Painting a Cactus in Watercolor

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Watercolor Painting of Cacti

I went scouting for painting references at the Los Angeles Arboretum awhile ago. Local outdoor gardens are a good place to bring a cup of your favorite coffee to-go, and your camera. Wander the grounds that someone else has planted and manicured to snap reference photos of plants you don’t have in your yard as painting fodder. (After the pandemic is over.)

This watercolor of a prickly pear cactus (Opuntia) in the sun was painted from photos taken during my wanderings in the garden. Do you make plans to take your camera out to gather painting ideas? Scheduled image gathering sessions?

Even if you don’t have a fancy DSLR camera, you can take great painting reference photos with your phone. (I wrote about using your phone to snap still life painting fodder here.)

First washes on Opuntia
Petite ceramic watercolor rinse cup to beautify an art table

Source Photos for Watercolors

I collected several hundred sunny photos of flowers, cacti, leaves, fountains and shadows along the pathways of the arboretum.

It was a fun harvest, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the studio to see the images on a larger monitor.

If I want to paint a face, or a still life, I browse those reference images on my computer, by subject. I use a Mac, and the Photo App allows you to create customized Albums.

I keep my art reference photos organized by subject for easy retrieval. All my photos are uploaded to the Cloud, so they’re visible across each of my devises. I can print the photo larger, or just open it on my ipad to pinch the image in or out for details while I’m painting. Do you do that too?

This Opuntia cactus looked fun as a painting subject, because the orb shape of the fruit reminds me of Christmas balls, but with don’t-touch-me spikes.

Adding values to the spheres of the cactus fruit
Anna Mason paints an echeveria succulent in watercolor, in a quick primer to a longer tutorial (see below)

Resources for Painting Succulents in Watercolor

  • This cacti watercolor painting video has no verbal instruction but the demonstration is close-up and fun to watch. Watching another artist paint has enough hints about process to fuel some fresh inspiration. Grab your brushes and get started!
  • Owen Mann made a series of beautiful succulents in pottery clay and glazes, and dubbed them Floramics. See his lovely work here.
Opuntia finished in the studio
Opuntia freshly framed and headed to a new home.

Audiobooks in the Studio

These books (below) entertained me beautifully while I painted this cactus watercolor. I totally enjoyed listening to each of them.

I especially loved the book The Vanishing Velasquez. If you like non-fiction history, observations on historical traditions of painting portraits, artist to patron protocol, hierarchy in a King’s castle in the 1600’s, and analysis of Velasquez’ paintings from a deeply humanized perspective, listen to this book. šŸ™‚

Opuntia 8 x 9.5 Watercolor (Sold)

Painting Watercolor of Succulents

I think I’m painting cacti and succulents because I don’t have any flowers in my yard. I’ve got plenty of photos, but roses aren’t front-of-mind. There are prickly pear cacti just across the street though.

Winter is approaching – and today – very high winds are howling outside my studio window – three days after the 3rd anniversary of the Thomas Fire. Painting is a salve, in the truest sense of the word.

I have some watercolors started with a rose and plum still life, and a few miniature figurative dry-brush portraits. I’ve also got three or four new drypoints from produce containers. But each of them are at the midway point, so stay tuned.

Let’s keep each other accountable, and try really hard to finish some art this week, okay?

Thanks for visiting, and happy art-making from my messy studio to yours!


P.S. You can subscribe to get each new blog post via email here. It’s free. šŸ˜Œ

watercolor still life of peaches
Peaches in a Mexican Bowl – Watercolor still life study

Art Quote

These things are never fair. People like what they like, and that’s the great and terrible thing. It’s about personal taste, and a certain set of people on a certain day.

Gabrielle Zevin – The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
Art SHows Before Covid: A visit from Bob Oltman of the Pasadena Museum of California Art while setting up my booth at the Pasadena Artwalk (photo by Mike Pashistorian)

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3 thoughts on “Painting a Cactus in Watercolor”

  1. Its so nice I can visit with you in sunny and warm CA !. The days here on the east coast are grey, cold, rainy and short, and the ground has frost on it in the morning. Getting to paint outdoors is such a gift. Thanx for having me!

    1. Ahhh, Suzanna, Iā€™m sending you a virtual handful of fresh picked rosemary for your studio, with tiny purple flowers blooming among the branches. It is warm and windy today – fire weather. Your rainy, cold, frost-tipped environment sounds perfect for a day of art-making inside with a pot of tea. Thanks for visiting with your winter wonderland. šŸ™‚

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