This 9×12 inch oil painting was completed alla prima, or wet-in-wet in a little under 3 hours. The tips and techniques I share can be used while painting under the warmth of the morning sun during a plein air outing or while sipping lemonade in the comfort of your studio.
In seven easy steps, I will show you how I created loose colorful sunflowers without getting caught up in all the small details. This Alla Prima (wet-into-wet) method is about seeing the value and color shapes that make up the structure of the sunflowers and leaves so you can quickly paint those shapes.
It is a fun quick painting style that even beginning oil painters can learn to do.
Before we get to the art instruction, let me tell you about my fascination with painting sunflowers. Then I’ll share some of the sunflower paintings I’ve created over the last 20 years.
You can also watch the 50-minute video called Tips to Paint Sunflowers in a Field. In the video, I teach about the brush techniques I used to paint the sunflowers as well as some important art concepts like thinking of objects in terms of light and shadow value shapes.
Why I Paint Sunflowers
Nature can be dazzlingly beautiful and a bit creepy all at once. Take sunflowers for instance.
There’s not a more dynamic and invigorating subject to paint. Bright yellow petals that bend and twist as they circle round and contrast against a lively orange-brown center of colorful seeds. They seem alive and playful like a child’s disheveled hair. Their tall stalks reach high with broad leaves trying desperately to keep balanced while a too-large flower tilts forward and attempts to touch the sun.
Yet, if we watch a field of sunflowers with time-lapsed filming we witness an unusual display. Each flower turns in tandem to follow the sun as it arcs from East to West throughout the day. The ritual reminds me of an Orson Welles film where they are compelled against their will to do the same thing everyone else is forced to do – day in and day out.
Fortunately, their movement is slow enough that all we see is a dazzling display of color and contrast – a flower painter’s dream opportunity.
This field was one of many that grew along the outskirts of Hays, Kansas where I finished off my MFA. They, and other sunflowers we have grown around our property, have granted me several fun painting experiences over the last 15 years. Many of these sunflower paintings were completed in an Alla Prima (wet-into-wet) painting style and much of my painting is done Plein Air.
Here’s a sampling of sunflower paintings from the archives:
Yep, I’ve enjoyed painting sunflowers for quite some time. They’re a little more of a challenge than other flowers but they are so much fun to paint!
Ready to work on a new sunflower painting together? Here are the 7 steps to paint a sunflower that even beginning painters can use to paint their own impressionistic, loose sunflower painting. Soon you will learn to paint sunflowers like a pro. Keep in mind that the entire brushstroke-by-brushstroke video is available in the Master Oil Painting Membership site.
7 Easy Steps – How to Paint a Sunflower Field
Step 1 – block-in a warm undertone
Learning how to paint a sunflower is not a simple task. They have very distinct features. Hopefully, these tips and techniques will help you master the art of painting sunflowers more quickly.
All the yellow and green in a field of sunflowers can overwhelm a beginning painter. It’s easy to get caught up in painting lots of tiny unnecessary details. That’s why it’s nice to begin with an easy and quick undertone of color. It gets us started and helps us get rid of the distracting white of the canvas.
I thought about using a reddish-purple under color to harmonize with the yellows and help tone them down. Seeing all the dusty looking bluish-green leaves I decided a warm reddish-brown underpainting seemed much more appealing to begin this painting with. I used Transparent Oxide Red, Transparent Oxide Yellow and a bit of Manganese Blue for the colors you see in the photo above.
Since I was using a linen canvas from Raymar, I chose to take advantage of the natural linen texture and dry-brushed the paint colors in thin layers to give the appearance of soil and grasses. I used a Utrecht Series 207 Flat to paint in the most of the initial blocks of color. Today I have shied away from the Utrecht brushes in favor of the Rosemary & Co paintbrushes because Rosemary carries every type of brush I love to use and I know the quality is top-notch.
Notice I didn’t begin with the sky layer first. There were two reasons for that:
- I wanted to use thick paint right from the start with the sky colors to add texture and interest. That sky color would require some titanium white added. I didn’t want that white to get mixed into the foreground undertones.
- The sky was going to take up only a small portion of the overall painting without any major objects overlapping it. That meant that I could lay it in at any time and not affect the rest of the painting.
If I had planned a larger sky I would probably have started with a thin wash of blue color straight from the tube and then wiped it down with a paper towel.
Step 2 – Put in the Sky and Background Field with Thick Paint Texture
My goal was to place the sky color in without needing major adjustments. Mixing the value and hue correctly the first time and laying it in thick enough to leave beautiful brush texture required using some Titanium white right away. I also wanted the sky to be a darker value to help the future sunflower highlights feel brighter by contrast.
As I moved down from the top of the painting I tried to get each shape laid-in with the correct values that I envisioned for the finished painting.
That can get a little tricky because I did not have the brightest or darkest values yet to judge my other values against. One of the best attributes of oil painting is the ability to change values and colors with slight shifts. Or we can completely change the value by brushing a new layer over a recently painted layer. So, even though my plan was to get it right the first time, I wasn’t intimidated at the idea that it might be wrong because I knew I could easily fine-tune areas later.
