Watercolor and Ink: Cacti Illustration | Courtney McCulloch | Skillshare

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Watercolor and Ink: Cacti Illustration

teacher avatar Courtney McCulloch, Tulip Poplar Co.

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (36m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Materials

    • 3. Pen Illustration

    • 4. Watercolor Techniques

    • 5. Finishing Touches

    • 6. Conclusion

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About This Class


Join Courtney Bray (Tulip Poplar Co.) for an exploration of watercolor and ink art by creating a whimsical and fun cacti illustration. In this simple class, you will learn the basics of working with pen and watercolor through simple, descriptive lessons.  The process is broken down with step-by-step instructions suitable for all skill levels. Let your creativity flow and enjoy the peaceful and therapeutic nature of pen and watercolor illustration! 

A list of materials I used for this class:

  • Watercolor paper- I used Fabriano Artistico Extra White 140lb
  • Water resistant pen- I used a Zebra Zensations Technical Drawing pen size .5
  • Watercolors- I used a selection of Daniel Smith colors including Jadeite Green, Serpentine Green, Phthalo Turquoise, Mayan Dark Blue, Quinacridone Magenta, Quin. Coral, Indian Yellow, Cascade Green
  • White ink or gouache- I used Dr. Ph. Martin's Bleed Proof White
  • Brushes- I used two Princeton brand brushes, both round and sizes 2 and 8
  • One or two jars of water
  • Paper towel
  • Optional- transfer paper and cacti template


Video music by:

Dyalla - Wonderful, The Cat Strut

Nicolai Heidlas - Sunnyside

Bensound - Creativeminds

Meet Your Teacher

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Courtney McCulloch

Tulip Poplar Co.


Hello there!  I'm Courtney...the face behind Tulip Poplar Co.!  During the day, you can find me in my classroom in front of groups of middle schoolers...attempting to teach them about the rich diversity and awesomeness of the world we live in.  By the afternoon, I NEED the energy that painting with watercolor gives me.  Art is my passion and my outlet and I crave the joy that it brings me. I hope that I can share some of that with you! Check out my Instagram for daily inspiration!

