Frill-seeking me, painting a western orchid (cattleya)

First off, let’s be clear: there is no such plant as the western orchid!

I’m using the term very loosely here to refer to the several kinds of orchid we in the western world cherish. The family Orchidacea is absolutely huge and re-categorizing goes on continuously. Orchids grow in virtually every kind of climate and come in an endless array of colors and combinations.

I found one Internet source that offered a quick briefing on the several main families commonly grown/marketed.

The first three orchid varieties described at that site are those I am most familiar with: the Cattleya (sometimes called the corsage orchid); the Phalaenopsis or moth orchid (which sports a spray of flowers and you see widely sold for house plants these days); the next is the Paphiopedlium or lady slipper, which outdoorsy people love to discover/protect in natural settings. I’ve often hunted for these ‘wild orchids’, which come in pink, yellow or white colored flowers, or even combinations. And the calypso orchid native to my current environment is especially intriguing given its tiny, tiny size.

When invited to submit an orchid painting to the annual Victoria Orchid Society show last year, I first turned to the traditional CBP variety. This year I decided to tackle the Cattleya as a subject.

The two main traditional CBP orchid varieties are the grass orchid and the marsh orchid. I have addressed those two previously in blog posts.  You can find them by searching in the blog listings to the right, or use these links:

Here   And here.

And yes, there are aficionados who know all the ins and outs to identifying and growing orchids.

Cattleya features:

As always, I find  it helpful to check out the special features of anything I set our to paint. Here’s a quick look at the Cattleya.

Five petals surrounding a tube-like petal which ends in a lip make up the flower. A single flower tops a stem that emerges from a ring around the main stalk, and usually two or more leaves emerge from that ring as well. The stalk ends in a root structure.

They are epiphytes, and hence grow in the crooks of tree branches in tropical climates. They have ‘roots’, but the roots merely hang out at the end of the stems/stalks and do not penetrate soil at all. They pull nutrients from the air, albeit a muggy, moisture-filled air that surely sucks back things other than pure carbon dioxide.

Meant to be special

My very first orchid was a 1960s corsage (yeah, how common is that?) on a date to my high school grad. The flower was probably what is commonly called the “corsage orchid” and it featured a purple striped flute surrounded by white petals. Every girl in the room wore one. Its common appeal aside, I never truly warmed to the flower.

On this foray into Orchidacea research I was pleased to see Brazil has made one its national flower; mind you the variety seems to come in numerous colors.


This is Brazil’s choice.

And Columbia also seems to have officially adopted a variety of Cattleya  orchid as one of its national emblems.


And this is Columbias’s choice for national flower.


Oddly enough, I found I had not one but two helpful guides to painting the Cattleya orchid as near as my own bookshelves:


  1. Yang Oshi included a western style orchid in Chinese Brush Painting Techniques for Beginners # 1 Flower and Bird, A Perspective. She offers a step-by-step guide to executing the flower and one full composition.
  2. Johnson Su Sing Chow addressed the flower in his Vol. 4 of the four-volume set Flowers in Four Seasons. He provides several pages, expounding on both the flower structure as well as the leaves. I found his flowers appeared rather stylized, BUT his leaf section spurred me on to a wonderful new discovery—splendid two-stroke leaves.

Painting Strategies:

Painting western orchids using CBP techniques involves the usual planning—paint the blossoms first and then add leaves, stem, roots and some setting element or ‘guest’ if desired.

The flute:

Yang Oshi’s approach to the flower was to start with the frilled edges of the fluted section, i.e. the darkest color. She showed some simple strokes laid down beside each other (drop and press) with a small brush. You let the brush tip leave a rounded edge, and don’t worry too much about how even or precise these strokes appear.

Next you clean the brush and load with an intense yellow, setting down similar strokes merging with the first dark strokes.

To complete the flute, Yang added a few white stokes at its base. Chow describes much the same process, however he is more poetic—he describes that last step of painting the white base to the flute as ‘powdering the nose’. Some Chinese brush painters do indeed use white powder instead of white pigment.

The outer petals

Most western orchids sport five major petals surrounding the fluted section, and these petals often consist of three smaller pointy ones arranged next to two larger rounded ones. The appearance, as in most of the natural world, can be very symmetrical. Some orchid floral descriptions call the five-petal structure a ‘star’.

Whereas that moth orchid commonly sold as houseplants these days sports a series of seven or eight such blossoms along an arching stem, cattleyas have the one flower per stem, with maybe two or three stems per clump. Given the striking appearance of these flowers, one or two truly seems plenty to paint in one composition!

One can work the shorter outer petals with a simple pull stroke away from the flute. As for the rounded ones, you can plant the brush and then move the base end in a circular fashion while keeping the tip in one spot. If you want veins showing on the petals, you wait until the petals are damp and then define them with a very fine brush.

Here’s my study sheet showing the steps as per Yang Oshi’s method.


The leafy wonders

Chow’s discussion of painting western orchid runs on for about a dozen pages and he offers ample colored illustrations. I found his choice of flower extremely uniform in color and shape and preferred the contrasting colors of Yang’s illustrations. Chow’s description of the leaves however, I found outstanding.

Always appreciative of an artist who studies the subject’s nature, I was pleased to see his plant knowledge “interpreted” in the manner of painting the leaves. AND, most importantly, once I had played with his method for a bit, I found I was getting very pleasing results.


Chow describes a two-stroke method for the orchid leaves. You require a pool of appropriate green, dip in a large orchid brush and wipe the back of the brush. Dip the tip into black sticky ink and slap it quickly against a paper towel to check you have the right amount of black on the tip. Too little and your leaf will be all one shade of green, too much and you’ll have black leaves.

Now here’s the secret: you need to work quickly! Speed is of the essence. You want a big sloppy brush dipped in black ink. Quickly place the brush tip on your paper where the leaf tip should be and run an arching side stroke from there to where the leaf should end, lifting the brush near the end to taper the ink trail. AND THEN, reload the brush and quickly place another such stroke starting in the same place, overlapping the first one, and end in the same place as the first one ends.

The black tip of the second stroke blends into the green of the first, providing you with a lovely centre mark perfectly placed on the leaf centre. Because of the wetness and the speed, the colors blend and your leaf edges appear dynamic. Without the speed the leaf looks stilted and flat. Without the wetness, the leaf may not be fully formed.   I found you could tweak the coverage of the green (be sure to push from wet colored paper into dry paper so it doesn’t leave an edge) as needed around a flower shape or if the base wasn’t as tapered as you wanted it to be.  I played with this one afternoon and was ecstatic to see leaves emerge so easily…IT WORKS.


You have move quickly, letting the second overlapping stroke blend into the first.

Eventually I got back to thinking about the Orchid Show. Here are my two potential entries drying on the gluing board.


They may not make it to the show, and even then not be seen as special in any way, BUT in creating them I discovered the magical two-stroke leaf. My glass is more than half-full today. Paint on!

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting orchid, Uncategorized, wetern orchid (cattleya). Bookmark the permalink.

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