Painting from Life – Exploring your Garden, the plants and the light

Painting from Life – Exploring your Garden, the plants and the light 1
Iris Collection

During lock down, like most people who were lucky enough to have a garden, we spent a lot of time in ours and as I was shielding and couldn’t get to my studio, my garden became my studio and inspiration.

It is so easy to get into the habit of painting from 2D reference particularly when the weather isn’t good and forget that looking at the world in 3D is essential, as photographs only ever tell us part of the story and invariably distort our view of the world into one that is flat and not as rich and 3 dimensional as it should be. Our brains I think start seeing the world as a jigsaw not a thing that you can walk around and through.

I am usually at Chelsea Flower Show in May, which in the past has dictated so much of my year, in terms of what I paint, but also all the time it takes to organise all the added logistics and preparation for having a stand there. So it is not surprising that my garden gets rather neglected and I often return and feel rather dismayed to discover a jungle at home, after seeing the best of the best when it comes to garden design at Chelsea Flower Show.

So last year and this has been an opportunity (which I am trying to maintain) to study my own garden and really get to know more plants and also to appreciate it over many months.

Looking at What is Under Your Nose

– Start Small

I decided to really study plants as they actually came up in my garden one by one, in particular my Iris Collection, but also plants that I don’t often paint, because they are rather more transient and by the time they have flowered and then I have decided to paint them, they have died!

So I learnt the order in which my plants flowered, and how often the taller ones come earlier and the shorter thicker stemmed ones come later.

I started by painting my tulips on sennelier pastel sand card, just doing small studies, as often when you start something new and particularly when I venture to paint plein air, I have to get into the swing of it and almost limber up!

I just accept that the first few studies won’t be any good but they are a necessary evil to getting to somewhere more fruitful. The trick is to accept this and not be too hard on yourself.

The beauty of working small is also that you don’t have to worry about ruining large pieces of paper.

Painting from Life – Exploring your Garden, the plants and the light 2
Tulips Picked for You 30cm x 30cm

 – The Beauty in Repetition

I know that this is probably a very boring thing to say but there is nothing that beats painting the same subject MANY times as it really does have its rewards and is a very mindful thing to do. I have painted many hundred of irises and tulips, everyone is different and with everyone I learn something new, especially if I paint them from life. Here are some of my Iris collection that then led to the larger painting at the beginning of this blog, as it was only when I saw all the smaller paintings together on the wall in my studio that then the idea for the larger painting arose. The more you do the more ideas will arrive like welcome rewards for your efforts.

Mix it Up a Bit

I love change and sometimes it is not until you actually look at a body of your work all together that you see what is glaringly obvious to other people.  Such as the fact that you are working in exactly the same colour palette all the time or as in my case, I realised that I needed to mix up the point of view, that I was looking at plants from. All my studies tended to have flowers coming up from the bottom of the picture, which meant they looked quite static and almost like a botanical catalogue.

I wanted things to look more organic and less rigid and not shout ’here’s this specimen!’. I had played around with painting plants from different perspectives before, when I was Artist in Residence at RHS Harlow Carr for a year in Harrogate. So I decided to pick flowers and then arrange them in small jugs and bottles and only look at them from above, so that you couldn’t see the stalks and they almost flowed across the page. This reflected the informal nature of my garden and meant that my work looked less formal. These two pieces below are done on board painted with Art Spectrum Colourfix primer that I have tinted with liquid acrylic, so that’s how I managed to get that nice blue back ground. I also tend to under-paint with the pastel primer and then work over the top with unison pastels to produce the depth of colour and texture.

Painting from Life – Exploring your Garden, the plants and the light 6
Summer Treasures 70cm x 70cm and Pic 7 Love for my garden

Photography Library of Reference for the Winter

As well as painting so many of the flowers in my garden from life, I also have been picking flowers every month and then arranging them in different ways and also experimenting with different backgrounds when I photograph them, to explore composition and to look at flowers in different lighting conditions.

So I am not saying not to take photographs but just to be more aware of why and how you take them as a source of reference.

