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Blake Gardens: Tulips, Tulip Trees: Sketches and Paintings

Blake Gardens Tulips & Tulip Tree, ink & watercolor, 7x5"

The tulip trees (Saucer Magnolias) and tulips were blooming when we painted at Blake Gardens on a sunny Friday a week ago. Of the multiple sketches and paintings I did of the scene, I think I’m happiest with the one above, done in my journal when I got home, from a combination of memory and photo. I clipped the text from their brochure and pasted it on the journal page.

Here is the final painting and below that are the steps in between:

Blake Tulips & Tulip Tree, Acrylic, 10x8" on Gessobord
Blake Tulips & Tulip Tree, Acrylic, 10x8" on Gessobord

After I picked my spot to paint and set up my easel, I did several thumbnail sketches (left below) to plan my composition. While each thumbnail improved on the one before it, none were great compositions and as a result neither was the plein air painting I did on site.

Journal spread with thumbnail sketches
Journal Spread with thumbnails

I was working with Golden Open Acrylics, my first time trying them outdoors. A Golden expert suggested I put a drop of Golden Open Acrylic Thinner atop each blob of paint to keep them moist when painting outdoors. Instead, thinking I was so clever, I mixed about 25% thinner with 75% water in a spray bottle and misted the paints occasionally.

But I should have taken her advice as my method didn’t work. She’d warned me that adding water to the Open paints will make them dry faster, which it did, and they started getting icky-sticky about the time I needed to quit and head for the critique anyway. Indoors they stay wet all day and in a closed palette, for a week or two.

The plein air painting was so UGLY that I’m glad I only expect my plein air paintings to be learning studies. My plein air painting goal is to fully experience and participate in a scene and embed my memories of color, light, texture, sounds and scents.

Very BAD Plein air study
Plein air study

And there were sounds and scents: not only were the many magnolias overly fragrant, but shortly after I set up, two gardeners fired up a gas-powered industrial-strength chain saw, cut down a huge tree and sawed it to pieces about 20 feet away from me. The sound was horrible and the smell was worse.

Below is a photo taken when I first arrived,  cropped into a more pleasing composition. I like the diagonals and the way shapes of shadows and colors lead the eye into and around the painting.

Photo at Blake Gardens
Photo at Blake Gardens

From my watercolor sketch and the photo above, I started working on a studio version of the painting. Below is the  underpainting with the main shapes and colors blocked in.

Underpainting in acrylic
Acrylic under painting

I liked just as it was and was hesitant to paint over it so I left it for a few days before working on it again until it decided it was finished.

13 replies on “Blake Gardens: Tulips, Tulip Trees: Sketches and Paintings”

Thanks for showing the process at times in making your artwork. It’s good that digital cameras are so convenient for quick shots as work is in progress. Sometimes the early ‘underpainting’ makes a better picture than the final finished one – not that I’m having a go at this one. Lovely picture and a reminder of gorgeous gardens.


Thanks Wendy. Maybe someday I’ll find a way to stop at a point where it’s still at the sketchy interesting stage and just let it be. Or find a way to make the finished painting more like a sketch? I admire work like that but haven’t been able to do it myself. Jana


I also appreciate the way you take us along on your sketching ventures, and then walk us through your thinking and painting process. That last word, process, is always the sticker for me. Like many people, I rather want it right the first time. That’s my heart. My head knows that each step along the way leads to something something closer to what I have in my imagination. Your garden painting is charming and nicely composed. I am attracted to the variety of blues behind the tree.


Looks like you had a good outing, though! Thanks for the tip about the Open Acrylics. I got the set you suggested (just the primaries to mix colors) but no mediums. Besides the thinner would you suggest other mediums?


Thank you for sharing your experience and process. It is really helpful when we all contribe our learnings. I really like your painting. I can feel the gentle spring breeze. The colors are gentle and lovely. Your final composition is very interesting. Great job!


Hi Jana,
I follow your blog every chance I get. I love the way you share the products you try and all the sites. You are really an inspiration to me, though I rarely paint, I think about it a lot and love to see what beautiful things you do each week. Thanks so much. Kathee


What a pretty place that must be, Jana. Thanks for showing all the stages and your working methods. My fav is the top sketch where you’ve added that printed section – it looks like a travel poster and I’d imagine them using it for a brochure!


Oh, Jana, THANK YOU! I just ‘got’ the degree to which you simplified reality to make an interesting picture. As you know, I’m still really hung up on ‘being good enough to make an accurate copy’ and have only recently realized that most trees and outdoor scenes are not all that interesting in themselves. I’ve known for a long time that I am lucky, as a painter, to be able to omit ugly things… but the idea that I can CHOOSE which branches to represent and how many flowers… and that that results in a better picture… THAT idea has eluded me, even while I do it (because no one can really copy every leaf and twig on a tree…)…

These paintings are beautiful. I love the chromatic modeling on the tree!


Thank you too! It’s so exciting when my discoveries can help spark someone else’s discoveries too. I love the way we can all learn from each other. Jana


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