How to Effortlessly Draw and Paint Shrubs in Watercolor

You may not expect it, but drawing and painting shrubs will mostly likely become a necessity in your artwork. In general, shrubbery falls into the category of “background art,” meaning you don’t need or want it to steal attention away from the main subject of your composition. You may need it to be detailed enough to delineate a certain plant species, but typically you can keep this background work fairly simple.

Here are a few methods that I use to create watercolor shrubs.

Keep your shrubbery plain in the background, but bring out a little more detail closer to the foreground.

How to draw foreground and background shrubbery

Painting shrubs in the background

The background shrubs are the ones you will generally want to look nondescript — though you still want it to look good. After all, it is part of the picture! 

With a pencil or pen, draw the rough outline of the size and shape for how your shrubbery will fit best into your composition. Keep the shape simple and a little uneven so it looks natural.

Drawing Background Shrubbery

When you paint the shrubbery, give it a wash of uneven color. Add in some color variations for eye-catching interest.

Watercolor base on shrubbery

While still wet (or if you let it dry, re-wet), dab in deeper, uneven saturation on the shrubs. This will be like a mottled effect.

For more definition, darken the shadowy area under the shrubs to ground them to the earth and separate them from the other foliage.

Simple Watercolored Shrubbery

Painting detailed shrubs in the foreground

Sketch the shrubs the same way as above, but this time, simply add a little more leaf details.

To add more interest to the shrubbery and keep it from looking monotonous, add a few shoots of varied foliage, a vine or a few little flowers.

Detailed Shrubbery Sketch

Add your base watercolor wash, then re-wet and dab in more saturation — just like above. Darken or shade under some of the leaves to add definition. 

Darken under the shrubs as well.

Painted Detailed Shrubbery

Creating more realistic details in painted shrubs

I admit I rarely go out in the field to sketch from life. But the times I have really helped me learn how to draw different kinds of plants better. You really see the details more clearly and get a better feel for shaping the plants. It takes away the confusion of drawing something that’s full of little details.

I have a trick I frequently use to start my drawings of shrubs: I first draw the parts of the plant I want exposed the most, and then I go back and fill in foliage around, behind and under the plant.

Here is an example with three types of shrubs. I start by drawing what I want to draw the most attention to — in this case, the flowers on the bushes.

Sketch of Detailed Shrubs

My next step is to fill in the rest of the leaves or shoots.

Drawing Detailed Shrubbery

Then I add a base wash of color and mottle in a little more saturation while still wet.

Step 3 in painting shrubs

Finally, I go in and add details to create dimension: 

  • Shade under some of the leaves
  • Paint some leaves darker or a slightly different hue than others
  • Deepen the shadows behind and at the bottom of the shrub.
  • Deepen the hue of the foliage around flowers to make then stand out more.
Finished watercolor of shrubbery tutorial
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