Thick paint was applied in horizontal brushstrokes to indicate the field of sunflowers without any strong details. I used Long Flat hog bristle brushes to get plenty of paint texture. Small touches of cool greyed lavender were added to help break up the large areas of warm yellows.
Step 3 – Add Large Foreground Sunflowers and Leaves with Quick Simple Brushstrokes
Now it was time for the fun stuff – painting the larger sunflowers and leaves.
Although these flowers would be much closer to the viewer I still wanted to keep the brush strokes simple. The middle seed area of each flower was a lavender mixture to work in harmony with the golden flower petals. The closer lavenders were darker with more red in them – the lavenders became slightly lighter and with more blue added as they moved into the distance.
Thinking well ahead I used one fluid stroke for each major area of the petals to give the flowers an energy and vitality that overworking often loses.
Here is a video to demonstrate how I created the largest of the sunflowers with quick and simple manipulation of my brush (a Rosemary & Co Egbert Series 2085 Size 0):
Step 4 – Refine the Foreground with Strategic Brushstrokes that Resemble Grasses, Rocks and Other Plants
That reddish undertone is working beautifully with the dusty green leaves, helping them to pop forward toward the viewer.
Using the thin edge of a Rosemary Long Flat Series 279 brush size 3 I left delicate blades of grass in strategic areas to give movement and direction for the viewer’s eye to travel. There should be plenty of interesting colors and paint strokes to give depth and clarity to the soil patches around the flowers and to connect all the areas together.
Some spots of cadmium orange were also added to the middle tier flowers to liven up the color palette overall and tie the middle section in with the reds and oranges in the front.
Step 5 – Some Painting Refinements Like Adding Light to the Dirt and Overlapping Details Over Leaves
At this point I had painted for about an hour and a half to two hours and loved the spontaneous energy and simplicity of it.
I refined a few flowers, added some leaves here and there and brought in a few random strokes of purple and bright touches of yellow to add color and value contrasts to enliven the grasses.
I experimented with light patches of grasses like you see in the reference photo but quickly saw that they dulled and competed with the leaves. So, I dry brushed over those areas with reddish-brown to bring back the darker original washed in look.
With those touches added, I decided the painting might just be finished.
Step 6 – Adding a Layer of Brighter Cadmium Lemon to the Background Sunflowers and Highlights to the Foreground Sunflowers
Here you can see the result of eliminating the brighter grass patches. Keeping the areas between flowers and leaves with darker rich browns gave me plenty of contrast for individual blades of grass and bright highlights of color. That also allowed the brighter leaves and especially the sunflowers to stand out fully for the viewer.
That seemed to do the trick. I also added highlights to the sunflower petals using Cadmium Lemon with just a touch of white added.
Of course, before I could declare victory, I needed to call in the heavy artillery – Kristie. Kristie critiques my paintings so she can point out problems I might not see (one of the bonuses in the Membership is a monthly live critique webinar I do for our members).
Right off she said the flowers (in step-5’s photo) went from detailed to ambiguous too quickly. She said the distant sunflowers looked like grass rather than flowers. She also thought the trees in the background were too close to the same height as the hill. Instead of making the trees taller, she thought I should bring the sky down more because some more lavender would add a cool contrast to the warm yellow flowers.
To help the field of sunflowers feel more substantial, I added more distinctive short brushstrokes of saturated yellow. The yellow gave the appearance of clumps of flowers that felt more like actual sunflowers, rather than a slightly confusing ambiguous area of color.
I also added some darker values to the distant trees as an experiment to see if that might help pull them away from the sky more. One last touch to point out was the addition of the dark leaf shadow behind the largest sunflower. That dark value made the highlights on the sunflower petals feel brighter. It’s a much better way to make a value feel brighter than adding white because white cools and desaturates the color (it makes the color feel duller).
Step 7 – Enlarging the Sky Shape to Add Cool Blues to Contrast with the Warm Yellows
Kristie still felt that enlarging the sky color would add to the painting and I thought it was worth experimenting with.
As I brushed over the trees with thick sky color and trees began to disappear, I kind of liked the quieter feeling. Kristie agreed and declared the painting finished – with my approval of course.
A few days after I finished editing the monthly video and began writing this blog post, I saw the original tree scene compared with the final trees and thought I might have lost something when I took so many trees away. There was a fun meandering of different shapes and sizes of trees that I liked.
I also lost some of the fresh qualities of the original more spontaneous sky colors and brushstroke shapes in the sky.
I do like the extra bit of blue sky color, especially since a frame will cover at least a portion of it.
I may need to have a bit more fun with those trees after all.
Or I need someone to bonk me on the head and take the painting off the easel before I get caught in the endless painter’s loop of ‘what if’.
Let’s see it all come together in How to paint Sunflowers in Fast Motion:
The Finished Painting
Tell us about your own adventures learning how to paint a sunflower (or the ‘painter’s loops’ you’ve experienced) in the comments below.
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