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1. Introduction: Hi, and thanks for joining me for watercolor and ink cacti illustration. My name is Courtney Bray and I'm the watercolors behind Tulip Poplar Co. I'm so excited to show you this fun and easy project, and during it, we're going to go over the basics of pen illustration. We're going to create line drawings of cacti, and then we're going to explore watercolor in order to add color in interests to our line draw, and I can't wait to see what you create. 2. Materials: In order to complete this project, there are a few materials that you're going to need. First is paper. You definitely want to use watercolor paper. The type I'm using is Fabriano artistico extra white, 140 pound cold press, but any watercolor paper will do. You can even buy a sheet of it at your local craft store, and cut it to size if you don't want to invest in an entire block. The second thing that we are going to need is a pen is to create our line drawings. I am using a Zebra Sensations Technical Drawing pen. The only thing you really need to make sure it has is water resistance. We are going to be using watercolor over the pin, and if it's not water resistant or waterproof, then it will bleed into your drawing. My pen is 0.5 in size, it's a medium-size tip, so it's going to make a nice bold line but it's not going to be too overwhelming for our painting. We're also going to need watercolors. I've got a few options for you. The first one is this Windsor and Newton Cotman set, this is a prefilled palette, when you get it, you'll see that it has individual wells of color. I prefer to use tubes of watercolor because I like to choose my own colors. These are going to be Daniel Smith watercolors. As you can see I've already pre-filled my palette. I wait until they're dry. This has been well used. You can choose the colors you want and you can place them where you want them on the palette. Either one is fine. If you're afraid to invest in pre-filled palettes or in tubes, then you can get these dot cards, and several manufacturers make these. They are a great option for you to sample some colors that they provide. You can basically try out the brand or the colors without having to spend too much money. We're also going to need two jars of water. One for cool colors, one for warm colors. You can use one jar, but you're going to have to change your water out more frequently because the water will get muddy on you. You're also going to need brushes. I have two brushes here, they're both Princeton brand which just happens to be my personal favorite. I've got around size 2 and around size 8. If you want to use one brush, that's fine. I would choose a 6,8 or 10 for this project. You'll also need a piece of paper towel or kitchen roll so that you can dab your brushes and then some bleed proof white ink. You could also use whitewash, or if you don't have either of those, you could also use a white paint pen or a Gelly Roll pen. The last thing that you're going to need is some inspiration. I have a book that I found at a thrift store that has some lovely colorful pictures in it, and then I also printed off just a black and white copy of cacti cheese for reference. You could also use your imagination if you feel comfortable with that, I just like to have reference material just in case, just to give me some ideas of what I'm going to be doing. 3. Pen Illustration: Now that we have all of our materials, we're ready to get started. Before we start actually drawing our cacti, I want go over a few basics using pen to illustrate them. To make sure that you have used your pen, that you practice mark making so that you feel comfortable with the pen, watercolor paper is a bit thick and textured, so make sure that you practice on a scrap piece before you start your drawing. If this totally intimidates you because you can't erase the pen, then you might want to sketch something out with a pencil and then you can go over that with pen and erase your pencil marks afterward. The second option for you is to print off the template that I've provided under the attached files under your project and you can get a piece of transfer paper like this, and then you will be able to put the transfer paper underneath and then trace the template and it will transfer right onto your watercolor paper. The next thing I want to talk about real quick is the shape of the cacti. You'll notice that they're pretty organic shapes, so there's not going to be really perfect circles or perfect ovals, which is great, because I don't know about you, but I'm not wonderful at drawing perfect circles. We want these to be organic. We want them to be a little wonky and makes them have character. You'll also notice that there's a lot of repeating patterns here, lot of repeating shapes. You'll notice there is a lot of ovals and circles and then also some teardrops shapes. These are pretty standard shapes that we're going to be working with. I don't want you to look at this and try to draw exactly. We're just trying to reference the shape to give the impression of the cacti. We want this to be whimsical and as long as we have the shape down and we can add the color in detail later, it will definitely look like a cacti and people will recognize it as that. We are done with pen techniques and we are ready to get started. For this project, I want to feel my paper with cacti. If you want to do a version of this where you do a single cacti or maybe a potted cacti, then that is fine. For this one I want to fill the page and that's what my composition is going to look like. I'm going to start out with a few different cacti and then I'm just going to layer them in to fill up the rest of the space. First, I pick out a cacti that I really like. I'm going to go with this one. I grew up in an area where they are not native, so I don't have the names of all of them and that's fine. This one might be a snake blimp, we're going to go with it. You'll notice that the leaves are just tear drop shapes and they're just layered on top of each other. Again, we're just trying to give the impression of that plant with the shape. I'm going to draw one teardrop leaf, and then I'm going to start layering other teardrop shapes on top of that. You do one at the center one coming off the side. Then I'm going to start filling in the back with those same shapes, just overlapping a little. Do one more coming off here and that little guy is done. Now the second