How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 1

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 1

In a previous post, I shared four tips on choosing reference photos for flowers. I promised in that post to show you how to draw complex flowers. That’s what this post is all about.

I originally intended to do a single post for the tutorial, but it quickly became more like an ebook than a blog post, so I’ll be dividing it up into two posts.

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 1

Loraine, who asked the question that began this series, was also kind enough to provide a selection of photos of hydrangeas from her own garden. Here’s the one I’ll be using for this tutorial.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference Photo

I cropped the image to focus on this bunch of blossoms because it limits the amount of flower to draw. The “empty” space at the bottom allows room for a few words if the art is to be used for a card. If not, it provides a resting place for the eye.

Tips for Getting Started

Before I begin the tutorial, let me suggest some ways to speed up the drawing process.

Use Colored Paper

If you have colored paper, that’s a great way to save time on a drawing. For a subject like this, use a light blue or lavender paper. Either of those colors will provide a good base color for both the flower and the leaves, and yet be light enough to provide for eye-catching highlights.

I’m using Stonehenge Aqua 140 hot press watercolor paper in white.

Consider a Wet Medium

If all you have is watercolor paper—or if that’s what you prefer using—consider toning the paper with washes of wet color. You can use either watercolor or water soluble colored pencils (my preference would be water soluble colored pencils.) The advantage to this method is that you can tone each area to suit the drawing. Blue or lavender for the flowers, and green or even an earth tone for the leaves.

Why an earth tone on the leaves? That will provide a complementary under drawing for the greens and keep them from getting too bright. You could also do a complementary under drawing on the flowers, but this color is so soft, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Remember to work around the brightest highlights on the flower if you choose to use a wet medium.

Start Small

No matter what type of composition you choose, there will be a lot of detail to draw. You’ll make faster progress on a small drawing, and will be less likely to become overwhelmed.

Smaller drawings also keep you from getting bogged down in details. If you’re like me, that’s a big plus with a new subject!

How small is small? My drawing is 5×7.

How to Draw Complex Flowers

Step 1: The Line Drawing

A good line drawing is going to be your best tool for drawing a subject like this, so take your time.

It didn’t take me very long to discover that the confusion of shapes led to a confused line drawing, so I drew the outlines of each individual flower with a bold line, then added a few interior details with a lighter line.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Line Drawing

I also refrained from drawing out a lot of the interior details. Trying to mark every edge between values and colors would further confuse the issue, so I left them out.

Not only does this produce a clearer line drawing, it will provide a better guide when you begin adding color.

Step 2: Transferring the Line Drawing

My preferred method of transferring a line drawing is with a light box. I mount the line drawing (which is on tracing paper) to the back of the paper, then lay the paper on a light box and carefully trace the drawing onto the front of the drawing paper. This method allows me to use colored pencils for the transfer process, which eliminates the risk of dirtying the paper with either graphite or other transfer mediums.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Transferred Line Drawing

I used Faber-Castell Polychromos Light Magenta to redraw the flowers, and Olive Green Yellowish to redraw the leaves.

Make sure to use light pressure to redraw the line drawing, or you could impress the lines into the paper. Impressed lines can be filled in again, but why create that extra work for yourself?

TIP: Don’t have a light box? Don’t worry! I don’t either. Instead, I use either a large window or the window in the front door as a light box. It works even on a cloudy day!

Step 3: The First Color Layers

Begin adding color with a medium purple (I used Polychromos Violet). Work in one small area at a time, and carefully outline the shape of each shadow with light pressure. Shade each shape layer by layer, using multiple layers (not increased pressure) to draw the darker values.

If you’re working on white paper, work around the highlights, especially at the edges of each petal. You will be able to lift a little color if you need to, but you won’t be able to get all the way back to white paper. Those bright highlights are what will help make your drawing come to life.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - First Color Violet

TIP: The purples and pinks in the Prismacolor line are notoriously bad for fading. If you’re doing craft work or drawing art for cards or similar uses, you can use these colors without worry. But if you’re doing fine art or want your drawings to last, consider using pencils with higher lightfast rated purples and pinks. Polychromos have more lightfast pinks and purples available. That’s why I’m using them for this drawing.

A Note on Pencil Strokes

Ordinarily, I recommend small, overlapping circular strokes for drawing even color unless you’re drawing something like hair or grass. The texture of these flowers is very soft and delicate, so I started with small, overlapping circular strokes in the areas marked with red arrows.

But I wasn’t satisfied with the way those areas looked after a layer or two, so I tried parallel strokes that follow the contour of each petal. Two such areas are marked with blue arrows.

The result was much more satisfactory on the paper I was using. I don’t know if there would be such a marked difference on regular Stonehenge (remember, I’m using Stonehenge Aqua) or Bristol or any other smooth paper.

If you’re in doubt, experiment on a scrap piece of your drawing paper first.

Step 4: Adding Blue

Next, layer a light blue (I used Light Ultramarine) over all of the purple areas, as shown below. Use light pressure and short, careful strokes.

I worked on only one flower from this point on, and recommend you do the same. It’s easier to see progress working from flower to flower, rather than trying to do each step with all the flowers.

It’s less confusing and frustrating, too!

Step 5: Adding Pink

Add the pink shades at the centers of the petals with light pressure and careful strokes. Since the pink appears to “radiate” out from the center of the flower, I used directional strokes beginning at the center.

Step 6: Finishing the Base Color

Finally, I used a combination of Sky Blue and Pink Madder Lake to glaze a base color over all of the lighter values in the flower. Those two colors blended to make a close approximation of the actual colors in the reference photo. Not perfect, but close.

If you have a color that matches better, use that. Whatever color or colors you use, continue to use light pressure.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 6

To finish this step, layer a medium purpose over the darkest shadows on the two petals to the left. I’m still using light pressure and careful, directional strokes to lay down color, but you can see how the accumulation of layers is creating darker values.

Also take note of the added details in the bottom petal. Draw these in very lightly. It’s not important that you get them absolutely correct according to the reference photo. Just add a few to give the flower character.

If your drawing is very small or you’re doing a less realistic rendering, you may not need these details at all.

That’s How to Draw Complex Flowers

I’ll finish this flower in How to Draw Complex Flowers, Part 2.

If you’re following along with your own drawing and you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can do these steps for some or all of the remaining flowers.


  1. Loraine Lyons

    Hi Carrie
    Thank you so much! In the tulip I used a grid but I’ve tried using grey drafting paper and ended up with impressed lines -just as you said! I have a light box at my surgery (for tracing lateral skull x-rays) and I’ll be sure to use it in the way you’ve described. I hope you’ve enjoyed you trip into flowers. What you’ve done is brilliant! I’m looking forward to the next post. Thank you again.

  2. Pat

    That was so helpful as I’m trying to be more adventurous in my card making. As yet, I haven’t tried flowers as there does seem to be quite a bit of shading, etc. but you explained it perfectly and seeing the steps helped tremendously.

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