Sunflowers in the University's Garden | Jeffrey Smith

Sunflowers in the Garden | plein air painting in the University’s garden

My Mother and  I took another painting trip back to our new favorite spot, the University of Minnesota Display and Trial Gardens.  I drive by the gardens on my way home from work some days, and I noticed that the sunflowers were in bloom.  Now, if you take a look through my blog and my portfolio of paintings, you may notice that I have a thing for sunflowers.  I love them! I’m just amazed every time that I paint them that a flower can have such a happy expression.

Painting where the sunflowers grow.

Seeing sunflowers in bloom at the Display Garden is kinda like seeing animals in their natural habitat or at the very least like going to see them at a great zoo.  You get a sense of the size of the stalks and the leaves. It’s just so different from seeing them in those black plastic buckets in the floral department of the grocery store.

What I love is that the photo above not only shows off a bit of the environment that I was painting in, it also shows how things change in a scene as you are painting.  Notice the shadows on the sunflowers’ stalks and leaves.  Notice the background trees.  When I started painting, the sun was behind me and to my left.  Both of those areas were being hit with direct sun.  In less than 3 hours of painting,  the sun has moved, and both of those areas have fallen into shadow.  I suppose it is the Earth that moved, but the temptation when you’re outside painting is to paint what you see in front of you at each moment.  If I had done that and changed the value structure of my painting to include the new shadow shapes, I would have lost the illusion.  The illusion in painting is a feeling that everything shown in a painting is in the same environment, all together at the same time.

Plein air painting with my mother

Let there be light and let there be shadow.

The lesson, therefore, is to establish a light scheme and then stick with it.  Chasing the light as the sun moves is kinda like drawing a portrait with the eyes facing left, the nose facing straight towards you, and the mouth turned to the right. It just doesn’t look right.  The sooner you can get your pattern of light and shadow drawn out in a painting the better.    You want it to feel like a snapshot. Like one moment.  By establishing the light throughout the entire painting and then not deviating from it, you get a sense of experiencing a place at one particular moment.  As a plein air painter, that is often my goal behind a picture:  to have the viewer experience a place the way that I did.

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One Comment

  1. I love the graphic illustration of your point about the light changing in the three hours that you were painting as well as your very concrete example of how a portrait would change if you allowed the model to change her position as you painted her! Thanks for the teaching!

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