Step by Step Sunflowers Painting
How I painted Sunflowers against a church wall
This article is a step-by-step story of how I created this watercolour painting. I don't write step-by-steps so that you can copy what I do, that would be boring, and it is of little use (in my opinion) to blindly re-create what someone else does, like paint-by-numbers.
When an artist paints a picture it is like standing at a crossroads of a hundred different paths. Each artist makes a series of decisions, each affecting what happens next. It is a bit like dungeons and dragons, except that the choices are about colours, tones, detail, composition. When I read a step-by-step written by another artist, I like to consider the choices made, and think about whether I agree, and would have done the same. Often I learn something along the way, and I hope that you will learn some new ideas, or that it will at least give you food for thought.
I hope too that you will enjoy seeing the painting develop into a finished piece!
Finding something to paint:
Whilst looking through my computer files recently, I found some photographs I had taken last year at the church in Long Melford, Suffolk, UK. I am not a religious person, but do appreciate the stonework, architecture and beauty in churches, chapels and graveyards. I especially love interesting gravestones, beautiful stained glass windows and gargoyles. But the downside to painting churches is that it can be difficult to capture the beauty. It is so easy for a church painting to look dreary, dark and cold. Long Melford is just up the road from, and my art class and I often use it as a place to meet casually in the summer holidays and do some outdoor painting. There is the church itself, the churchyard, a village green and some pretty cottages, so lots of different things to paint.
Photographing the church
Need a wide angle lens (don't have one!)
Last summer I wandered round the back of the church taking photos. The church is large and I struggled with my little camera to get it 'all in' with any kind of decent composition. At times like this I often wonder if I need a wide angle lens, or a helicopter to get a bigger view!
Choosing the right photos
(I always take lots)
As you can see from the photos, they are not bad, but they are not overly exciting either. I believed that the sunflower photos from the back of the church would give a much more interesting and intimate view, with more scope for beautiful colours.
This is where digital cameras come into their own. I am still old enough to remember the sickening feeling where you picked up your prints from the chemist, and saw them for the first time, and realised they were all pants and you could have had a takeaway Chinese for the same amount of money. These days you can take 25 and delete 20 or so without worry!
Final photograph choice
Quite a challenging view
In the end I settled on this photograph of a close up view of the sunflowers. It is certainly challenging, and a good example of four point perspective. If you look at the uprights in the window on the left, and the drainpipe on the right you will see they converge inwards as you look up. Four point perspective is something you don't often have to worry about when painting, but it is apparent when looking upwards at a tall building. Try looking up at a skyscraper and you will see what I mean.
The fabulous bright colours contrasted against the grey stones and the leaded windows above in spectacular manner, I will try to do them justice!
Starting the drawing
Despite my understanding that the lines converge upwards, I still struggled to put this on the paper and was disgusted to find when I came back to my picture after an overnight break the perspective was wrong, with the uprights all leaning to one side rather than in to the middle. When it comes to perspective and angles your brain will play tricks on you. Because your eyes send the information to your brain which needs to pick out the most important points so your body can respond. I suspect our brains are fairly primitive in this respect, and once they have identified an object as a church, and not something that might eat us, fall on us and is not edible, it loses interest. After all, as far as the brain is concerned, all it has to do with a church is make sure we don't walk into it. It doesn't give a stuff which way the angles run, or what shade of grey the stone work is.
It is therefore up to us to make our eyes and our brains work a little harder; to look at things in detail and really analyse the angles, the colour, the tone.
There was nothing for it but to move each line individually, then rub out the wrong ones.
Eventually, whilst not perfect it was ready to put some paint on. I don't want to obsess about the architecture too much, the sunflowers are the real stars after all; the stonework is just the backdrop to show them against. And to be honest, I am sick of the drawing and just want to get on with the painting. I often do more drawing later, for example if I am waiting for the flowers to dry I can fill in some of the brick and window details.
Did I use a ruler? Yes I did, it's not against the law; although rulers should be used with caution and just where you need them.
TOP TIP Make your corrections before you rub out the wrong lines, it gives you a base to start from.
Starting to paint
Deciding which colour to start with is easy; I need to do the petals first. It is almost a shame because they are probably the most interesting colour in the painting, but I really want to make sure they don't get pushed aside or minimized so putting them in first will assure they take centre stage. Although not the lightest thing on the page I will still start with them as I want to use them to judge other colours against.
Looking carefully at the flowers I see they are in several stages of life. The huge flower on the right is the oldest, having lost all of its petals and only really being a seed head now. The large flower in the centre of the left hand group has just a few shriveled brownish petals and the four surrounding it are in full bloom with plenty of sunny yellow petals. The two flowers furthest to the left are starting to wilt, with the petals deepening towards orange. The lightest yellow I have is cadmium yellow, but I will discount that as it is too cold and too biased towards green. For the brightest petals I choose Cadmium Yellow Light, a nice sunny yellow. For the petals that deepen towards orange I will use Cadmium Yellow Deep, a nice egg yolk colour, and for the oldest petals I will go for Yellow Ochre, an earth colour. For the darkest parts of the petals and shadow areas I pick a colour opposite and use Permanent Blue Violet.
