Playing catch-up: painting the poinsettia

You’d think it being the middle of February I’d be painting roses, and red roses at that. Now I do have an affinity for the rose, but my favorite is the Chicago Peace which is a soft yellow tinged in pink. Because early December saw me playing ‘hermit crab’—discarding one shell in favor of another—I missed Lotus’ fine demonstration on the poinsettia. And all the bright red of Valentine’s Day has only reminded me of the poinsettia’s painterly appeal.


No other plant seems to have quite the same command of red, although in truth the red coloring is embodied in leaf-like bracts, not floral petals at all. The true flowers to a poinsettia are in the yellow-green knobby bits in the centre of a cluster of those larger, RED bracts.

The emergence of the red coloring, as in the other seasonal favorite aptly dubbed the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera or zygocactus), is due to a process called photoperiodism. The term means exactly what it sounds like—if subjected naturally or artificially to short days of light and cut back on water and nutrients, the plant triggers inner chemistry to explode brilliant coloring into those special bracts.

And everyone just LOVES the poinsettia. According to the American Phytopathology Society (APS)—a global organization that exists to study plant diseases in order to maintain and improve species—the poinsettia is the number one flowering potted plant sold in the United States and that all happens in conjunction with Christmas.   The APS website claims over 65 million plants were sold nationwide in the year 2000; I can only guess how large a figure that would be if you rolled in Canadian stats and updated to 2015.


This plant is not a traditional CBP painting subject, but occasionally shows up in instructional books that focus on flower painting.

Plant history

The colorful plant we welcome into our homes in dreary mid-winter originated in Mexico in a small area near present day Taxco. It is a member of the genus Euphorbia, a large (upwards of 2000) plant family whose members have a milky, white latex-like sap, and unusual and diverse floral structures. Another related houseplant is that prickly cousin, the Crown of Thorns.

Once considered poisonous, the sap of the poinsettia is most often described as an irritant, perhaps an allergen for some people. In centuries past the sap was used by the Aztecs to relieve fevers.   In its natural form, the plant is a shrub and grows upwards of 10-15 feet tall.

Discovered by an American botanist in the early 1800s, the plant is named in honor of the first American ambassador to Mexico, (also a botanist of some renown, Joel Poinsett) who sent plants back to his native South Carolina. And the rest, as they often say, is history.

The plant has been tinkered with by many a grower, most notably three generations of the Ecke family in California. From the early 1900s onward, Paul Ecke I, II and now III cornered a large segment of the poinsettia market because Ecke number I developed a means of engineering a bushy, showy plant, and his business acumen remained a secret for decades. Only recently did other plant scientists figure out the timely pruning method to produce similar plants. A fuller story of the Eckes is on Wikipedia; they are credited with kick-starting the huge industry associated with this one plant.

More on the plant’s history can be read at sites such as this one.

What is this brilliant sappy plant?

The poinsettia, I daresay, may also be one of the ‘most often painted’ plants in the world. As noted, the true flower is in the centre part and consists of a single female flower, without petals and usually without sepals, surrounded by individual male flowers all enclosed in a cup-shaped structure called a cyathium. Yes, those yellow knobby bits sometimes covered with pollen make up the ‘flower’.

Plant cultivation has resulted in a huge array of colors for the bracts (white, cream, yellows, pinks, reds, burgundies). Even the leaves now come in darker greens and curly varieties. My favorite has to be this one, called Plum Pudding:


Some plant lore:

My study of the poinsettia uncovered some curious bits of plant lore. It is known in China as San Dan Hung, meaning Christmas Red, or sometimes Yi Ping Hung, which means First Rank Red. The natural occurring red poinsettia is very much like the dark red worn by top rank officials. The Aztecs’ name for it meant “flower that grows in residues” referring to its preference for poor quality soils.    It is known in Mexico and Guatemala as Flor de Noche Buena meaning Christmas Eve flower. The Spaniards call it Flor de Pascua, or Flower of Easter. In Chile and Peru it is called the Crown of the Andes.

Not surprisingly there are also a few legends as to how the plant came to be; among them is the tale of Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had nothing to bring to present to baby Jesus so she gathered a bouquet of roadside weeds. Of course by the time she and cousin Pedro arrived at the manger the weeds had miraculously burst into the showy red bracts we all cherish at Christmastime. (It’s getting pretty crowded there manger-side with all these gift stories; first there was the little drummer boy and now Pepita and Pedro.)

