Sunflowers – because I love a challenge

Collage of 9 details from sunflower paintings arranged in a 3 by 3 grid

I'm still surprised that I have created so many sunflower paintings in the last few years and during summer 2021 in particular. A few are featured here but there are a good few more that I'm yet to upload to my website. Plus there are some that have already gone to their happy-ever-after homes (thank you lovely collectors!).

Why the surprise? Well, I find sunflowers incredibly challenging to paint. So, I'm still amazed that someone as impatient as I am has persevered with this tricky subject.

I love their spiky hedgehog centres and all the magical colours that make up these dark hearts. I love the delicate, curvilinear, unfurling sepals – definitely my favourite part to depict. But the petals are the paint challenge that taunts me. I'm on an eternal quest to find the right yellow to capture the way the golden petals glow when they catch the light. I've explored different hues and brands of acrylics and oils and the perfect yellow still eludes me. (Hello there artists – grateful for any yellow paint recommendations from fellow artists who might be reading this).

One of the reasons why the perfect yellow is so elusive (especially in acrylic) is because of the transparency values of yellow hues. There are lots of bright and light yellows but I am yet to find one that is light, bright and opaque. The transparency of acrylic paint means the layers and colours below the brushstroke will often show through. So, it's really easy for a petal to become a lot duller than one intends it to be, especially when it's resting on layers of other petals. And of course, if you mix different yellows together, you're likely to end up with something less saturated than the colours you started with.

Over the last three summers, I've been practising painting sunflowers, wrestling through my dual fascination and frustration with these magnificent blooms, determined each time to do a better job than the previous attempt. This year, I let go of some of my angsty determination and adopted a more playful approach. Voila! At last I have some sunflower creations that I am truly proud of. Here are three of my favourites:

Painting on paper of sunflower in mid-bloom

I absolutely love this sunflower head study on paper. There's something about the tightly fisted head bursting with colour and the voluminous tendrils that captures my imagination.

Acrylic painting of four sunflowers in a vase placed on a white surface covered in paint drips. Four tubes and a tub of paint are placed to the side.

Given my quest for the perfect yellow, this sunflower painting using a limited colour palette (three primaries plus black and white) felt particularly brave. I was conscious that the lemon yellow paint was not as vibrant as the real petals –  even at its most saturated. The sage-green was a deliberate choice to try and help the bright yellow pop against a more subdued and muted background.

Painting in impasto style of sunflowers in a vase

This sunflower still life started out as a seascape. Despite many layers and lots of scraping off and starting again it stubbornly refused to evolve in the direction I intended. Luckily, I had a vase of sunflowers to hand and was able to give in to its demands for a different future. This is possibly my most playful sunflower painting to date. Having accepted that it wasn't going to grow up into a seascape, I didn't have too many preconceptions about how I wanted the still life to turn out. I think this detachment from overthinking it, led to a more lively and spontaneous process that effectively captures the way the buds were bursting into life and the subtlety of the amber glass catching the light. And, of course, I do love the thick impasto paint on the flowers.

Interestingly, these three favourites of mine are all sunflowers that are partly open rather than in full bloom. So perhaps that's the secret for me. Can't wait until next summer when I can resume my sunflower journey.

In the meantime, happy browsing – you can enjoy my sunflower collection here!


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1 comment

Your seascape wanted to be a daffodil ;—)
Beautiful paintings JL. Always cheered up by your.sunflowers.


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