painting flowers

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How to Paint Flowers and Create Dynamic Action in Floral Painting

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Dynamic Action
iS an iMPortant eleMent in any tyPe of Painting. Here i diSCuSS tHe ConCePt aS it relateS to floral CoMPoSition. by J am es Sul k ow sk i
paint from nature, from life. With my subject in front of me, I can observe the fall of light upon it, as well as any atmospheric effects surrounding it. I can also look for the larger concepts of form, shape, and movement in my compositions that will make for an interesting painting. For example, if one of my florals is taken out of focus, a larger shape will generally emerge. A bouquet of flowers becomes a spherical shape, or an egg shape, or even an S-shape; and although the individual flowers are important, each is subordinate to the larger shape, concept, or idea. Renaissance artists relied on a few solid, basic compositional elements—including the cube, the triangle, and the sphere—and built their figure compositions, portraits, and still lifes on these stable formulae. The Baroque period of the 17th century stressed movement in sweeping diagonals, as well as with the S-shape design tool. This is the approach that appeals to me. Dutch masters, including Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–ca. 1684) and Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), incorporated these principles into their painting; studying their work can be enormously helpful.



Valentine Bouquet
1991, oil, 20 x 16. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Peter Stipanovich.

Here, a dynamic action line—in the form of a backward S—moves through the design from the yellow flowers to the tip of the rose.


painting flowers with artist daily


I like to build a design around a dynamic action line. In the following examples you will see that sometimes, like the Dutch masters, I will make use of the S—or even a backward S—as in my painting Valentine Bouquet. Note how in this painting the eye follows the light. It moves through the design from the yellow flowers on the left to the pink, orange, violet, pink, and then white flowers, before continuing down and across the composition to pick up the stem of the rose that lies on the table, ending at its tip. The surrounding flowers echo, or repeat, in darker colors and tonal

2001, oil, 20 x 24. Collection Mrs. ruth gilson.

the dynamic action line traces an S-shape from the background to the foremost flowers.

this content has been abridged from an original article written by James Sulkowski. this premium has been published by interweave Press, 201 e. fourth St., loveland, Co 80537-5655; (970) 669-7672. Copyright © 2006 by interweave Press, a division of aspire Media, all rights reserved. the contents of this publication may not be reproduced either in whole or in part without consent of the copyright owner.


painting flowers with artist daily

values, the rhythm of the light just described. I used the tiny daisies and yellow buds to add sparkle and extra vitality to this painting. Another design shape that I use results in what I call the “waterfall effect.” In Glory of Summer I built a composition around a spherical concept that I enhanced with a waterfall of light and shape in the flowers, as well as in the vines. Here the white roses draw the eye into the composition before leading the viewer out toward the pinks and yellows, and then eventually to the light and shadows that pour outward in the shape of the vines. In Lilacs the arrangement follows the dynamic action of the Baroque diagonal. The cone-shape lilac stems complement this concept, which the white flowers enhance. The flowers radiate light outward and to the right, in keeping with my left-hand light

source. I placed the cooler violet flowers (made with a combination of alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, and white) on the far left, which allows them to merge with the darker violet mixtures of the shadows. The golden yellows in the background and foreground add complementary impact to the design of the painting. The action in Cascade of Color should be easy to discern. In this work I created a sweeping motion throughout the composition, which I enhanced with the incorporation of light. There are actually three vases of flowers in the paint-


Cascade of Color
2003, oil, 40 x 30. Courtesy Sulkowski fine art gallery, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.
top left

the sweeping action in this painting is enhanced by the incorporation of light.


painting flowers with artist daily
ing, as well as a grapevine. With the light source coming from the left, the yellow and red-violet flowers on the right stand out brilliantly. The dynamic action begins on the left with the grape leaves, leading the eye up and through the design, before sweeping down again to focus on the light and finally on the leaves. Sometimes I will use more right than one design concept, the Baroque diagonal is illustrated here, as in Rhododendron, which where flowers radiate makes use of an S—as well as light outward and to the right. a spiral shape. The dynamicbelow action line traces the floral Lilacs from the background through 2002, oil, 16 x 20. the flowers bursting into the Collection Mr. and light, before it diminishes in Mrs. Bryan Pizzi.


painting flowers with artist daily


Glory of Summer
2001, oil, 20 x 18. Collection Mr. and Mrs. louis anthony.

Here, a spherical concept is enhanced by “the waterfall effect.”

intensity as it trails off to end in the foreground leaf. The spiral, or vortex, radiates outward from the center-most flower, which contains the brightest whites of the painting. Once again the light pattern relates to the overall design of the composition. In Hydrangeas and Roses the dynamic action emanates from the focus of light, which is also at the center of the piece. The leaves, stems, flowers, and twigs are all arranged in a spiral to create a vibrant and lively motion. Here again, the progression of shadow

and light in the background gives added power to the design. In all of my paintings I use rich coloration and backgrounds that enhance the featured bouquet by creating depth through the progressions of light and shadow. I also pay attention to lost and found edges, which are critical to conjuring atmosphere and a sense of space. As I paint, I lay in the middle tones and local colors; and as the painting develops, I build the lights, as well as the darks. I prefer to use the full range of the palette, reserving the

deepest darks as accents for the final touches—often found in the center of a floral bouquet. Floral composition should not be static, dull, or boring. The painting concepts I’ve outlined here allow the artist great freedoms in creating a work. Exploring different techniques of paint application, such as using thick or thin paint and different brush sizes, also gives the artist tremendous creative options that yield results as individual as handwriting. And of course, all artists should paint with a loaded brush! n


painting flowers with artist daily

about the artist
James sulkowski studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh; and with Frank Mason at the Arts Students League of New York, in Manhattan. In 1994, Sulkowski opened the Sulkowski Academy of Fine Arts, in Houston, Pennsylvania, where he taught classical painting; today he teaches national workshops. He has won many awards in national exhibitions, including the Helen DeCozen Award for Best Floral Painting in the American Artists Professional League 64th Grand National; and he is included in The Best of Flower Painting, by Kathryn Kipp (North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio). Sulkowski continues to exhibit widely and is currently represented by Dassin Gallery, in Los Angeles; GodwinLundquist Gallery, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; and Sulkowski Fine Art Gallery, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. For more information on Sulkowski, his workshop schedule, or his videos, visit www.jamessulkowski. com; or e-mail the artist at



action cycles from the center of this piece, yielding a lively composition.

Hydrangeas and Roses
2004, oil, 18 x 24. Collection dr. and Mrs. adam grossman.


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