Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch painter of the Post-Impressionist movement. He painted landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Among some of his most famous still life paintings are his paintings of sunflowers, although he painted other flower arrangements too. Two of his flower paintings have inspired me recently: “Sunflowers” and “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”. This post focuses on his “Sunflowers” still life painting and is the first of a two-part series. Read Part II here on his “ Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters” painting.

A bit of background

Why Vincent?

Well, I recently attended an excellent webinar which explored the works held in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. And while I had an awareness of Vincent van Gogh’s troubled life – something I suspect many people with the vaguest interest in art will also have – there was an awful lot of things I didn’t know. In a nutshell, it was very informative and successful in bringing his story to life.

Since then, I have spent a lot of time reading up and looking at his paintings in books and online.

I thought it would be interesting to choose two paintings for an initial introductory study of Vincent van Gogh*. One very famous ‘mainstream’ painting (“Sunflowers), and one that is perhaps less well known (“Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”). Although, I appreciate the hardcore art lovers will be familiar with both these works, and many others. In part one of this two-part blog, we will study “Sunflowers”.

*Side note: he deserves more than one or two blog posts, as there is plenty more to discover – but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Sunflowers as a still life subject

Sunflowers arrive in the summer, embodying happiness and positivity. They worship the sun and are a symbol of life.

Vincent van Gogh associated a triptych (which included two of his sunflower paintings) with ‘gratitude’. As such, it is assumed that he recognised sunflowers as a symbol of gratitude. And I do believe that gratitude is good for wellbeing, so let’s hold this thought as we go along.

I also wanted to keep the mood ‘light’ in this one. Poor Vincent was a complex soul, but he did want to be known as the painter of sunflowers. Thankfully, he is. So let’s honour that. It shows the lighter side of his personality.

By the way, I am learning some of this Vincent trivia from the Van Gogh Museum website, which is a really fun website actually. I would recommend it, if you get chance to stop by.

Vincent often painted sunflowers “after their best”. This is a less conventional approach to still life paintings of flower arrangements. Many artists wish to capture flowers at their peak.

Why, then? Perhaps it was his way of expressing gratitude for each phase of the life cycle. Maybe even recognising that there is beauty beneath the surface appearance. So, while the painting is bright and luminous, I feel an undercurrent of poignancy from the wilting of the flowers.

Signature on the vase

Vincent van Gogh has signed the vase ‘Vincent’. Why on the vase?

This is a mystery that has followed me since I was seven. There I am, sitting crossed legged on the floor with my other classmates in front of a Vincent van Gogh poster. The poster is a print of “Sunflowers”. The teacher asks why Vincent signed the vase. I put my hand up and say “maybe in case someone wants to cut out the vase of flowers?”. (Cutting out and sticking is a big part of being seven). I was scolded for saying such a stupid thing. I didn’t understand why. And I’ve never forgotten that moment.

I learned in the webinar that no one knows why Vincent signed the vase. Tough question then for a class of seven-year-olds!

As a side point, I also learned in the webinar that not all Vincent van Gogh paintings are signed.

This is as interesting to me as it is endearing. Children do not sign their artworks because they are not thinking about titleship or provenance. They are just creating art in the moment. Therefore, to me this just creates an image of a man who simply loves to paint – indeed, has no choice but to paint. How refreshing.

Compositional sketch

I decided to do a simple watercolour sketch to get myself familiar with the geography of the painting. I would say it took around 20-30 minutes. Appropriately, I used my Royal Talens Van Gogh watercolours! I also used my Uni Pin Fineliners to scribble – I think I’ve ended up embodying an ‘urban sketch’ style, which I like. A lot.

It’s only small – about A6 size. Painted on Daler-Rowney cold-pressed watercolour paper because I like a textured surface. Also, I know this is controversial – but I really like how watercolours bleed into one another and ‘cauliflower’. I know it’s not allowed. I know the purists are seething right now. But I think it’s magic. I love the textures. I love watching the random way the colours evolve over time. It’s like watching paint dry.

A watercolour sketch of Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' painting by Ruth Burton artist.


The painting speaks for itself – yellow dominates.

