Learning to draw a rose has always been on my sketch booking ‘to do’ list. I have always found that this flower is one of the most complicated yet simple flowers to draw. It is maddening to get right.
A rose’s shape in theory is simple. It follows the basic foundational principles of drawing, charting its lines using the contour principle. It is at once complex too, the layers of petals it boasts, its varieties of tone and shade, and colours enough to challenge even the most competent of artists. It is a flower that is associated with depths of meaning for most too, spanning centuries of history, allusion and floral symbolism.
And…no doubt, you may be reading this article wanting to learn to draw this humble flower that you yourself have planted in your garden. Which one of the 259 species of rose (according to the Royal Botanic Gardens) that exist globally do you have planted in your garden?
Roses have held a special fascination for the artist for centuries. Also known as the “queen of flowers” it is almost a rite of passage that every artist should include a drawing or painting of a rose in the pages of their sketchbook. It is a flower weighted with meaning, its range of colours further adding to its symbolism across the centuries. At once you can tell the story of a painting based on how an artist has arranged a rose within it. Treachery to romance, fading glory to first light, the rose heralds a wealth of creativity in its wake.
Having completed a masters in the renaissance with a final thesis of the symbolism of gardens across renaissance literature, the allusions to flowers and roses across both literary and art worlds carried a particular fascination for me.
The rose is the most mentioned flower by Shakespeare, appearing no less than seventy times across his literature. From Romeo to Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry the VI. It holds a special place as the emblem of Britain since the War of the Roses, the white rose of York and the red rose of the house of Lancaster. To finally become grafted together as the Tudor rose.
My personal favourite in literature comes from Book 4 of Milton’s Paradise Lost where he describes the most perfect of harmonious gardens. The allusion of the garden and flowered “couch” of roses (“Flow’s of all hue, and without Thorn the Rose”. PL IV. 256), growing without its thorns implies the changes wrought upon nature by man’s fall from grace.
The rose is a flower that holds contradictions at its very heart. Beautiful one moment, treacherous the next.
It is a flower loaded with meaning and, if you are reading this blog post (keen to pick up that pencil), perhaps you too share an affinity to this elegiac flower.
It should be simple to draw a rose. A roses’ simplicity, however, can be easily overdone, thereby making this a more challenging floral to draw. It is also arguable as to whether one can truly convey the character of a rose simply through a drawing. The temptation to add colour to enhance the petals, shadows and depth of colour in order to give a rose drawing more credibility is a good temptation to succumb to!
Forget for one moment that you are drawing a rose.
Instead, start to see it as a series of lines on a piece of paper. Observe the rose you are drawing.
Those of you that know me and have been through one of my courses will understand what I mean when I say learn to look at your subject with a fresh pair of eyes. Spend time studying in great detail what you can see in front of you.
As you do so I want you to forget for a moment you are drawing a rose that has so often bamboozled you into thinking you can’t draw it. See past the thing you are drawing, forget your “worldly” understanding and interpretation. De mystify and simplify the rose to a state of lines and curves on paper.
Is your rose a rounded tight bud waiting to open, beginning to open and exhibiting the tell tale outward curve of the petal, or fully relaxed as it softly opens wide to then tip into fading petals? Or perhaps the weight of the rose head as it blooms is so heavy it tilts the stem it stands on? What about the surrounding foliage? What are the shapes and markings of the leaves? What lineage does the stem follow, i.e can you trace the line of the stem with your pencil, imagining how you would transcribe this to paper? Perhaps drawing your rose over a series of a few days as it unfurls is a further sketchbook idea?
Start with the contour.
The biggest challenge I come across when drawing is encapsulating the rose formation. I have started from the centre many times before and found I have either fallen off the page or mis-gauged the shaping of the rose tremendously.
The easiest way to circumnavigate this is by always starting from the outside in. Chart the lines you see onto your page. If you are new to the concept of contour drawing you can read all about it here. For those of you well versed in my constant re-iteration of this apologies in advance.
The benefits of starting here are many fold. First you will not be tempted to slide or slip off the page. Second, you lay down the basic shape and skeleton of your rose and encapsulate the shape you instantly see. Third, you decide how big you want your rose to eventually be straight away, and fourth you are assured from this first set of lines that you have captured your rose in its true proportion.
At this stage all I want you to focus on is the lines you can see.
Step 2. The Centre
Next head towards to the centre of the rose. The tight bud. Having anchored the outside lines, now focus on mapping the centre of your rose.
I always like to think about the extremes of a picture first. Ask yourself where do its natural differences and contrasts lie. Like any spectrum everything then becomes a little easier, from one extreme to the other and everything in between. If you know where your boundaries lie then working between them becomes easier to do.
You will note from my sketch too I have also started to flesh out some of the petals. Don’t worry if you feel as if this exercise still makes your rose look odd. The challenge at this stage is to keep LOOKING at the lines. The complication comes when you are thrown by the depth and tones of the rose that make things appear to look curved or shaped. You then attempt to add lines in an attempt to make the rose convey depth or space. You may be tempted to draw a shape that when shaded looks deeper than it actually in truth is.
Step 3. Fill The Lines Between Centre and Outside Contour!
Now comes the more fun and perhaps more relaxed part. You’ve created a template and skeleton in steps 1 and 2.
Using your boundary lines start to add the lines delineating the petals. If you plan to add tone or colour add the tonal lines into the piece. Remember that the tonal values hold as much value on your page as do the actual petal lines themselves. Part of the success of most drawings depends on us including as much as we can possibly see and defining them on paper.
On my Back to Basics course I teach the second most important principal of drawing which is all about the shapes and spaces we can see. That includes negative and positive shapes, tones and shadows that will underpin the success of your drawing. It still requires you to forget for a moment the rose itself that is made up of simply petals. Instead what curved shapes can you spot within the boundary lines you have delineated.
Imagine for a moment that you are tasked with drawing a “paint by numbers” rose for someone to colour in. Include gently lines wherever you can see tonal variances.
Step 4. Adding Tone and Shading
Now comes the fun part but also the part where you can easily go wrong.
A rose is truly brought to life by accentuating its tone and colours. Tone can make something appear wider than it is. The curve of the petal or fold of a leaf. Here is where this final stage starts. If you have drilled into the Step 3 details of adding the lines that differentiate between the colours you can now start gently shading in the tonal values.
Use your pencils or colours to do so. Start with the lighter values and build upon the layers gradually. I have used my Derwent Basics watercolour pencils for the exercise I have included. Gradually build upon the gradations of tone till you finally add the very darkest lines into your sketch.
In conclusion. I have only relatively recently started to draw roses with confidence so I am sure there will be more lessons to come in time when it comes to mastering this flower.