TOP TIP It would be disastrous to use black or paynes grey for the shadows on the yellow flowers, as the amount of blue pigment in them would lead to dull, greenish colours. Although the petals are fading and dying in places it is important to preserve their overall yellow brightness. Using brown or warm grey as shadow on flowers will always make them look dead!
Working from light to dark
(Always a good idea)
After a quick de-tour to put in the yellow, it is time to return to the traditional method of painting watercolours; working from light to dark. I also want to get a large area of the painting covered, so that I am not working at it in disjointed 'bits'.
The colour I am looking at is the lightest part of the stonework, a fairly delicate, warm grey. I don't want to use Paynes Grey in this instance as it is too blue, although I will probably use it for the larger, darker stones later on. One option is to mix the grey from colours I have already used, in this case Violet and Cadmium Yellows. This is something I always try to consider, as sticking to a minimum of colours (a 'limited' palette) give harmony. In this case however, I feel that I need a more delicate colour, so I will use a mix that I often return to for greys, creams and pale skin tones: Lemon Yellow, Quinachridone Pink (Permanent Rose would be an alternative) and Cerulean Blue. This mix is basically the lightest, coolest version of the three primaries.
It is important that I mix enough of the colour to cover in a smooth manner, so I utilize one of the many little plastic pots I keep in the studio. You too can acquire these if you eat enough supermarket hummus!
In order to mix enough paint I pour some water into the little pot first, I also squeeze some fresh Cerulean Blue onto my palette, it is a very weak colour, and dried paint simply won't release enough pigment.
Applying the main background wash
Not all over...
Once the colour is mixed to my satisfaction and I have tried it out on a scrap of paper I start putting it on in a big brush. As you can see, the colour in the pot looks completely different to the colour on the paper. The only areas I wish to avoid are the flowers/leaves (as if would dull the colours) and the leaded window. So I gradually apply it, carefully rubbing out any excess pencil marks in each section first.
Top Tip:Cerulean granulates, so each time I dip my brush in I stir, otherwise the blue pigment would settle to the base of the pot changing the colour as time went on.
The colour is a little darker than expected, but I consider that the photo is somewhat over exposed, and I want the lightest, brightest areas to be the sunflowers, so I continue without adjusting the grey.
Did you know?
Long Melford is so named because it famously has the longest High Street in East Anglia, estimates vary but it is said to be at over 2 miles long!
Filling in more light areas
Continuing 'light to dark'
Whilst I definitely am not in favor of covering a new sheet of paper with an all-over wash, nevertheless it is a beginner’s mistake to leave too many white areas. What happens is that excitement takes over, mid-tones and darks are added, then at the end there is an uncomfortable amount of white paper dotted about here and there, with no easy way of covering it up. Of course whites should be reserved, but look carefully at the start; there may not be any.
The next areas I want to fill in are the leaves and the windows. In the case of the windows I would like to have the leaded cross sections lighter (mostly) than the glass. I also want the veins on the sunflower leaves to be light. Rather than risk trying to paint these small lines in later, it is easier to cover the whole area with a light wash, allowing them to show up as the darks are painted around them.
With leaves, it is usually a good idea to decide if the veins are light against dark or vice versa. In reality there may be many variations within the same plant, but unless you are doing a botanical close-up view it is best to simplify.
For the window wash I choose Paynes Grey, although this wash is for the light areas, they are comparatively dark. Being able to look ahead and consider the finished balance of tones is one of the most difficult things to achieve in watercolour painting. For the leaves I am going for a bright green mixed from Cadmium Yellow and Prussian Blue. The painting now looks rather odd, with flat areas of colour, but it should all work out in the end.
The next stage
On to the green leaves
Now in theory I could do either the background or the plant greens now, but by doing the foreground leaves first, it will allow me to manipulate the tones, ie put dark against light leaves and light against dark, so I will work on the greenery next. The main outsides of the sunflower heads and the stems seem to be a lighter, warmer green, and the leaves a darker green. I have already put the pale wash on for the veins, so I need to remember to paint round these.
I will use the colours I have already used for the greens, Prussian Blue and Cadmium yellow for the leaves, Cadmium yellow deep (warmer) for the stems and the heads. To make darker areas I will simply use more blue. I have painted the leaves fairly flatly, as I think it will be set off nicely against the more textured stonework behind.
