For several months now, Vincent van Gogh has been on my mind. You can read my blog about the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter here and view one of his sunflower paintings here. Today, I revisit my sunflower painting I completed last autumn which was inspired by Vincent’s love of sunflowers.

My affinity with Vincent van Gogh

Just to be clear – I’m not by any means comparing myself on an artistic level to his greatness. It’s just the more I learn about him, the more I relate.

Apparently, he was restless and introverted. He liked the warmth of the sun (he seemingly had a desire to live in warmer places). His early paintings were very dark, before he really ‘got into’ colour in a big way. He liked yellows and golds. He wanted to master watercolours first. He found himself exhausted and overworked from the high standards he set himself.

I might as well be reading my own biography.

Obviously, I don’t intend to mirror his fate. But there is some comfort and hope in knowing that being sensitive and vulnerable doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. Even if poor Vincent didn’t get to realise his success in his lifetime.

A celebration of sunflowers

I can see why Vincent liked sunflowers. Amidst my current obsession with him, imagine my excitement when I acquired my own cut sunflowers last October.

Soon after arranging them, I was keen to try a painting of my own sunflowers. Not quite in the same style as Van Gogh, but adopting some similar impressionistic techniques. This painting is called ‘Sunflowers’ – original, I know. I was going to call it something more Vincent-y like ’14 Sunflowers in a Vase’ but the decisions on whether to count half or hidden flowers was mentally crippling. ‘Sunflowers’ it is.

There’s something different about sunflowers

In case you’ve never done it (and I hadn’t done before), sunflowers are very stalky and furry and difficult to arrange. Kudos to Vincent for his still life arrangements, if he set them up. Although I must say after much wrestling with leaf and stalk, they did look very happy. So well worth it.

A close-up photograph of a sunflower used as inspiration for the acrylic painting called 'Sunflowers' by Ruth Burton artist.

Note: sometimes sunflowers come with friendly visitors.

Sunflowers aren’t like other flowers. They are somehow more ‘human’ and ‘alive’. Now, before you take me to an institution (it’s this Van Gogh affinity again…), just hear me out. After a few days of getting settled in the vase, they start to take on individual personalities. (I allude to this in the ‘Colour’ section on my earlier Vincent van Gogh blog.)

And then after a few more days they start to droop and dry out, which is actually very beautiful and fascinating. It gives them a quality that I find difficult to describe. It’s like they can sense that you’re there in the room with them, like they’re listening somehow. If you ever get some then you’ll see what I mean. And if you’ve ever had some, then you already know what I mean.

A close-up photograph of an old sunflower used as inspiration for the urban-sketch style watercolour by Ruth Burton artist.

Best stop now before I’m carted away.

Preliminary sketch

As a warm-up, I decided to sketch out a sunflower head in its more mature stage of life. I used my Vincent van Gogh watercolours (of course!?) and my Uni Pin Fineliners. One of my favourite ‘go to’ combinations.

It’s another ‘urban sketch’ style and I think it captures some of the character and personality I mentioned above.

An urban-sketch watercolour painting by Ruth Burton artist.

The colours are subdued – I have used grey-purples to complement the yellow petals. I think this helps to represent the latter stage in the sunflower’s lifecycle.

The sunflower painting

Next, I moved onto the actual sunflower painting, which is done in acrylics. I used a photograph for reference. I started by blocking in the main shapes. I didn’t use any pencil markings to draw outlines first – just straight in with paint and a brush.

After a quick google search, I think the general consensus is that Vincent would have made pencil outlines before painting. I do that sometimes, but not here.

When the main shapes were down, I filled in the details.

Now then – here’s another thing I’m slightly obsessed with… I used a very limited palette for this painting. Just four paints, in fact.

The reason I did this was because in the painting I completed before – “The Square at Ironbridge” – I also used a limited palette. I used Titanium White, Lemon Yellow, Brilliant Red and Cobalt Blue – essentially the primary colours with white.

Slight diversion to Ironbridge:

An acrylic paint swatch, by Ruth Burton Artist, of colours used in "The Square at Ironbridge" painting.
Acrylic painting of a street scene in the village of Ironbridge, Telford by Ruth Burton artist. The painting is called "The Square at Ironbridge".

I still effectively had the full colour wheel at my disposal, I just had to find the colours myself. I thought it was really satisfying.

For the sunflower painting, I gave myself a bit of a challenge by switching the red for an orange and the blue for a purple. I basically just wanted to see how the mood of the painting changed by limiting the full range of colours available.

The actual names of the paints I used for the sunflower painting were: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Hue, Cadmium Orange Hue and Violet.

An acrylic paint swatch, by Ruth Burton Artist, of colours used in "Sunflowers" painting.

And here it is, the final sunflower painting:

Still life acrylic painting of a vase of sunflowers by Ruth Burton artist. The painting is called "Sunflowers".

And just for fun, this is what my mixing palette looked like afterwards!

An 'after' photograph of the acrylic paint palette use for the "Sunflowers" painting, by Ruth Burton Artist.

Final thoughts

I hope this post has brought you some inner warmth to brighten these cold, dark winter days. Here’s to a long, sunny Summer ahead with lots of sunflowers.

Always be kind to yourself.