Watercolor Sunflowers from Start to Finish

Sunflowers embody the spirit of summertime. Of buzzing bees and hazy days. Shrill cicadas and fluffy white clouds floating in blue skies. They're some of my favorite plants to grow in my garden. I love the flowers, so many shapes and colors and sizes, but what I like even more is that they feed the bees and the birds.

My garden is filled with flowers calling me to paint them, but right now it's the sunflowers I couldn't resist.

It's been a while since I've painted a larger painting, one that takes many hours to finish. It's nice to paint small and quick, but there's something much more satisfying about a larger piece. It's more difficult -- takes more concentration, more patience -- but the end result is much more substantial.

Each painting starts the same way. I wash the old paint off my palette. That in itself is energizing. A fresh start.

Washing My Paint Palette to Prepare for a New Painting

One of my favorite parts of the painting process is mixing my colors. I study my subjects and decide which colors I'll need and try to re-create them with paint. I do this mostly intuitively, but I also consult my sketchbooks where I've painted swatches and made notes on color mixing.

In My Studio Mixing Colors on My Watercolor Palette in Preparation for Painting a New Piece

When I was first learning to paint I was impatient to get started and saw things like practicing color mixing as "busywork". So not true. If you want to learn how to paint with watercolor spend as much time as you can mixing and testing colors. I find it to be soothing and meditative. It's a bit magical and the colors always bring me joy.

Once my colors are mixed I make some rough sketches in my sketchbook, trying to figure out my composition. And then I make a very light sketch on my watercolor paper.

In My Studio Sketching out a New Painting

(Can you spot my studio assistant hard at work?).

I don't start painting right away. I prefer working with the paint once my mixed colors have dried on the palette. I'm able to get a much broader range of tones working this way. Using the wet mixes there's so much water that the colors end up very light.

Once the paint is dry I get started. One petal at a time, letting each dry before painting an adjacent petal.

The First Stage of a Watercolor Painting of Sunflowers by Anne Butera of My Giant Strawberry

I layer and blend colors while the paper is wet and then go back to add more layers and finish it off with fine details.

The Process of Painting a Sunflower with Watercolor Involves Many Layers

The details are what bring the painting to life. 

I Paint One Flower at a Time, One Petal at a Time, Finishing Each with Fine Details

It helps to have the flowers on hand to refer back to, especially when adding the details. I noticed that the base of each of the petals of this light-colored sunflower was a brighter, warmer yellow. When I went back and added some more yellow it made all the difference. I wish I had a "before" picture to show you, but when I'm in the groove, I often forget to photograph. Below you can see the contrast in the next flower between the petals with details and those without.

Notice the Difference Between the Petals That Have Gotten Details and Those That Have Not in this In-Progress Sunflower Watercolor Painting

I am constantly rotating the paper when I'm working on a painting. Sometimes I knock things off my table in the process, but it makes painting so much easier. When I film my classes for Skillshare I struggle with trying to make sure I keep the page in the view of the camera and in-focus. Trying not to move the page is SOO hard.

Painting Details on the Back of a Sunflower is Just as fun as Painting a Flower From the Front

The rules of composition suggest that an odd number of flowers is more pleasing than an even number. Maybe it's the rule-breaker in me, but I often paint an even number of flowers. In this case there are three different varieties of sunflower so perhaps the two smaller flowers are acting as one.

The finished painting feels balanced, but not in a boring way.

A Finished Watercolor Painting of Summer Sunflowers by Anne Butera of My Giant Strawberry

Although there were times throughout the process that I doubted everything coming together, my mantra was "you've got this". Each day I was excited to get back to my painting table and pick up where I'd left off. And the finished painting (now available in my shop) is so full of joy. Looking at it I can just about hear the buzzing bees and droning cicadas.

Now what should I paint next?