In my last blog, Botanical illustration of Rose leaves, I discussed the processes involved in completing a botanical study of the leaves of the Japanese Rose, Rosa rugosa.  This blog will focus on the flower.

This sketchbook study was completed for FOR Sweden, and is one of a series of 12 invasive species illustrated.

As mentioned in the last blog; this is one of a whole clutch of blogs I’ve written on how to illustrate roses.  You can check out another one on painting this species, one on illustrating a dog rose, and one on doing a sketchbook study of a pretty peach rose for The Garden Forager by Adele Nozedar.

Illustration with completed leaves, awaiting illustration of the flower


You need to have your art materials and a few rose flowers ready.  If the rose isn’t in season, either use a whole range of photo reference, or wait til it blooms!  My botanical illustrations are always completed on hot press watercolour paper, in this case Stonehenge Aqua by Legion Papers.  Mechanical pencils create a good crisp line for drawing up the plant, I favour the Pentel P205.  The watercolours I use most are Winsor and Newton pans, although I’ve also used a some Ultramarine violet from a tube of Daniel Smith watercolors for this illustration.  I mix a few drops of the very vivid pink (Quinacridine magenta) Doctor Martin’s Hydrous watercolour ink in with my rose hues, and always use a size 1 and 000 Series 7 sable brushes by Winsor and Newton.

Draw up the Rose

In this case, we’re returning to an illustration we’re already working on.  However, you could just as easily take a pencil and draw a line drawing of the flower direct onto the hotpress watercolour paper.  Keep a light touch and precise, atonal lines.

Starting out on the petals

The first step is to mix up a good magenta.  The hue of the Japanese rose is very distinctive, and is quite a blue-pink.  I used plenty of Winsor and Newton (W&N) Opera rose, a touch of Daniel Smith (DS) Ultramarine violet, some W&N Permanent rose, some W&N Cobalt blue, and a tiny bit of W&N Quinacrodine violet.  To add an extra kick, I put in a drop or two of Doctor Martin’s Quinacridine magenta hydrus ink.

It’s all rather experimental, mixing hues.  I keep written notes of what I’m adding and go on mixing until the colour matches the petal.  Sometimes I paint a tiny drop of the mix onto the petal itself to see how close of a match it is; this is ridiculous in truth as paint dries a different colour and appears differently on the substrate of white paper.  I like to think it’s a good pointer, though.

Following the lines of growth on each petal, and painting outward towards the outer edges, I start to build up colour.

Make sure to leave plenty of white paper.  With watercolour, the white page provides you with the colour white, and with your highlights.  Swallow these up with colour at your peril.

One petal has the first layer of colour applied

A close up of the petal shows that the colour is made of lots of tiny lines.  To get this crisp effect, the paint has to be pretty thick; probably similar to the consistency of cream.

Close up of the petal

Working around the petals of the Japanese Rose

Move from one petal to the next, being sure you don’t lean your hand on anything you’ve just illustrated.  A piece of scrap paper under your painting hand helps avoid dirtying the rest of the sheet of watercolour paper and allows you to focus on the area you’re concentrating on.

Working around all five petals of the rose

By following the lines of growth, and by anchoring your lines at the outside edge of the petal you’re echoing the structure of the flower, and adding movement to the illustration.  It also makes the outer edges of the petal darker, which helps the eye find and settle on the exterior of the flower.

Top wash

Next, I dilute the pink hue with clean water.  Water is the best way to make a tint, or paler version of a hue.  It makes the colour paler and lighter but doesn’t muddy it with white pigment.  The paint used here is really quite watery, and is applied over the top of the areas of petal already painted.  As with the leaves, extend this paler area further in to the white highlights on the page.  This makes the juxtaposition between colour and white paper softer, and more realistic.

This layer is applied as before, with parallel tiny brush strokes which follow the line of petal growth.

Close up showing the top wash on the top petal

Work your way around the petals, being sure not to smudge your work.  Don’t swallow up the white of the page entirely, it provides highlights and gives life to the illustration.

Flower with all five petals complete with top wash.

Be brave about when to stop working on the petals

With many flowers, I’d do another paler dilution of the colour, and gently apply this over the entire flower.  This can make a flower glow, but can also stifle its delicacy.

In an earlier illustration of a Japanese Rose (below), this top wash slightly compromised the illustration.  It was needed, as the illustration had to be complete and polished, but with this sketchbook study I chose to relax and not add a third layer of colour.

Rose botancial illustration by Lizzie harper
Completed Japanese rose Rosa rugosa with top wash on the petals
Illustrating the Stamens and Stigma

Look closely at the centre of the rose.  You’ve already drawn all the stamens with their anthers, and can see the top of the stigma.  Mix up colours that match what you see.  For the anthers I used W&N Cadmium yellow, outlines with Cadmium yellow and a touch or Cadmium orange.  The filaments are the same yellow, but with a dash of green.

The hue of the stigma is a colder and greener yellow than the anthers.  W&N Winsor Lemon works well, with an outlying circle of the same colour mixed with sap green.

For more on the anatomy of roses have a look at my earlier blog on the structure of rosehips, or this simple guide from Texas A&M University.

Japanese rose with stamens and stigma coloured in

Working into the shadows

The last thing to do is to mix up a good colour for shadows, and to pop some of these in.  I tend to use W&N Cobalt blue and a purple, and love the crispness a good drop shadow can give.

I also like to add a few tiny brush strokes of this watery, darker hue to the external edges of the petals.  it seems to help provide focus to the illustration.

A little more judicious use of shadow around the stamens brings the illustration together.  It’s finished.

Completed Japanese Rose sketchbook illustration

For a film of me working into this rose illustration in real time, and explaining what I’m doing as I paint, please take a look at my Youtube film:

For a blog on my sketchbook illustrations click here.


I always paint the flower after the foliage in the same way as I leave the tastiest bit of a meal until the end.  It’s the treat to reward me for the hard work that goes into navigating those seas of green.

It’s not just that doing botanical illustrations of flowers like this Japanese rose is more fun than working on the leaves (although that’s true), it’s also easier.  Tracing the patterns of lights and darks is simpler as the structure is less complex.  The colours are a whole lot of fun to mix and work with.  And there’s something infinitely satisfying about sitting back after completing a decent day’s work, and seeing the flower you just illustrated glowing on the page.

Completed sketchbook study sheet for the Japanese Rose



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