How to paint sunflowers

Painting sunflowers provides opportunities for the artist to use dazzling colours. The challenge lies in knowing when to use subdued hues to bring out the colours of the sunflower heads without them looking gaudy.


Painting Sunflowers in Oils
Painting sunflowers is an ideal subject matter for the beginner who does not know where to begin, yet contains its own set of challenges for the more advanced painter. The following tips might help:

  • Apply the sunlit areas before the shaded areas. This will ensure the rich colours of the sunflower heads will not be contaminated by the dark colour.
  • Don’t use black to darken the yellow of the sunflower petals, but yellow’s complimentary colour, which is any colour in the violet spectrum: ultramarine, purple or permanent rose, will add warmth to the shadows.
  • Suggest areas of shadow rather than illustrate in detail. Periodically standing back from the painting and using a wider brush than one might expect, will add boldness to the painting.
  • Over-mixing a colour might kill the life out of a painting. Allow streaks of colour to remain.
  • Painting the red species of sunflowers as well as the yellow (as in this demonstration) adds interest and contrast.

Art Materials Required

  1. A suitable photograph of sunflowers, preferably within sunlight, although painting them from life will offer the artist additional challenge
  2. Ultramarine acrylic paint
  3. Oil paints in the following colours: titanium, cadmium yellow, lemon yellow, permanent rose, cadmium red, burnt sienna, burnt umber, viridian and pthalo blue
  4. A 12” X 16” (30.5 X 40.5cm) coarse grain stretched canvas (although an artboard or primed MDF will do).
  5. Sizes 3 and 6 round sable brushes
  6. A ½ and a ¼ inch wide bristle brush
  7. A palette consisting of a china plate or varnished wood.
  8. Small pot of artists’ white spirits
  9. Soft pencil
  10. A few rags

Tips on Painting Sunflowers


When working on coarse canvas, use a stiff brush initially. This will get the paint into the weave. Doing this with a soft brush will cause unnecessary wear and tear to the sable hair.

Demonstration on Painting Sunflowers

Using a soft pencil, sketch the composition of sunflowers onto the canvas. Ensure the marks are sufficiently dark to show through the subsequent imprimatura. The imprimatura is a thin glaze of under-paint that sets the tone of the painting and rids the off-putting white. In this case, thinned ultramarine acrylic in water had been used. Apply this imprimatura with a wide brush. Allow to dry.

With a stiff brush, scrub in the background colour of the shed behind the sunflowers; cadmium yellow, white and a little burnt sienna had been used. Do not apply so thickly so that it will contaminate the colours of the sunflowers that will be laid later on.


The Colour of Sunflowers

Ladle a size 3 sable with cadmium yellow, a touch of lemon yellow and white. Dab this colour onto the sunlit areas of the sunflower heads. Repeat for the red sunflower heads by using cadmium red, permanent rose and a little white.

With a clean sable, mix lemon yellow, pthalo blue and load it with white. Apply the mixture onto the sunlit areas of foliage.
With a no 6 sable, mix lemon yellow, viridian, pthalo blue and permanent rose and apply this mixture onto the dark areas of foliage. With the same brush, introduce burnt umber and ultramarine and apply it onto the shadows on the shed and the window.
Reinforce the darkest areas of foliage by daubing on a mixture of permanent rose, ultramarine and burnt umber. Reinforce other areas of shadow throughout the painting. Suggest the middle tone of the foliage and soften the division between higlight and shade by dabbing a little viridian here and there.

Realistic Sunflowers

Mix a little burnt sienna and permanent rose and dab it around the shaded contours of the petals, so that the sunflower heads suggest contours. Thick paint was used towards the end of the session to add an element of texture to the painting.

This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010