Yellow denotes happiness. It evokes feelings of summer. There have even been studies which show that yellow can lift our mood. I have literally painted my rooms with yellow and bought yellow furniture for this reason. To keep me inspired and feeling uplifted.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Vincent makes use of an overwhelming amount of yellow and gold to emphasise feelings of gratitude and joy in his “Sunflowers” painting.

On first glance, one can get carried away in all the yellows and golds. It would appear that Vincent van Gogh has used a very limited palette to paint “Sunflowers”. Look again, as this is deceptive.

After my initial watercolour sketch, I decided to do a colour swatch of ten key colours used in “Sunflowers”. I’m just using a random selection of acrylic paint brands on acrylic paper (forgive the over-exposed scan):

An acrylic paint swatch of colours used in Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' painting by Ruth Burton artist.

Initially I thought this would be easy. As it turns out, I had to compromise over my choices. There are lime greens and dark greens, oranges, browns, and even pale blue. I was happily surprised at the variety of colours in my colour swatch.

Doing this exercise was a lot of fun. It was also good practice at colour mixing, trying to recreate what’s in front of you. If you have even the slightest inclination and some paints, I would definitely recommend that you pick a painting you like and try it.

Colour choice theories

Vincent creates interest from using very dark brown in the centre of the sunflower on the left, and pale blue for the sunflower on the right. This helps give each sunflower a unique personality.

I am almost positive (having also spent some quality time around sunflowers**), that Vincent van Gogh recognised the uniqueness of each flower and used colour to emphasise this. This is pure speculation on my part.

**That sounds weird, I know.

What I am not seeing is any use of yellow’s complimentary colour, purple. (Yellow and purple are opposite sides of the colour wheel – hence their complimentary nature).

Maybe this was an intentional statement. Purple is often used to denote sadness – and maybe that was undesirable for Vincent here.

For me, by not using purple, this gives the painting a flat, dreamy, unworldly quality. Was Vincent purposefully trying to create this? Perhaps, using art as a form of escapism. As a sensitive soul myself, I can understand why an artist might do this.

One might use a complimentary colour to create contrast. If anything, the lack of purple in “Sunflowers” adds to this dreamy quality. Regardless, Vincent’s use of colour is harmonious.

The Vincent style

It is widely known that Vincent van Gogh used the impasto technique – that is, painting in thick layers so that brush strokes are visible.

In the digital image I am viewing, this is most apparent in the seven golden sunflower heads. The ones with fewer petals and light green centres – the ones going to seed.

This helps create visual texture. You get a sense of the natural sponginess of the flower heads.

The impasto technique is less visible on the other sunflowers – although without access to view the original I cannot comment for sure.

Outlines of the petals, stalks, leaves, vase and table are bold and stylised. This helps create movement and unity. The background is plain to allow the vase of sunflowers to take centre stage.

In general, the ‘Post-Impressionist’ techniques used by Van Gogh in “Sunflowers” capture a sense of energy and “aliveness”. And by all accounts, Vincent painted fast – so this would also help convey energy.

I wanted to explore the ‘Post-Impressionist’ style with my acrylic paints again. They were already prepared from the colour swatch. I wanted to see if I could get close to capturing that same fluid, effortless sense of expression.

An acrylic painting study of Vincent van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' by Ruth Burton artist.

For simplicity, I chose to focus on one sunflower – a close up of the one in the lower right. This one spoke to me the most; I was drawn to the spiky petals and position of the flower head. I tried to work fast, creating energy and not agonising too much over each brushstroke.

I don’t think I have achieved the impasto technique (I would probably have needed some thickening gel for that), but it was a useful exercise in learning how to apply paint more spontaneously.

Final thoughts

I feel like we’re just scratching the surface here. It’s been fun – and I look forward to studying “Vase with Gladioli and Chinese Asters”. I definitely want to study other Vincent van Gogh paintings in more detail too.

To my fellow hard-workers, give yourself a few minutes of time-out today and I will do the same.

And to return to our gratitude theme – find something small or big to be grateful for. Today, I am grateful for sunflowers.