Desert Florals in Pastel: Contour and Color


We are looking at blooming desert florals. This is a desert marigold in a pot in natural light in the studio.

First, make several blind contour passes of one flower-head. Blind contour means to trace the silhouette of the form without referencing your drawing at all. Just focus your attention on the flower. You can look at the page when you’ve completed the entire silhouette. Do this with each blossom. They are all shaped differently. This practice may seem tedious at first because it requires a major slowing down and focus. Take nice deep breaths and try to make your outline as slowly as possible. Take time!


Look at each different blossom shape. This plant, like most natural flowering plants, has many blossoms in different stages of growth.


After several blind contours in vine charcoal, wipe out the drawings and tone the paper at the same time. I am using a BFK Rives printmaking paper today, it is soft.

Next, make a measured contour drawing. This means you will be measuring each shape and placing the shapes together in proportion to each other. Measuring helps with foreshortening. With measuring, your flower will begin to occupy space. You are looking at both the flower and the page, back and forth. Squint or close one eye to see the shape better, flatter. This is the stage of many corrections!


Make several measured drawings of all of the different aspects of the flowering parts. I’m going for simple geometric shapes, the simpler, the better: squares, rectangles, spheres, half spheres, triangles. Ask yourself what the simplest shape any individual part of the flower head is. You can see different shapes because they are different values from each other or they are different colors. Just shapes, not “petals” or “stems” etc.


Once the parts are in correct proportion to each other, shade. Find the parts in shadow, highlight and mid light. Erase to reveal high values and darken for shadows.


Press the charcoal into the paper by rubbing it with glassine or palette knife to other tool, or spraying with spectra fix or workable or even final fixative. Your fingers can be greasy so…watch out.

Decide on a key color. I’m choosing yellow for obvious reasons…but you can pick any color. Your key will determine other initial color choices. We are choosing an analogous (colors next to each other on the wheel) harmony with their complements.

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I like to start with the color match. If I can match one color in my palette to what I’m looking at, I start there. Saturated yellow in this case.


Next, for balance, I choose the dark, cool, opposite of yellow; violet.

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Now, back to a tint of yellow:


Some darker orange yellow:


A tint of violet:

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Some yellow-green:


Now, I soften edges, cool off receding parts of the flower, focus on reflected light, correct perspective, etc. Basically, I really start to pay attention to the work on the page instead of the actual flower at this stage. I wait as long as possible to arrive at this stage. I spend much longer looking at the actual flower and responding to color, value, temperature of color, saturation of color and so on before I focus my attention entirely on the page. Wait for it…


Now, try a few different flower portraits in different types of light; natural, studio, artificial.

One thought on “Desert Florals in Pastel: Contour and Color

  1. Beautiful!! I will try with my tithonia that are in bloom now. Am sorry couldn’t make this class, am going to be out of town. Thank you for sharing!


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