the unforeseeable outcome of the colours somewhat freeing – after a few attempts, I realised there was no way to match the deep purple and yellow hues of the iris I was recreating – so I threw my plan out the window and focused on experimenting with colour instead.
The point is that the earth has given us an abundance of material to work with. You can paint with coffee, flowers and even spices, and the unpredictability of the tones encourages perfectionists (like myself) to relax and see where the natural pigments take me.
Try out your own combination of colours to create something beautiful and seasonal – and awe your friends when you tell them the paint was all flower based!