cacti that are really like is this one. It's just oval shapes that are stacked on top of one another. That's simple enough. We'll start with our first oval, I'm just going to do it right next to that first one. I'm just going to stack a couple more on top of it. I don't want to overlap the first oval, I just want to stop right where those lines touch. I'm going to do a couple more at the top. Maybe give this one three, go for an odd number. The third one I want to do is this one in the back. You can see it has a straight line down the center and then these curved lines that go off of it pretty parallel. We're just going to reference that, we'll try to draw the straight line. If it's not straight, it's okay. You will curve this one and come down, curve this one and come down and then add one more in the background. To just give an idea of that, we'll draw it a little bit closer coming down. I'll do one more next to it, same idea, and then the little side coming down in the back, and we're done. I'm going to put my reference paper away. I'm just going to use my imagination to fill up the rest of the page because I see that there are some areas at the top and down here at the bottom that look a little bit bare and I want the composition to be more full. I'm just going to pick some shapes that I think will make a nice addition to this. I'm going to start down here in the bottom and then go with that oval shape. I want this one to have a flower on it, so I'm just going to create little round pedals, layer it so that I have some in the back some in the front and the flower centers. That one's done. I'm actually going to give him a couple of little friends down here next to him without flowers. I'm going to do a similar concept right next to him, maybe one that's more round and maybe has some spiky flowers, then give him a few friends next to him. I'll give this one a spiky flower. We'll call that done. Now we just need to add something in this space. I'm thinking just some oval shapes that go up. Just follow your line, come down, do another one right here, you would come there. Then a third one, let's do one in the back, and it will come down. Then last but not least, it looks like I need something right in here. I'm just going to extend this little guy out so that we fill in some of that space. I might give him one more oval to take care of that area. I think that looks good. We will call this finished, and then we'll move on to our watercolor. 4. Watercolor Techniques: Before we actually get started painting with watercolor, I want to go over a few techniques that we're going to use for this project, and those are going to include wet on dry and wet on wet, and I'm also going to talk a little bit about color choice. You'll notice that I have a light green color and then there are dots of this turquoise, I created this using a wet on wet technique. You'll also notice on this one, that I have a light peach color, and then I have navy little slashes going across and that has not blended together, that was created with a wet on dry technique, so I'm going to show both of those to you right now using these examples. I've already got some swatches down here, and I was doing this to show a gradient. If you take just a little bit of water, and get some color on your brush, make sure it's really saturated, there's a lot more pigment than there is water. Then when you create a swatch, it's going to be really dark, it's going to be very pigmented. If you add water to your brush, and you keep adding water, then your color is going to get gradually whiter and whiter. You don't have to add white to make your color lighter, which is awesome, you just have to add water that's how you get your colors lighter. If I have a swatch like this one that's already dry, so this is my first layer I've let it dry and I go over top of it with another color, or even the same color and I'm not using a lot of water, and I'm not scrubbing with my brush, then that color won't bleed, it's not going to run all over the paper, it's not going to mix with the color under it, it's just going to stay right where I touched the paper, that is what is called wet on dry. Now, if I were to create a swatch and I'll do that really quick, with just some wet paint, and again, if I pick up water and add to it it's going to make it become lighter and lighter, you'll notice the gradient. What I've got here is wet pigment, and if I pick up another color, or even the same color, but I'm going to go with another color just to show you, and I touch that pigment that's wet, that's when you're going to get the wet on wet technique where you will see the two colors bloom out and start to blend together. This creates really cool effects in watercolor, and honestly the different amounts of water that you use are going to determine what effects that you get, and even some colors will blend differently than others. That's what's going to give us the texture in our Cacti, I'm just going to use straight colors from my palette, I'm not going to do any blending so we don't need to discuss that. I'm just going to use colors in the palette, and I'm going to drop in wet on wet colors, I'm going to drop in other colors on that wet surface. Let's talk about color. If you are trying to match a color scheme maybe you want this to go in a room, and you already have the colors picked out, then what you can do is create swatches. Swatches are just that, they're just little swatches, little squares of color that you intend on using, and that will give you an idea of do these colors match? do they look good? am I actually matching the colors in my room? and it will also help you to stay focused on just those colors because you got them in front of you. When I paint I do it more intuitively, so I just pick the colors that I feel will look good in the moment, I don't necessarily always plan them out ahead of time. If I really want certain colors, I really want them to match something I would, and that's a good thing to do is to take a scrap piece of paper and create a little swatch, so make sure that you're using the colors that you want. Now we are ready to actually color in our paint drawing with watercolor, and this is probably my favorite part, it really needs that color to make it pop and to help define these Cacti. But what I'm going to do, is pick up some water on my brush, and I'm going to wet the color that I want to use, and for this one I'm going to start out with this