Painting a thistle

Painting a thistle

Hi welcome back to mid Devon, the sun is shining ( again) and summer here is in full swing. It can be hard to remember that whatever us humans do, the world keeps turning and the seasons change. Even on a misty day, when the clouds hang low there is beauty to be seen

I know I get bogged down in my own life, bringing up teenagers, money worries, stressing about the future etc. etc. And then to look outside, everything is just going on as it always has. Whatever is going on, just pausing for a while and soaking in the view is so important . Small things noticed during the course of a day,  a wren hopping under a shrub, the way the sunlight hits a cloud, a view glimpsed from the car window, and then gone.

These all lift my mood, not always remarked upon but so vital, to keep us going and make us feel better, connected somehow to the earth.

That is how painting makes me feel, being able to see things more clearly and really concentrate on the colour and form of a wildflower. I know gardening can be very similar and I imagine running or wild swimming ( although a brisk walk is the most exercise I can manage ) also connects people to their environments. I walk the same walk everyday ( I walk other walks too) but my walk is very special. My hubby said "don't you get bored, you could always go this way or that way?", but I find comfort in the familiar, that constantly changes with the weather and the seasons. My tree, my gap in the hedge, my puddle, my hedgerow are my companions, my connection to my home and I see them differently every day.

So today I thought you might like to  try a small painting of a thistle, and really look at something and paint it, it will take you away from everyday stresses to really look at something beautiful for an hour or 2.

First I roughly sketch the thistle ( quite roughly) 

Then I spray the paper with water and drop some pink around the flower, Ii like the splishy splashy nature of watercolour , so I want to exploit it. I am using rose madder, or permanent rose, watered down

After all the excitement leave it now, completely, to dry.

Now you can begin on the flower, look at the thistle and see how it is made, then use your brush and paints accordingly. There are lots of tiny spikes, so I use my brush to try to emulate them. Never trying to paint everything, but to get a feel for the subject. Start with the lightest colour first.

then while it begins to dry drop in some darker tones.


I could see some blues and purples in the flower too, paint what you see, try to be impulsive and gestural. Don't worry too much about it all ( remember we have left our worries behind while we paint this )

Define where the shadows are, and then let the paint settle.

Now move onto the base of the thistle, and add the colours you see, remember where the light needs to hit the plant. I used lemon yellow, cerulean blue and then greens.

You see how adding the marks makes the painting 'pop'. I add indigo to the greens to get a dark shade.

Now I add spikes with my brush, or sometimes I use a palette knife, into the wet paint

Give a suggestion of the prickles. 

Finally I continue down the stem a bit , using lighter yellows and bluey greens, and my thistle is done.

Have a go , lose yourself for a few hours, and see what happens x


Back to blog


Very helpful tutorial, thank you for the effort! You’ve painted a beautiful thistle

Ida Hytinkoski

I love your paintings, of course, and I also like your texts, like this one, a fine mix of painting tutorial with a shot of your wisdom derived from the experiences you’ve made in your life and the wise conclusions you drew from them… Thanks for sharing both with us.
I envy everyone who is spontaneous and impulsive enough to be able to paint intuitively… I have to keep myself from walking in nature with a ruler in hand and measure everything, having 10 cm for the stem, 6 cm for the flower… gg My head is full of checkered boxes with tiny labels on them… guess I would have made an excellent chartered accountant…


Dear Rachel – another beautiful and very inspiring painting/blog. Thank you very much for taking the time to share your lovely thoughts and paintings. I enjoy them very much (and also like to do the same local walk each day – as well as a few other walks when I get the chance – whenever possible, but with further recent fractures to my vertebrae this hasn’t been possible – but hopefully I will get back to it, albeit to a lesser extent, eventually. I shall certainly keep trying!)


Thank you! I was just looking for some well-grounded thoughts on watercolour thistle and I found your instructions. I love the use of a palette knife.


I just found out about you today.


Leave a comment