Controlled untidiness: painting sunflowers

“Sunny ways.”

The coordinator of our Friday morning art group is fond of quoting our young Prime Minister, but I must admit she did restrain herself in announcing her recent sunflower painting demo. If ever there were a more fitting occasion to use the phrase, this would have been it. Then she went ahead and surprised us further by painting a sunflower composition in a very uncharacteristic ‘freestyle’ manner.


Stock photos of fields of golden sunflowers are easy to find on the internet

Delightful Lotus favors the traditional CBP bird-and-flower comps and frequently executes some splendid paintings, complete with ribbons and incomparable silk borders.


Delightful Lotus shared this spectacular example of her painting skills. Note the exquisite borders done with fancy paper and ribbons.

She took the usual great care in preparing for her sunflower demo with samples of flowers, stalks and leaves, and sat down to show us lots of tricks with the colors and brushwork. Soon the art room was abuzz with painters having fun.

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The sunflower as subject

After the iris, perhaps the sunflower is the flower most popularized by Vincent Van Gogh. His large vases of sunflowers came to mind when I read Lotus’ notification for the demo. Van Gogh planned and painted several large canvases showing exuberant blooms in vases in anticipation of decorating a studio he intended to share with Paul Gaugin.



Van Gogh had earlier studied arrangements of sunflowers tossed on the ground. His interest in the sunflower as a painting subject allegedly resulted from the invention of some new yellow pigments in the late 1880s. His sunflower paintings may well have all been experiments with the new pigments. What better subject when you’ve got new tubes of yellow?


Van Gogh’s early studies of sunflowers had them on the ground,not in vases.

Sunflowers were not a common subject for Chinese brush painters of centuries past; only recently have a few renowned painters taken them on. I was hard-pressed to find any examples in my library.

My resources:

My only instructional book that addresses the sunflower with step-by-step instructions is a Collins Learn to Paint Chinese by Jane Evans. She describes the flower as ‘controlled untidiness’. I did find several compositions in our art group’s library and my albums by Chou Shao-An. The very loose, freestyle composition Lotus shared with us came from a book by former doctor-turned-artist Lian Quan Zen. It seems to be a favorite subject of his for workshops. If you Google his name plus ‘sunflower images’, numerous examples come up. I discovered another blogger posted about her experience in such a workshop.

You can also see other examples of his sunflowers in his blended ‘watercolor-Chinese brush painting’ style at his own website here. He seems to like portraying side views of large sunflower discs with lots of bracts and leaves providing character.

Sunflower parts:

The common name for this plant derives quite literally from its Greek name, Helianthus, and the distinctive behavior the sunflower displays (always facing the sun) is aptly called heliotropism.

As a member of the aster (Asteracea) family, the sunflower has what is called a composite flower head or inflorescence. This means the part we consider a ‘flower’ is actually made up of two individual flower types. The larger showy petals surrounding the large disc-like head are called ray flowers and those that are jammed together across the surface of the pie-plate shape (and eventually turn into the familiar sunflower seeds sold roasted and salted in packets) are called disc flowers. The showy ray floral petals also have a smaller, shorter version extending at their bases, which are referred to as bracts.


For painting purposes, the complete anatomy of the disc flower is not hugely important; knowing they consist of a tube-like corolla with hairy bits surrounding it, can help you understand the methods for rendering them with paint. Sometimes in their life cycle the disc florets can appear quite firm and shiny, at others they are dusty with pollen release and present in various colors—bright red, brown, gold, or even mineral green.

Sunflower strategy:

There are basically three parts to consider for a sunflower painting—flowers, stalks and leaves. The flowers can look complicated, but they display in such a variety of ways that there’s a lot of latitude in presenting ray petals, sepals, and seedy centres (disc flowers). Lotus showed us flowers head on and in profile, as well as in bud. Here’s another of her sunflower compositions, complete with bug on that centre-front leaf. She combined profiles of buds with the two more advanced ‘flowers’.


As with most flowers in CBP the best order for painting is this: centre first, then petals and bracts, sepals, stalk and finally leaves. An entire painting can be done with a large orchid brush; a smaller detail brush could be used for smaller details such as leaf veins. The detail brush would also be useful if you were to do an outline style of petals and leaves, where each petal and leaf is defined by black ink once your painting has dried.

For the centre:

Lotus showed us one method for painting a center, and had a handout that showed another. Her way was to dab in a textured area with shades of umber, brown, and burnt sienna, leaving some light areas.  I tried that method first, taking inspiration from a simple composition by Leslie Tseng-Tseng Yu in her book Chinese Painting in Four Seasons.


The second way was to load a brush with a greeny-gold color and then use a sidestroke of the brush, curling in an arc, finishing with a similar mirrored stroke, and then darkening the centre area.

For the petals:

These are defined in a typical petal stroke—point, press, and twist while pulling the brush across the paper in a desired path. You can make the petal ends pointy or rounded, as you wish. You can tip the brush loaded with yellow in color—orange, red, brown, or green.

While you want a harmonious overall look to the arrangement of petals, they do not have to appear too uniform.   Go around the center (or half of the elliptical shape in profile) once with ray petals, and then fill in with slightly smaller bracts of similar color. You do want to plant the petals into the colored centre area, not leave them hanging mid-air. A bud could also be created in this manner..

If you wish to paint a sunflower in outline style, complete them ‘boneless’ first and add the inky outlines when the petals have dried. The outlines should loosely follow the petal edges; better they be done quickly and rounded, rather than slowly as then they would look stilted and awkward. Remember Jane Evans’ description: controlled untidiness.

For the stalks:

The stalks need to be sturdy looking as they can support considerable weight once the flower heads have developed seeds.   The stalks need to look rounded like pipes, standing tall and fairly straight or slightly arced. You load a brush with light brownish-green and pull a sidestroke from the head downwards. You can plan to leave a space (or two) for a leaf to show its shape forward, as opposed to having them all in side profiles. My first stalks appeared too watery to hold up much weight.


I was pleased with the centre and petals of my first sunflower, but will need to work on the greenery.

For the leaves:

Sunflower leaves are basically heart-shaped. They emerge at intervals from along the stock, located at opposite sides to the stem. You do want to be sure and place them at the end of curved stems that grow up and around and down from the stocks. They are made with two strokes placed either side of a watermark for the leaf centre line. If you mix up several pools of green beforehand you can quickly paint leaves in several shades, those in front darker, those in the background lighter. Bigger, drier leaves would grow near the bottom of the stalk. And some leaves might be shown in profile. When damp, you run vein lines in darker green or black.



The little leaf stems should emerge from the stalk in an arc that starts heading UP the talk and then curves out and down. Sunflower leaves are shaped like elongated hearts.

Compositional concerns:

Sunflowers are often grown for their height at the back of the garden or along a fence. When reducing the visual to ‘fit’ on paper you typically reduce the proportional size of the stalk. Likewise the sunflower leaves will have to be scaled down for purposes of painting. Typical ‘guests’ to paint with the ‘host’ sunflowers would be insects (dragonflies, butterflies, bees, spiders, or lady bugs) or birds (crows, magpies, sparrows).

And lucky us, from a long ago class by our group’s much-loved founder, is this helpful sunflower painting inscription:


We’ll probably all be in the right mood to paint bamboo if we try the calligraphy!



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