Painting Shapes of Opposite Colors

Bearded Iris, watercolor, 12×16″ ©Bivenne Staiger 2020

Keeping opposite colors bright when they are adjacent in a watercolor painting is often a challenge, even for accomplished watercolorists. Such colors are those like red and green that sit opposite each other on a standard color wheel. In this painting, the purple-red flower clashes with the yellow-green background, but that contrast helps emphasize the subject. In this case, I added the local color of the flower’s petals in a pale wash first, taking care to keep almost all shape edges soft, or undefined.

all images ©Bivenne Staiger

When that was dry, I next added the entire local color (bright yellow-green) very quickly to the background. I call this a “background mass.” Though yellow-green is the dominant color, blue varies it, adding interest and keeping the space from appearing flat. As you can see, there are places where color slightly overlaps the flower shape edges, and its silhouette is mostly defined. A drop of water also landed in the middle of a purple petal, producing an easy-to-fix distraction.

all images ©Bivenne Staiger

While the green background mass was drying, I developed the flower’s form and petal pattern. Notice that darker value hides the errant spot on the purple petal.

all images ©Bivenne Staiger

Before painting the spear-like leaves of this plant, I planned their general left-to-right direction and where darkest shapes were necessary. Otherwise they were painted intuitively, at first on dry paper but also while some shapes were wet. Using two flat brushes (a 3/4″ and a one-inch) plus a script brush, I quickly painted their shapes, using more pressure at the widest leaf shapes and twisting and lifting the brush as each shape became pointier. In small tight spaces, the script brush was employed. While I began with opaque blues like Cerulean and Cobalt Turquoise Light, I let color bleed here and there and added Prussian and Cobalt. An example is at top left of the finished painting. Note that overlapping background color on the flower’s silhouette is no longer obvious and that the dominant background color is now a blue-green, which is perceived as darker than yellow. Though suggested, these leaf shapes support the flower because they are still recognizable.

7 thoughts on “Painting Shapes of Opposite Colors

  1. Love ALL your iris paintings — one of my mother’s favorite flowers. Took a
    photo of some of my neighbor’s-just blooming this week!


  2. Hi Bivenne,

    What a gift your wonderful art blog is!! I am really enjoying it and so wish I could be painting with you . Your Iris is beautiful and inspires me to paint one. When I do paint one, I will send it to you for advice,

    Thanks and stay safe.

    Fondly, Terry



    1. Hi Terry, I’m glad you feel inspired to paint an iris and am sure you can paint it successfully!!! 🙂 I hope classes can resume again soon. I’m meanwhile trying to manage the challenges of online classes. Will keep you posted. All the best


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