Process Study: Watercolor Florals
Process Study: Watercolor Florals
December 18, 2015
Lindsay and Scott’s request for “romantic and classic” wedding invitations led me to watercolor florals. Here’s the journey I took to land on a style that was just right.
After finessing the typography, I noticed the slant of the script provided a natural, diagonal guide from right to left. Also, since we read from top to bottom, I thought a larger grouping on top would provide a strong focal point, and trailing florals toward the bottom would lead you through the invitation.
I played around with this arrangement in my sketches, and that same initial placement kept working the best. I crudely used the brush tool in Illustrator to rough out where actual flowers and stems might land. Somehow I thought this provided me enough of a guide to jump right into painting.
I started painting without using any additional reference aside from my crude sketch. It looks like it. Although, shout out to my friends who caught a glimpse of it and liked it! You’re nice.
Scanned & Placed
The result was okay, but after seeing it in the layout, the flowers looked piddly and somewhat generic – no match for the personality of Auberge Script.
So, I tried again! Bigger flowers and more overlap should liven it up. I sketched a bit with the brush in Illustrator, but then I hopped to painting pretty quickly again since I’m a decent freehander, and I imagined that having interesting pieces would help guide the layout.
Again, this time I didn’t use any reference. I’d seen plenty of flowers painted with watercolors, and I knew the general feel I was after. “Surely I can just paint a lot of pieces really quickly and some of them will work.“
Scanned & Placed
A lot of it did get more interesting once I moved it around, and I think it made something that will be great for other projects, but it didn’t quite seem to fit Lindsay and Scott. I thought I might as well ask, though, just to see what style they were responding to most.
Stopped playing, and got real
I don’t know why I skipped using a photo reference in the first place. I really thought I could just wing it, and study older illustration styles, but that attitude seemed to show in the work. I thought this needed a classic approach to look a little more serious, and not as stylized.
I had used dots and long, skinny leaves in the original painting, and since Lindsay had liked that version, I didn’t want to stray too far from it. I also thought there was a certain liveliness and whimsy that I didn’t want to lose.
I went to the store and found tulips and lilies, which both had similar traits to what I had painted before, but of course provided more natural, nuanced detail to study.
I took some photos from different angles, then took them to Lightroom to pick my favorite and export them. I thought the stamen and dotted petals in the lilies had a lot of character, so I decided to focus on them.
“Sketched” (created a guide from the photos)
Using pieces from the photos, I created a rough reference of how the flowers could fit into the layout, and really began to think I was headed in a good direction. This time, I printed out the edited photo reference (a little larger for ease and more detail), and used it with my light table to paint again.
With my true-to-life, unique reference, I felt more confident in what I was painting – for a little bit, anyway. I tried a few times, with slight variations between each try, but still thought I was getting amateurish results. The flowers just looked blobby.
Revisited the Reference
I finally solidified that I really needed the detail to shine, and it wasn’t able to in my previous attempts because I hadn’t printed my reference large enough to capture it. Such a rookie mistake! It had been awhile since I had used my own painting in a final piece, though, and I wasn’t sure how much detail I wanted. Now I knew I wanted more layers, more personality, and more realism, which is a lot harder to paint at a small size.
Looking through the photos again, and taking a few more shots of the still-live bouquet on my table, I picked my favorite angles and printed them MUCH larger. Before printing, I adjusted the levels so that I could see the detail more clearly when painting over it on the light table.
Painted (refined; again)
I painted that first lily as if someone was going to grade me on it later – every little dot and shadow, just so. I finally had a really nice piece to work with. How was that not an obvious first step? I was so busy trying to fit the layout, that I wasn’t taking enough care to create beautiful pieces to work with.
I also relearned how glorious it is to be able to use a clean wet brush as an eraser.
Scanned & Placed
Immediately before spending that amount of time and care in creating similar pieces, I had to see this one in place to make sure I was on the right track.
After scanning, I placed the flower as a linked smart object – so no destructive editing. Plus I knew later it’d come in handy when I’d have it in more than one file. I did this for every flower and leaf I scanned.
It wasn’t obvious to me at first whether it was working in the layout or not. Although I had wanted more delicate, interesting details, it seemed like I had too much. The stamen and dotted petals seemed more fussy than interesting. Even the amount of shadow seemed a bit much, and altogether with the typography, it seemed mismatched.
Digitally Refined the Painting
Since the smaller details seemed to be the problem, I decided to edit them out and see how just the washes of petals looked in place. Since I still wanted some smaller details, I took a few pieces at a time and placed them at a size I liked wherever they seemed needed.
Hooray! It was finally coming together. Finishing it up seemed clear. Instead of strictly adhering to my earlier photo reference I patched together, I knew I’d have far more success with creating pieces first, then arranging them later.
Since I had realized that painting the smaller details exactly at a larger scale wasn’t working for what I wanted, I just painted the petals of the different flowers, then separately painted the smaller details in a simplified way. These took time to do, so I only did two more before I scanned them in to see what I could do with them. I also painted more leaves at a larger scale.
Scanned & Placed
Finally, the end was near. I just had to create an arrangement I liked. I played with scale, and ended up with one that I liked quite a bit. Some of the flowers were created by just masking some of the paintings into different shapes.
However, the next morning I looked at it again, and thought it looked a little scattered. There seemed to be too many flowers at the same scale and it looked a bit messy and unfocused.
Since the first flower I had painted was a star on its own, I decided to make it the largest one to create a simplified, focal point that the other flowers could grow out from.
That did it! It felt like I had something special. I polished it up by adding depth through slight color variations.
They loved it! I did take somewhat of a risk in putting this much effort into an additional option, when they already loved the original, but I really thought it was worth it. Even if they ended up preferring the original, I knew there’d be someone else out there who would want this look.
Next time, I’ll:
1. Find solid references after doing rough sketches.
It’s pretty established that sketching is a great first start to quickly document your first instincts, but I got cocky and jumped into painting too quickly.
2. Not stress the exact arrangement of pieces before creating them.
It was a lot easier to see how things could come together once I had refined pieces to place in the layout.
3. Decide on a style before refining.
Maybe this is a pipe dream, since I like to try tons of things to see what sticks, and it’s hard for me to know what’s working if my draft is too unrefined. I do think it would help a lot, though, to be able to narrow my focus before laboring over refinement more than I need to.
4. Paint all detail separately the first time.
It was hard to know the exact scale at which I’d place my graphics into the layout, so having small details on separate layers helped me take control over how they fit in, and saved time on editing.
What’s your advice?
I know that there are a lot of people who are a lot more talented than I am, and you’ve probably learned this many times over – or, you are able to knock things out in your sleep. I know practice makes perfect, and that some back and forth is to be expected, but have you found reliable ways to speed up your process?
For the rest of us, I hope this was helpful or that you enjoyed seeing how it came together!
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