round guy here, and I am going to use this turquoise. I'm just going to make sure that I have enough water so that I can wet my brush with color, and I'm just going to fill in the shapes that we've created. Now you'll notice that my brush only has so much water so when it starts to get dry like it has here, I'm just going to dip my brush back into the water so that I can keep moving the color around. I'm not going to even pick up more pigment on my brush yet, I'm just going to pick up water so that I can fill in this circle, and what you're going to notice is that it's going to create some light spots where there's more water and less pigment, and then there's going to be some dark areas where you've got right here, it's more saturated, and I think that that's going to create some interest for us so that these Cacti are not just a flat color. I think that with watercolor, that's the beauty of it, that you have these variations of color and texture. If you want a more flat look, then you might really enjoy the effect that you will get with wash, which is more opaque or with acrylic painting. All right, after my shapes are filled in, we've got one more left, here we go, then I can go ahead and drop in some color we were talking about using that wet on wet technique, and I'm going to use the same color, I'm just going to drop in some little dots here and there just randomly, you might have to pick up more water as you go but you'll probably still have pigment on your brush, and then I'm going to rinse my brush, and I do that by just swishing it in the water, and then I pull up on the sides to get all the excess water off. Then I'm going to pick up a second color and this is going to be serpentine green, and I'm going to do the same thing, I'm just going to drop it in random spots just to give it a little bit more texture, a little bit more interest, I think this is going to create a really pretty effect. You don't necessarily always know what you're going to get with watercolor and I think that's one of the fun things about it. Sometimes the color dries and just creates the most interesting blooms and bleeds, and so it's really exciting. You'll notice that these areas I just painted are still wet, so what we're going to encounter if we try to paint the Cacti behind it is that it's going to bleed together, that's not always a bad thing, but for this particular painting I want to see a little bit of a defined line there. I'm going to move on to an area that is not touching the Cacti I just worked on, and for me I think I'm going to start on this snake plant, which if I remember correctly is a dark green color with those white accent marks that are so defining. I'm going to use this jade dark green which is the darkest green on my palette, and I'm going to just lay the color down, nice and bold. I will add water and make some of these a little wider than others just again, so that I have a little variation going on, but mainly we're just filling in the shapes. This does not have to be perfect by the way, so if you go outside of the lines don't beat yourself up over it. I think it's actually quite beautiful when it's more organic, and we're going outside of the lines a little bit. In fact, some people do that on purpose because they really like that aesthetic, they really like the look of it, so it's perfectly fine if your colors are outside of your lines. I'm almost done with this little guy. So I'm going to make this one, I think a little darker, so we'll just add more saturated pigment to him, and we're done. It's going rinse my brush out, dry it a little bit on that paper towel. I think I'm going to move to these little guys down here next and give these a chance to dry before I move on to the top. I want a paint cacti for one of these. I think that's so fine, I don't know if those exist in real life, but they should. So I'm going to pick up a little bit of this coral. I might mix it with a tad of yellow just to give a peachy color. I'm just going to fill that shape in. I really like that color. Then I'm going to fill in his little friends down here too. I was pretty simple and I think for his flower, I'm going to use a little bit of light, magenta. I don't want it to be too saturated. That's going to bleed together to see a little bit, but I think it'll be fine. There we go. If that ever happens where you have a belief that you don't like because you've touched two colors together that are wet, you can always take your paper towel and you can press down on that. Then you can go back maybe when that's dry to correct that. I don't necessarily mind it, but it's just it's personal preference whether you want to fix that or not. If it was maybe like a green and a red and they were just creating a really muddy color then I might, correct it, but those don't bother me too much, for the sound here, I'm going to do a white green, so I'm going to pick up that Serpentine. You'll get some water on there, might share some of this color with him real quick, and then I might dab in a little bit of yellow because I think that he will look good, with a little yellow. So I'll just pick up the yellow, I just going to dotted in. That wont show up too much, but I think it'll just be still a little something fun. Not just straight green. You can tell if the paint is still wet by seeing if it has a shin in the light, and I can tell that these are all bubbles still wet a little bit. I'm going to go ahead with the painting because I don't mind if they bleed together with the cacti behind them so much, it's going to be other colors of green, the greens bleeding together are, okay with me. For this cacti back here, I'm going to use a cascade green, which has blue undertones to it's really pretty, especially when it creates blends, you'll see that blue stand out even more, so I'll see if we can get some magic to happen, and you'll see what I'm talking about. So we're just filling in the shapes, and then I'm going to do the second one back here, add some water to make sides of it a little bit lighter and those are done. Now if you ever have little specs like this, if you can get them pretty quick and dab them and then maybe scrub them with a little bit of water. Then you can take care of all them. I probably waited a little too long for that one, but I don't think that he'll be super noticeable in the end, so we're probably safe. For the last ones back here, I'm going to do a dark color since they're in the background, and I'm