Trying your hand at how to paint sunflowers is a wonderful opportunity to dive into a great painting subject!
Van Gogh with the many sunflower paintings he created throughout his life, shows us how beautiful they can be. With their intriguing shapes and petal forms and of course their various shades of yellow colors.
Mixing different shades of yellow, can sometimes be a little tricky to get the right shade you’re trying for… That is often because yellow is a lighter color in value, and therefore other colors can easily overpower it in the color mixing process.
However, there are a few helpful tricks for mixing different shades of yellow color. That I will show you in this sunflower painting tutorial, with the help of color charts below!
How to Start Your Sunflower Painting
The first step to start your sunflower painting, is to create a painting sketch. This does not need to be an exact sketch. You are just capturing the general architecture of what you will be painting. Grab a small amount of a neutral color with your paint brush and dilute it with a little turpenoid. Then start to sketch out the sunflower with your brush, using the neutral color.
Mixing Your First Three Spots of Color
Now we are ready to start adding color! It is best to focus on the first three spots of color right from the start, as you work on how to paint sunflowers. So that you create a strong sense of light to work off of right from the beginning.
To do this you need to find an intersection of light and dark values on your subject. In my piece, I found this area where a sunflower petal meets the dark brown of the center. So first I start by adding a light color value…
Starting with a light yellow color value
As seen in the image below, I start by first laying down a light yellow color for the petal.
Adding a medium value next to the light value
Next, I mix a darker yellow color that acts as the shadow area on the left side of the petal. On the last row of the chart below you can see the mixture needed for the darker yellow color. First I mix yellow with an adequate amount of purple to make the color darker in value. After this the yellow will most likely become a little green. To counter this, I mix a small amount of red with the greenish yellow color. Since red is the complementary color of green it will help to lessen the green that is present in the color – it will make it more of a dark golden yellow.
Color Chart: Mixing first three colors
As seen in the chart above the light yellow color has a small amount of purple mixed in with it. That is because this lighter yellow color doesn’t need to be nearly as muted and dark as the other yellow color. Though both colors do have some white mixed into them. The lighter yellow color just has more white mixed into it than the darker yellow color.
Using a dark value for the third color spot
The third and final color spot we mix up is the dark brown that is next to our light yellow color. To mix the color I grab some burnt umber and mix in purple and veronese green. Burnt umber on its own is much too saturated and warm, so the other colors mixed in help to make it cooler without making it look bluish in color.
How to Paint Sunflower with Dark Shades of Yellow
After painting my first three color spots I mix up an even darker yellow color that is placed next to my first flower petal. I mix this color by adding purple with yellow and then mix in some more alizarin crimson to make the color less green. (As demonstrated on the bottom line of the chart below) However, since I need the color to be even darker in value, I mix in a small amount of pthalo green as well as some more alizarin crimson to mute that green color. Then a small amount of white is added to the mix. The result is a warm dark yellow color – thanks to the extra alizarin crimson mixed in!
For the dark color that is just above the previous color I took a slightly different approach. This dark yellow is much cooler in temperature and therefore used blue as well as a little bit of orange to mute the blue.
Create Soft Edges when Painting Sunflowers
Transitions are important when working on how to paint sunflowers. It is good to start thinking about edges while you’re painting, right from the beginning. That way you keep yourself in the habit of creating soft and hard edges throughout the process of your painting.
As you can see in the image below I use my palette knife to create a soft edge between the dark brown center of the sunflower and the petals that are in the back. Having this soft edge helps to make the flower have more spatial depth since soft edges recede back in space.
How to Paint Sunflower’s Leaves
Once I have an adequate amount of petals started for my sunflower painting. I start to incorporate some of the green leaves around the sunflower.
I first mix my own green with blue and yellow before muting it with a little bit of alizarin crimson. I then mix in some pthalo green to darken it – but would again need to mix in some alizarin crimson to mute the color since pthalo green is very strong. Finally, I also mix in a small amount of white. You can see this mixture in the last line of the color chart below.
Mixing Warm Shades of Yellow Color
In the color chart diagram above, you can see a very warm, darker yellow color on the upper right hand side. To capture this color I mixed yellow with purple but also incorporated blue to darken it further. In order to make it a warmer yellow though, I mixed in some cadmium orange (which helps to mute the blue) as well as some alizarin crimson!
How to use color temperature in your painting
The darker yellow color at the top is a little bit cooler in temperature. This is because I do not mix in any warm colors such as alizarin crimson or orange. It simply has yellow mixed with blue and a little bit of white. When mixing such a color just be careful that it does not look too green. Whenever it does adding some red will resolve the issue.
How to Paint Sunflowers with Strong Shadow Shapes
Sunflowers are composed of strong shapes and therefore it is important to pay close attention to all of the shadow shapes found in a sunflower.
I build the painting based on light and dark shadow shapes. Notice in the image above that the petals of the sunflower are all made up of these light and dark value shapes. The same is true for the green leaves that are at the base of the flower. Looking at and observing a subject in an abstract way, seeing it in terms of its value shapes. Makes for a much more compelling painting, rather than seeing a subject as “just an object”.
How to Mix and Use Supporting Colors
A yellow sunflower painting wouldn’t be very interesting without the supporting colors that surround it. This is why we have a background and foreground area. It is important when learning how to paint sunflowers, for these areas to be just as part of the painting as the sunflower itself. You would never want the subject to look or feel like a paper cutout.
Painting the sunflower’s background with shades of blue
First of all the blue background changes slightly at different points in the painting. It is important to not just paint a background a single color as this would not look natural. However, for the upper left part of the painting I mixed up the blue color there with a simple mixture of ultramarine blue and cadmium orange with a small amount of white.
Mixing Colors for the vase of the sunflower
The glass vase that the sunflower is sitting in also serves as a supporting color for the painting. It is a greenish bluish color – though much lighter than the background. To mix up the color I used blue, cadmium orange, a small amount of purple, veronese green and white.
Completing Your Sunflower Painting
For the final stage of the painting I paint in the areas where the white of the canvas were still showing through. I also go over edges that might need to be softer or harder.
Another great tip, is to take a step back from your painting as you near completion. This will allow you to get a clearer perspective of your painting, and see if you’re missing any large areas of light and dark values.
There you have it! Let me know in the comments below about what you find most interesting and/or most challenging about painting sunflowers or even flowers in general.
Materials used in this tutorial
- Cadmium Yellow
- Cadmium Lemon Yellow
- Provence Violet Bluish
- Cadmium Green
- Dioxazine Purple
- Alizarin Crimson
- Pthalo Green
- Cremnitz White
- Ultramarine blue
Additional flower painting and drawing resources for you to try:
- How to paint a rose step by step tutorial [with video]
- Drawing a rose complete guide
- How to paint a tulip video tutorial
- How to draw a flowers sketch