Working outside brings its own inspirational moments

I loved these flowers in bottles glistening in this gorgeous ‘end of day light’, on a potting bench I had built and was about to move. It was just by a tree, in the garden and the light was coming through the leaves and created a wonderful dance of shadows, that of course was only fleeting, but that will be a delight to paint in the winter as a memory of brighter months. Most of these flowers would also not have lasted long enough for me to paint them, as, as soon as they are picked they tend to flop.

Experiencing the Elements makes for better paintings

Being in my garden and picking and arranging plants, sparks off ideas and again allows me to try out new things before I paint them. The more I am in my garden the more I want my paintings to flow and reflect the true nature of the plants e.g. that they are waving in the wind or heavy with fruit. It is only by actually seeing plants close up and being out in the elements with them, that those extra dimensions can come across into your work.

Visual Diary of my Garden

Knowing your plants better in terms of structure but also when they flower and how strong they are, all this information goes into your head and effects how carefully you paint them and how heavily you press. It is invaluable in creating a greater knowledge of plants that will help you be a better Artist.  Creating your own diary of your garden through sketching, doing paintings outside and taking photos that you have composed all of this is very helpful going into the winter months when there is not so much to paint in the garden, I use it as a library of reference and a bank of inspiration to keep me going on dull days.

Painting from Life – Exploring your Garden, the plants and the light 13

Interview With An Associate Artist: Nel Whatmore

In today’s ‘Interview with an Associate Artist’ we’ll be chatting to Nel Whatmore.  Nel has been a professional artist for 35 years and is the joint founder of the New Pastel School with Rebecca de Mendonça.

If you enjoyed reading this…

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive more blogs like this, as well as other Unison Colour news including upcoming events and exclusive offers.

Use the buttons below to share this blog…

18 responses

  1. I loved this and made me think about all the different flowers l have in the garden and enjoy but have not often attempted to paint, however now l am going to change this and try the small scale work and just see how l get on. Thankyou for the great pictures that gave accompanied this blog

  2. Nel, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your love of painting flowers from the garden and seeing your beautiful work. I must remind myself on a dull day to look at my photos too when it is not possible to paint them outside. Thank you.

  3. I’ve seen so may paintings of flowers and they always look so similar. These are stunning! Tulips Picked For You and Summer Treasures will make me reconsider my thoughts on floral paintings – and the viewpoint of looking DOWN at the blooms….thanks for the great article!

    1. What beautiful work, really love the “Tulips picked for you”. Your work shows great detail and understanding of flowers and to view nd paint them from above is a really good tip.
      Lovely work Nel!

  4. Lovely blog! I liked what you said about working small, that stops me from experimenting as I don’t want to ruin my precious papers!
    They look perfect in that format, thank you for your post!

  5. So inspiring, I have not painted many flowers, buildings an landscape from photos in pastel for some time but I do have an abundance of subjects in my garden! After w long break from painting anything I am really e.ncotaged to give painting flowers a go. Patricia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Blog Posts

New Summer Mini Soft Pastel Set

A new pastel set to celebrate the colours of Midsummer’s Day. Perfect for capturing your colourful flowers, summer holiday or a relaxing day in the garden.

A soft pastel painting of a tree during golden hour.

Discovering Reflected Color

When asked to identify the color of a shadow, it is common to respond that it would be a darker color of whatever is in shadow.  A shadow of a tree on green grass would be a darker green.  A shadow of the same tree on dirt would be a darker brown.

Garden of Colour and Flight

On two sides looking out the windows is the woods, the view begins not four foot off the sidewalls where trees and open forest floor slope up and gently away. When the spring rain comes, water gathers in the high places and forms water falling streams that run toward and alongside the studio heading toward gathering ponds on the lower side.

Log In

When requesting a Password Reset using the 'Lost your password?' option, you'll receive an email with a link to reset your password. It's important to note that if you request multiple emails, only the most recent link will work.

Customer Enquiries

Got a question?

Please don’t hesitate to send us any questions, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
If you’d rather send us an email, please get in touch at:

Or give us a call on +44 (0)1434 240203 and choose option 1, for Liz.

Trade Enquiries

For trade enquiries, please contact us as below:


[email protected] or call Liz on +44 (0)1434 240203 Option 1

China and Russia
North America
ROW (Exc. China and Russia)