The Primaries: Oregon Grape

The Primaries: Oregon Grape

Mahonia berries painted on natural vellum.
I chose these rather humble, partially dried Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) berries to paint in a workshop almost two years ago, passing by bright autumn leaves and plump chestnuts. I am often drawn to the beauty of the insignificant. Here I am just starting my painting on a lovely piece of natural calfskin vellum from England.
I added a Mahonia leaflet to my study page.
The next winter, I added a Mahonia leaflet to my study page (on the bottom right) in preparation for the next step in my painting.  I transferred the outline of my drawing to the vellum and painted the bright winter colors.
Oregon Grape's bright yellow blossoms are among the first to bloom in late winter in the PNW.fic Northwest.
The next step was to add the almost neon yellow blossoms that brighten late winter here in the Pacific Northwest. Since Oregon Grape’s  blossoms are our state flower, they seemed important to include. Here they are lightly drawn in and the first layer of paint applied.
Colors of Mahonia
Yellow, red and blue–the primary colors displayed in flower, leaf and berry–the basic elements of the plant!

Pigments Used

For those of you who are interested, the pigments I used were primary colors as well. I added a few dabs of other pigments here and there but the basics were my brightest yellows for the blossoms, Hansa Yellow Medium, Winsor Yellow, Winsor Lemon with Gamboge for the shadows. The leaves were Hansa Yellow Medium, Pthalo Blue Red Shade, Quinacridone Red and Permanent Rose. Ironically, I used the most pigments for the berries, which are rather monochrome, Indanthrene, Transparent Yellow, Permanent Rose, with Cobalt Blue and Verditer for the bloom.


  1. Jean Di Sabatino says

    Hi Janene,
    As well as highlighting the primaries in the Mahonia, this is an excellent piece that demonstrates the time element in nature and in painting. It reminds me to take sketches and make paintings of a subject throughout the year. It also tells me that I don’t have to finish a piece once I‘ve started it, I can come back to it with additions. I am often drawn to paint things that are in season, usually the bloom. Now I must make the effort to get out there and observe, throughout the year. Thank you for sharing your process. How does does drawing on vellum compare to paper?

    • Hi Jean, I agree that painting things in season (as much as possible) makes a huge difference since photos can’t ever do justice to a botanical subject. The play of light reveals much that a camera can’t record.

      As far as painting on vellum compared to paper, they are very different surfaces but have some similarities, particularly if you use a dry brush technique on paper. The main difference is that washes, and painting wet in wet do not work on vellum, except for washes in small areas as the first layer of paint. After that layer, you must work with a very dry brush or the paint underneath will lift. I did a series of posts on painting on vellum if you want to read more about it.

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I appreciate your comments so very much!

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