Tutorial: How to paint a saguaro cactus

The saguaro cactus is one of my favourite plants. It has such a distinctive shape, with the arms almost like they’re waving at you! For this watercolour tutorial, you’re going to need a fine brush and a steady hand for the lines.

watercolor saguaro cactus painting tutorial

What you will need

  • Watercolour paints
  • Watercolour paper
  • Some brushes, including a fine one for the details
  • Jars of clean water
  • Paper towel

Paint colours

  • Sap Green
  • Hookers Green
  • Yellow Ochre

All the watercolour paint I use is the professional range from Winsor & Newton. Don’t worry if you don’t have these exact colours – find the closest match in your palette.

Paint a saguaro cactus step by step

  1. If you would like to start with a sketch, you will need to outline a tall central column with a rounded top. Then create the arms, coming out of the central column with a more rounded tip.
  2. Imagine a light source towards the top right of your painting – this will be where you create the highlights. Mix up a light green and fill in your central column shape, leaving a small white space highlight towards the right side.
  3. While the paint is still wet, use a darker green on the left side to create a slight shadow. Allow this to blend out naturally wet-on-wet. Don’t worry about making it too dark, or you won’t be able to see the lines at the end.
  4. Repeat the process with the arms of the cactus. To create a natural look, make the arms a different height, and ensure they start at a different place in the central column. If your cactus is too symmetrical, it won’t look natural.
  5. Once the base layer is dry, grab your smallest watercolour brush. Load up with your darkest green paint, and use a light touch to paint the lines down the cactus, using the wet-on-dry technique. Break up the lines by lifting the brush from the paper as you draw, and make them darker on the shadow side.
  6. Finish by adding the base in a light brown.

And you’re done! Now you’ve painted one saguaro cactus, why not try creating a desert scene? Add multiple cacti, making some smaller and lighter to make them recede into the background.

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