How to Paint Succulents & Cactuses | Watercolor Tutorial & Sketchbook Series

Welcome back to another tutorial where I show you my watercolor painting process and techniques that I use in my sketchbook.

If you missed my last tutorial from this series, check out my previous post.


+ Sketchbook for initial drawing (
+ No. 2 pencil (
+ Tracing paper (similar -
+ Eraser (

+ Watercolor Sketchbook: Canson Art Book Montval Watercolor 140 lb/300g 10 in x 7 in (
+ St. Petersburg Watercolors Nevskaya Politra or White Nights (

+ Round pointed synthetic brush #6, #5
+ Round squirrel brush #5
+ Small synthetic brush for details #2

+ Paper towel
+ Water

Download reference photos here:

Sketching before Painting

Today, I'm painting succulents and cactuses, which is a requested tutorial, and I'm excited to share with you my painting process. Before I start my painting, I usually create a quick sketch of the composition.

I couldn't find one specific reference photo that I liked to use for this painting, so I designed the composition myself. I used several photos and some of my real plants to sketch the drawing. I think it's a lot of fun to compose your paintings instead of copying just one photograph, so definitely give it a try. Click here to download the reference photos.

To transfer the drawing to my watercolor sketchbook, I'm using tracing paper cut out in the size of my sketchbook. I'm creating an outline of the sketch with my mechanical pencil. The size of the pencil doesn't matter. The point of this exercise is to simplify the drawing, so it's easier to paint.

Now that I created the outline of the drawing, I'm going to shade the back side to transfer it to my watercolor sketchbook. I'm doing it lightly with my No 2 pencil, which I usually use in this process.

To trace the drawing, I'm using a ballpoint pen. I like to use a ballpoint pen because it doesn't rip the delicate paper. Also to make sure the tracing paper doesn't move, I taped it to the sketchbook.

Once I transferred the drawing to my watercolor paper, I'm going to erase some of the lines so they are a little bit lighter.

Color Palette and Brushes

For the watercolors, I'm using Saint Petersburg palette (Nevskya Palitra). And this little mixing palette. Also, I would like to note that I'm not wetting the whole watercolor paper before I begin painting, this is a different technique, not the one I'm using today.

Because this drawing is pretty small, I'm going to use small paint brushes, mainly sizes #6, #5, and some detail brush #2.

As for the colors, I'm using cadmium yellow, some greens, also, I'm going to use indigo, and a little bit of violet or purple. As for the rest, I'm using greens and mixing them with yellow.

Adding Under-paint

I start my painting by doing a wash of yellow. I'm painting with a very light yellow all over my succulent, and in some places, I thin out the yellow with more water. I let the water soak into the paper, by working on other areas of the composition. For my cactuses, I'm going to do the same thing, wet the paper, add a little bit of cadmium yellow wash. For smaller plants, I'm going to leave them as is for now.

I'm taking the brightest green I have in my palette, called yellow-green, and doing another wash over the plant. This green does add a little bit of grow to the plant, but I like that effect. I'm mixing the bright green with cadmium yellow and letting the paint mix with water. Then I'm adding more cadmium yellow and bright green and allowing the paint mix on paper again; the water really helps with this mixing process.

Now, I'm doing the same thing on each cactus. Just to note, the light source is coming from the right side, so all the shadows will be on the left. I also paint the smaller plants. I mix cadmium yellow with sap green, and then I paint a pretty thin wash of that green color over them.

Working on Plant Pot

While the plants are drying, I'm going to work on my pot. Before starting on the plant pot, make sure to switch out your water, use clear water to avoid any accidental green mixtures in the wrong places.

I'm going to use my squirrel paint brush # 5. It soaks up water pretty well, as I said previously. I'm loading the paintbrush with clear water and painting all over the pot. If you used too much water, wipe some of it with a paper towel. I'm going to use mainly indigo to paint it with a little bit of cadmium yellow because I want it to be a cool neutral hue.

I'm mimicking the bowl's ridges and little shadows that I see in the picture. I'm mixing indigo with yellow and a little bit of red to get a warmer greyish shadow.

I'm going to let the pot dry and come back to my plants. My plants are not completely dry yet, but the water has thoroughly soaked into the paper, which is a perfect time to come back to paint them.

Painting Leaves

To paint my plants, I'm going to create a dark green. To do that I'm mixing sap green, bright green and indigo.

I'm painting each leaf separately. Also, I'm using my detail brush, which is a synthetic brush #2 because this is a pretty small painting.

The process of painting leaves is pretty simple. I'm using the green I mixed previously to paint the edges of each leaf. Then I'm wiping my brush with paper towel, washing the paintbrush with water, and using my clean brush to soften the paint strokes.

Another technique for this is to use two brushes. And that's what I'm going to do because this process is pretty repetitive and I would like to simplify it as much as possible. I'm going to use my detail brush to lay down the dark lines and use another clean wet brush to soften the inside edge of each leaf.

To paint the cactuses, I'm going to use a similar technique but with a bigger and softer brush. I'm using my squirrel brush because it creates soft lines. I'm painting the shadow areas of the cactuses with the dark green I used for my succulent, then wiping my brush and softening the strokes.

For the other plants, I'm switching back to a smaller brush, but this time I'm going to paint the shadow areas of the plants, but leave the shapes as is without blending them, this will create a three-dimensional quality of the leaves.

Adding Contrast and Details 

To darken the shadows, create contrast and dimension of the plants, I'm adding another layer of paint all over the composition, and I'm working on the shadow areas of each leaf. The color that I'm using is green mixed with a little bit of indigo.

For my succulent, I'm using violet pigment to create the purple edges that I see in the leaves.

As the paper dries, some of the pigment disappears. To recreate the missing contrast and dimension, I'm adding another dark wash to the shadows.

Now, the pot looks too light compared to the plants, so we're going to create depth as well as paint the falling shadow. Again, I'm using indigo with a little bit of cadmium yellow and red for my pot shadows.

As for the cactus needles, I'm using yellow ochre and dark green for the needles and their shadows.

As always, I can add more details and refinement to the painting, but for now this is good. Please let me know in the comments below if you liked this tutorial and if this was helpful to you. Also, I would like to hear what other watercolor tutorials you would like to see. Thanks and 'till next time!


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