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. Petals that bend and twist as they circle round and contrast against a lively 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 see an eerie display. Each flower turning in tandem to follow the sun as it arcs from East to West throughout the day. The ritual reminds me of an Orson Welles nightmare where they are constrained against their will to do exactly what everyone else is compelled to do, day in and day out.
Fortunately, their movement is slow enough that all we see is a stunning display of color and contrast – a 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.
Here’s a sampling of sunflower paintings from my past:
Yep, I’ve enjoyed painting sunflowers for quite some time. They’re a little more of a challenge than most other flowers, but so much fun!
Ready to work on a new one together?
7 Steps to Paint a Dazzling Kansas Sunflower Field
All that yellow and green can overwhelm the viewer. I thought about using a lavender under color to harmonize with the yellows and help tone them down. With the wonderfully dusty bluish green leaves I decided a warm reddish orange underpainting seemed much more appealing to begin this painting with.
Since I was using a linen canvas from Raymar, I chose to take advantage of the natural linen texture and dry brushed the color in thin layers to give the appearance of soil and grasses.
Notice I did not begin with the sky layer first. There were two reasons for that; 1. I wanted to go in thick right off with the sky colors and bring it into the thinner ground layer, and 2. The sky was going to take up only a small portion of the overall painting without any major objects covering it. That meant that I could lay it in at any time and not affect the rest of the painting.
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. 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 area laid in with the final look I envisioned right away.
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 completely if needed 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 because I knew I could easily fine-tune areas later.
Thick paint was applied in horizontal strokes to indicate the field of sunflowers without any strong details. I used small touches of greyed lavender to help break up the large area of yellow.
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):
That reddish under tone 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 through soil patches to 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.
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.
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.
Of course, before I could declare victory, I needed to call in the heavy artillery – Kristie.
Right off she said the flowers went from detailed to ambiguous too quickly and she 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.
To help the field of sunflowers feel more substantial, I added more distinctive short strokes of saturated yellow. That gave the appearance of clumps of individual flowers that felt more like flowers 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.
Kristie still felt that adding more sky area would add some nice color 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 activity 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 brush stroke 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 fast motion
Tell me about your sunflower adventures or the ‘painter’s loops’ you’ve experienced, in the comments below.