Painting resources:

In addition to Lotus’ workshop handouts I found a delightful CBP how-to video online. This video was made by Moon Bear World for Ichen  Art Academy in 2014 with artist Ichen Wu. The artist uses tube colors with a large orchid brush; her video is worth watching for her color blending and brush strokes. She offers good instruction on composition and bract placement as well.

Painting Strategy:

With poinsettias the overall approach is to paint the central flowers, then the red-colored bracts, and lastly the leaves and stems.

1.    For the centre—sprinkle some different-sized dots across the paper in roughly an oval -shaped area where you’d like the floral centre to be. Use the tip of a large soft brush double loaded with green and yellow. (These dots look best if executed with the ‘dian’ stroke.) Once you’ve finished the rest of your painting you come back and over-paint with some white in order to convey the fullness of these tiny flowers.

Here’s my first practice sheet trying to arrange the dots; the blobby one shows how easy it is not to control the water in the back of your brush:


2.    For the color bracts—the same brush now cleaned and loaded with orange tipped in red is used to create a variety of ‘leaf’ shapes using strokes either pulled toward or away from the floral centre. You want narrow ends all pointing to a common imaginary centre of the cluster. These bracts should be darker closer to the centre, lighter as they pull away. In the video linked above IchenWu shows how to define the bracts so that the cluster has ‘depth’. She explains how to widen bracts with a second stroke and leave white edges between the overlapping bracts to provide ‘separation’. Once she has a pleasing arrangement of red bracts and they are still slightly damp she sketches in darker vein marks, curving the lines to match the bract curvatures.

I practiced the strokes first going right and then going left.  In the third row I tried tipping in blue and widening the shapes.  The last column is red tipped in ink.


3.    For the leaves and stems—Ichen Wu uses little white saucers for preparing her colors; this really helps you see your color mixing. For the leaves she uses indigo and gamboge, mixes up a brush filled with a green, and then tips it in black for the darker bracts. The outer bracts are done with a lighter shade of green, tipped in the darker green. Blends of color in the red and the green leaves is quite desirable. The leaves are also veined. Lotus prepared some excellent sample sheets for her demo, showing leaves done in three ways: 1. as above, darker shade over lighter green, 2. with white veins over the green, and 3. with veins done in ink over green.   For stems a common practice is to load a small brush with the light green already on your mixing saucer, tip it into the red left on the other mixing dish, and then define one main stem leading up to each floral/bract cluster. Poinsettias have umbels (think ‘inverted umbrella rib structure’ here) at the stem tips, holding up those flowers and bracts.

Here’s my first poinsettia with bracts and leaves (no veins yet)


Then I defined some veins using a darker red:


See what adding white to the centres does:


Then I painted this poinsettia start to finish:


Wanting to finish something glue-worthy at this sitting I tried a composition I thought would work for a greeting card.  As  bad luck would have it, I splotched the painting with green paint. I quickly wet the area  with clear water and a clean brush to try and save it.

It is still wet in the image below, and I don’t think the effort to save it was successful (you don’t know for sure until it dries). You scuff up as much color as you can with a brush without disturbing the paper, blot the paper several times,  and watch that you don’t leave a water’s edge mark. Cropping shows there’s some hope the painting might work…at which point I decided Mr. Cat needed more practice before this painting could be truly finished.  I do have a few months before December rolls around to work on that!


Further Options

Because poinsettias are a favorite subject among artists in many mediums, there are many wonderful compositions and treatments for inspiration. The colored bracts make ideal subjects for pearly over-painting. Or one can spatter white or gold or maybe dark green. I wouldn’t go so far as to add the amount of glitter one sees on some specimens these days; that gets tired very quickly.

Just as in poinsettia cultivation, one does not have to restrict the palette to shades of red. Lotus showed me some of her poinsettias done in opera pink as well as a marvelous grapey-purple she blended from indigo and crimson.  Ichen Wu also  demonstrated  the  color-mixing and brushwork for a creamy white poinsettia which could easily be extrapolated to more such  clusters.

These plants are very forgiving of imperfect leaves or sloppy dots in the centre—those seeming ‘mishaps’ only add to the beauty of the composition. I found a very striking such painting done by an artist known for his insects and monkeys, Chao Shao-An, and he presented only a single stem of poinsettia. (It’s on the table ‘informing’ my bract study above.)

Ichen-Wu’s Youtube video is absolutely packed with technical tips and is worth watching ANY time of year.  There’s so much to learn in that one 16-minute demo, I could well be working on poinsettias right through ’til next Christmas!






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