Spring dance—painting iris

Understanding floral structures can be key to painting dynamic floral compositions in any medium. When you “know” how a flower looks, what fundamental shapes the buds, petals, leaves, stems, and sepals take, your creations will appear more realistic. Of course in CBP, where the aim is to capture the spirit of a subject, studying all the individual parts to a flower becomes even more important. You need to know what characteristic makes an individual flower species unique, and how to convey that on a flat surface.

With Iris this challenge is greater because your basic flower shape is a three-dimensional triangle. With other flowers that are roundish in shape (roses, peonies, and mums for example), we quickly grasp how to turn circles into ovals and ellipses, how to rotate those shapes as we compose flowers nodding their heads in different direction, and how to change proportions effectively. And then there’s the iris. Traditional CPB artists have called them the ‘butterfly flower’ because of their floppy outer petals that seem to dance in the breeze.

The Iris in Art

Who has not marveled at Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Alcott garden irises, or his giant pitcher of irises painted in May 1890 only months before he shot himself. One critic described this still life as ‘painted with feverish intensity’.


Then there’s the magnificent pair of six-paneled golden screens by Japanese painter Ogata Korin (1658-1716) loaded with deep blue ‘kakitsubata’ or rabbit-eared marsh irises. The composition, rendered in only three colors—green, blue and gold—is an outstanding study for art-lovers and artists alike.


The panels are housed in Japan’s Nezu Museum where they are occasionally put on display in the large tea garden in spring when the iris is in bloom. Much admired for the bold calligraphic brushwork, the panels were unusual even for their time; contemporary Japanese artists were painting more elaborate and detailed floral works. Korin used a powdered azurite called gunjo to achieve the deep indigo-like blue coloring. One panel shows nothing but resplendent irises in their entirety, while the other shows only their tops. The two panels side by side occupy a full wall of the museum. Understandably, the panels are deemed national art treasures.

My research also led to this fine example of irises painted in oils by American John Lafarge which is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Notice how the iris on the left tips slightly away, while the one on the right leans forward.  That nuance helps in portraying the iris’ distinctive shape.


Irises in the garden

When I turned to my CBP library for guidance in painting the iris, my nearby gardening bookshelves proved just as helpful. Ironically the covers of two gardening books featured the very two artworks I addressed above, so I pulled them out along with the painting resources.


Gardeners love the Iris for it huge array of colors and varieties; the most popular seems to be the German bearded iris, so-named for the fuzzy ridge appearing along the upper surface of the three downward-pointing petals. Siberian irises that sport proportionately smaller flowers and have different growing needs, run a close second.

Irises typically have two sets of triangular petals, all emerging from a central vortex. Here’s a page from my sketchbook where I worked on visualizing the structure of an iris.



Three showy ones curve up, outward and down, and are aptly called ‘falls’. Three more head upward and curve inwards at their tips, like praying hands, and are called ‘standards’. Then there are sometimes three much tinier ones hidden inside the upward hands. These inner petals can be more visible in iris species where the falls are narrow and almost vertical, such as in the indigenous ‘blue flag’ (iris versicolor) many of us admire in the Canadian wild.


The blue iris with distinctive yellow marking at the base of each fall commonly sold in florist shops is a Dutch iris. It grows from a bulb and consistently produces tall straight stems useful when arranging flowers. Those such as the bearded varieties that grow from rhizomes typically sprawl in the manner of Van Gogh’s subjects.


The Dutch iris is very similar in size and color to  the wild ‘blue flag’

My first garden favorite was the Wabash iris, which I heard referenced in my childhood as the ‘graveyard iris’. Apparently it was a common choice for gravesites in early Ontario. When I looked up the reference for this post, I discovered another pure white specimen (iris albicans) held that distinction in Europe and Africa, especially among Muslim communities.

 The American Iris Society breaks the ‘bearded iris’ into six categories—miniature and standard dwarves, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall–which bloom in succession starting with the smallest. Those dwarves are wonderful choices for rock gardens and borders as they top out around six-eight inches high. With care in selection one can have irises blooming in the garden for months. (An artist needs to know that the bud at the outermost tip blooms first, and that buds would only appear simultaneously emerging from the plant stem below the open bloom. The ‘beard’ is often yellow or white, in contrast with the colored petals.)

Edges of the falls can be ruffled or not, the surfaces striped, splattered or tonally gradated, and their colors contrast or blend with the color of the standards. Understanding how to turn a triad of petals toward you, away, at a slight angle to either the right of left, the up or down–that’s where things get complicated! How tempting it is to only show iris in profile with one fall to the left, another to the right, and two parenthetical-looking standards in the middle pointing up on the page. And how boring that composition would be, how flat, how non-representative of the amazing essence that is iris.

Iris symbolism:

In Chinese culture the association of irises with butterflies goes beyond mere appearance; the flowers also symbolize fated lovers from an old folktale similar to our Romeo and Juliet legend.

This site also expands on the association of iris with butterflies and reveals other western iris associations such as in the fleur-de-lis and so-called ‘Mary’ gardens.  The iris certainly has inspired imaginations in many countries.

Those cultures which selected the iris—either the pure white or the white with purple falls called Wabash—as graveyard inhabitants may have been influenced by ancient Greek beliefs. The Greek goddess Iris was seen as a messenger of the gods, sometimes described as the greeter of spirits (particularly female) crossing to the ‘other side’ after death. She was also associated with rainbows, believed by some to be ‘bridges’ between the natural and spiritual world.

Painting resources:

I found an abundance of CBP guides to painting iris among my books; the most helpful seemed to be in Vol. 1 of Flowers in Four Seasons by Johnson Su-Sing Chow. Other instructional books I have address a frillier version of iris and some show colored varieties. I also found several Youtube videos with demos that informed my brushwork, two by artists whose work I admire.

In the first, Vancouver artist Danny Han-Lin Chen shows the brushwork for a blue bearded iris.  Do remember these video demos are often edited so that we miss seeing the brush-loading technique.  For irises one usually uses a large soft bush loaded with clear water dipped in an appropriate color.  You can also load with two colors.

Virginia Lloyd-Davies paints purple irises beside a rock and adds a bird in two Youtube submissions. Do watch her amazing dancing brush as she renders the complete composition.  Here’s part one.

And here’s the second, shorter part two.

And you can scroll down on this page of her blog site to see another demo in blue.

Those demos are well worth studying for brushwork techniques particularly. Notice how the water and paint blend on the paper to convey the tonal values of the petals.  Watch for the direction and placement of the brush as Virginia shapes her irises.

My iris studies:

I painted iris over several days at home and at art group meetings. I love the great variety of irises in the garden, but tend to be partial to blues and purples. I was quite pleased with the results of using a large soft brush loaded with water dipped in purple-blue mixes.

As shown in several of my other CBP books, it’s easy to add petal marking with a fine detail brush (or the tip of an orchid brush) in a slightly darker color while the petals are damp. Yellow and white markings down the centre of falls was best done over a white space left for that purpose; you can do that with simple strokes of pure colors wet over wet, and then blended with a clean brush. The leaf blades are rendered in the manner of narcissus leaves. Here are my two first full compositions.




Now that I’ve got a start on understanding the shape of an iris in three dimensions, some skill with the water plus color brush loads, and some degree of mastery over the long grass strokes, I’m ready to play with more colors.  Let’s see that brush learn to dance!






This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, flowers, iris. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s