going to use this Mayan dark blue, which is almost a navy color, and I think it's a really beautiful color. I think that's going to look really good. Again, I'm painting just intuitively, so I'm just going with what feels right in the moment. Sometimes it works out, sometimes, like oh, I don't know about that color choice, but it's all about the process, as long as you're enjoying the process and you're learning, then I think everything works out in the end. Just adding water to your brush as you need it. The only thing we need to finish now are the flowers for these little guys. I might add a little bit of color to that one because I think it's still wet, and you go with the scarlet, I'm just going to touch in some at the bottom and see what that looks like when it blends. Then I'm also going to use the scarlet for these flowers as well. Already got it on my brush, and it will save me from wasting it, and you'll see that the greens bleeding a little bit with them, but that doesn't bother me and I think it's going to look good. So the last thing that we have to do is to add the details, so if you're looking at this and you're thinking it's not quite there. You're right, it's not quite there. Once we add those details, these cacti are really going to shine. I think it's really going to make them pop, and I think that you'll see all come together. 5. Finishing Touches: Now that our painting is dry, we're going to add the finishing touches and the small details and little accent marks. I'm going to start with the Dr. Ph. Martin's bleed proof white. Again, at this point you can use white gouache or a paint pen or jelly roll. The whole thing is that we want to have a nice opaque white color. I have a clean brush and I'm going to wet it a bit and I'm going to dip right into the jar. If you're worried that you're going to contaminate your jar with color then you might scoop some out and put it onto your palette. I know that my brush is clean, so I'm going to use it straight from the jar. I want to start with this cacti in the back and I remember for my reference photo that it had white dots along the spine., so I'm going to add those in. This bleed proof white is thick so you might have to add a little water just to thin it out enough to spread it on your paper. I'm going to go down that line. You can see our pin line and just create little round dots just by wiggling my brush a little. We did on the outside one too is pickup pin as you need it. I'm not going to do this center line because that is the inner part of the cactus, I'm going to do the outside one as well. If you want to add white to that one you can. I just know that in the reference photo there was not white on that part, so I'm going to skip it. I'm going to go on to the second one. Do that one fast and those ones are done. I'm going to move on to this back one, and I'm going to add thin vertical lines. I'll start in the center and work my way up, then I'm going to do parallel lines on the side and then I'll do the other cacti. Then those are done. Really simple, just small details that make a world of difference. I'm going to do this snake plant next and you'll remember from the reference that it's just some vertical lines, and I want these lines to vary in length. You don't want them to all be the same exact length you want it to be a little organic. Do some short ones and some tall ones, maybe even some thin and fat ones. Just like this. Add water as you need it to thin that white out. Now we're done with those. I go back in darker areas, and I will call that one finished. The next one I'm going to do is this light green one at the bottom and I'm going to add yellow to that, some really saturated. I want mostly color on the brush dark yellow. We might not be able to see it a lot, so I might go back and add some white accents to that in a second. I want to make sure I curve it around. Imitate the curve of the circle, if you do straight lines, it's going to look flat. Our last one here, I'm going to rinse my brush well and I'm going to go back and add a little white. I'm just going to do little dots in between my rows of yellow. One more. Those are done and I am going to use white for this pink, so I'm going to do same concept. Those are done. The last one we have is this big guy here, and I actually want to add some spikes to him. I know that in our reference photo, he had white dots, but instead of that, I want to add some spikes. I could go back and add those with my pen but I'm actually just going to pick up some of these turquoise and add them with the turquoise. I just want to do really thin lines going out. I need to pick up some more water. I don't want to do them in the same direction, so I'm going to look at the line of my cactus and for the line on the right, I'm going to curve them toward that side and the ones on the left, I'm going to curve more toward that angle, so i doesn't look so flat. Make sure that you extend it past your lines because if you keep them all within your pen lines, he's going to look more flat on your paper, so we want to extend those up and out. If you wanted to make those more of a v-shape, you can. Sometimes I do that. I just doing the single spikes or thorns on him today. Then last but not least, sometimes I like to add a little white accent dot right edge where the thorn meets the cactus for a little added interest, so I'm going to do that quickly. It shows up well in the darker parts of the cactus. You don't notice it as much in the lighter areas but I still like it. These don't have to be super precise. Right now, we'll see if I missed any, and I think I'm good. This is done. I'm going to call that finished. Now you could add other small details if you want but this is looking awesome. Now you have a finished piece. 6. Conclusion: I hope you really enjoyed this process. We've learned basic line drawing. We've learned wet on wet and wet on dry technique. We've learned about how to create a composition that works. I think that you will have ended up creating a beautiful product. I hope that you really enjoy hanging this in your home or sharing it with a friend. Either way, is all about the process and I'm glad that you decided to create with me today. Make sure that you share your cacti illustration in the projects below so that I can see it and comment on, and I can't wait to see what you've created. If you share it on social media, be sure to tag me. I'd love to see it on there too. Thanks so much.