Working into the background
Stronger mixes of the same colours
Although it doesn’t really make a difference, I will leave the centres of the sunflowers until the end, just to enjoy the last minute drama of it! Now I need to work on the background, starting with adding some shadows to the window pillars and carvings. Again I am working light to dark, and using stronger mixes of the same initial colours I used. Often in watercolour the shadows are added at the end, over the top of all the detail, but this can disturb the layers below, and because watercolour is transparent it can be done the other way round, which, on this occasion I think is most suitable. Whilst studying the shadows I notice that the sunflowers also have shadow areas on the leaves. I will put these in later with dark green, so as not to make them look dull or dead.
Back to drawing...
And my painting takes a day trip!
Here I pick my pencil up again and put back in some of the architectural details that have rubbed off or smudged and add more accurate details. Next I make up more of my grey mix, putting a little more of the blue in to make it darker and cooler. Although I want these areas to be dark, the darkest areas will be the sunflower centres and the leaded windows behind them. Mostly I want the stonework to be mid-toned, just setting off the more interesting elements. I work into the carved archways with subtle, blended shadows to make them look three dimensional.
The next bit is fun, I have been asked to sit and demonstrate watercolour painting in the Banqueting House at Melford Hall: (That is me on the right)
Painting at Melford Hall
1000 window panes later...
The hall is having an art exhibition and all through the week artists are demonstrating. I am in on a Saturday afternoon, there are few visitors because the weather is pretty appalling, but the time goes quickly as another artist is demonstrating with me and several house volunteers are on duty too.
The Banqueting House was apparently designed for desserts; you ate your main dishes in the hall then walked across the lawn to an entirely different building. Imagine: a separate building just for eating pudding!
Using a mix of Paynes Grey and a touch of Rose I spend the whole afternoon painting in the leaded window panes, blotting occasionally to take out little reflections in the glass. It all takes ages, but at last with some darks the sunflowers start to come forward. When I get home my daughter points out that the stems of the sunflowers look far too yellow, and she is right. Colours reflect and change according to those around them so sometimes it is necessary to adjust as the painting develops, but I will do this later.
Why visit Long Melford?
Apart from this beautiful church, and the endless High Street, Long Melford has no less than two large country houses open to the public: Melford Hall, and Kentwell Hall (famous for it's historical reconstructions...)
Finishing the background
Putting in the stonework walls
Time to finish the background now and I don't want the stonework as dark as the windows so I make a mix of Raw Umber and Paynes Grey, varying it from place to place and occasionally dropping in a little yellow or blue.
Using a glaze
To change the tone, not the colour
The stonework is still ‘coming forwards’ a little too much and the painting generally is looking a little less colouful than I would like, so I have decided to put a glaze over the brickwork. First I go over the whole painting with a putty rubber, to remove guidelines. Everything is in place now so I can get rid of as much pencil as will come off, and avoid it getting ‘trapped’ under final washes. I will use Permanent Blue Violet for my glaze; although I could mix a purple from the colours I have already used, I want this glaze to be transparent and avoid granulation so I chose this ‘staining’ colour knowing it will be clear with no opacity.
Back to the flowers...
And the stems
Now it is time for the finishing touches on the sunflowers. First I want to address the centres of the flowers. Although dark there is some colour variation and speckles which are seeds, so I am going to paint them in two stages. I make up a mix of Sepia with a touch of Lemon and Prussian Blue to turn it slightly green, I paint this on, adding extra Sepia for dark areas. While that is drying I will go back to the leaves. I want to put some strong shadows on, using a darker mix of the original leaf colour (Prussian and Cadmium Yellow). I also go back to the main stems which are looking too yellow, over-washing with more Cerulean blue to turn them greener. After adjusting the flowers I put in the darker areas of the sunflower centres; giving an impression of seeds without going in to too much detail. Lastly I look over the whole painting and darken one or two shadows, and define one or two architectural details.
Finally finished! - And ready to frame...
After removing all final traces of pencil and signing the piece it is ready for photographing and scanning for prints. As for the original I am earmarking it for the next exhibition of the Society of East Anglian Watercolourists. After this it will be exhibited locally and listed on my website for sale.
If you want to know what I used...
Here are the technical details
Pencil: 6B Derwent Graphic
Putty Rubber: Daler Rowney 'Firm'
Paper: Saunders Waterford High White 140lb Stretched onto board
Brushes: Round brushes sizes 4, 6 and 10 SAA 'Silver' synthetic mix
Paints: 'Rembrandt' range artist's quality by Royal Talens
Cadmium Yellow Deep
Permanent Blue Violet
Limited Edition Print - This painting is available as a print...
I make each of my paintings available as a high quality giclee print: Each print is individually numbered and hand-signed, and your print(s) will come beautifully wrapped in cellophane, with a leaflet of helpful framing and hanging tips plus a discount code for use against any further purchases from my shop: Just click the image to see full details/sizes/prices in my Etsy shop. Clicking does not commit you to buying!
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