Painting Sunflowers in Mason Jar: A Lesson for Beginners

I planned this class for adults who are unsure about painting and drawing. I think as adults, we have an increased appreciation for people with skills and talents and are more aware our own short comings. For example, I love soccer but would never jump in on a game with my sons’ coaches. In this lesson the final result looks impressive, but the path is within reach for those with no experience.


Photo of Sunflowers in Mason Jar in my studio.

The technique is definitely “Bob Ross” but it could open doors and possibilities for beginning artists. What do I mean by that? As a classically trained Artist I was taught to paint exactly what I saw; through careful study and practice. Bob Ross taught people to paint representational landscapes that were not before them: by tricks and techniques. To begin, I find one of the easiest items to paint is a glass mason jar. The jar the artist creates will not be photo realistic, but more Impressionistic, but the viewer will recognize the familiar shape. I add large flowers with basic forms and clearly delineated colors, simple repeating patterns that can be easily replicated with a simple brush stroke.

For this painting, I will supply a mason jar filled with sunflowers and some direct light, coming from a studio clip light.

Step 1: Paint the background.

I have the artists paint their entire canvas one or two colors.

So why do we do this? White canvas makes a painting look unfinished. It is also quite difficult to paint a background around your final image. The beauty of Acrylic paint is that it dries quickly. Now is a good time for students to sip coffee, tea, margaritas, Manhattans or wine.


This canvas has been painted twice: First under coat of Burnt Umber and Second, a coat of Raw Umber from top, blending to Burnt Umber on bottom.

Step 2: Map out the painting.


I drew my rectangle for a vase and mapped out the locations of my flowers. This time on an off-white background blending to light blue.

I do not think of the still life as “vase of flowers” but as a map of geometric forms.  I mark the top and bottom of where I want the still life to be on the canvas: just dabs of paint, usually dark. Then I mark where the jar stops: about half way up, and then, where the lip of the jar starts (1/6 down from the mid line). From there I draw my rectangle for the vase: because it is a rectangle. Next I use sloppy squares to map out each flower. The exact location is not key.  Why? we are not creating a Rachel Ruysch painting, here.




Painting in the stalks.

Step 3: Paint the stalks.

For the next trick, I have the students put about 4 colors of paint on their palette: dark green, dark blue, light green, and yellow. Using a medium to large brush and dab it in 2 colors (do not mix!), they paint long, purposeful stalks INSIDE the jar. Later we do bright colors outside. The stalks don’t even have to match up to the flowers, necessarily. Just keep dark inside the jar and bright outside. The streaking colors create volume and texture. Paint lots of stalks!

Step 4: Paint leaves, green flower backings, and flower centers.


Paint the dark green foliage around the flower, leaves, and finally, the brown centers of each flower.

The next step I have the students do, is paint the greenery holding each flower: notice the green spikes at the end are just like brush strokes. Looking at each flower, they can create a green cup or oval to hold each flower. I also have them add one or two leaves in the bunch.  Finally, we take burnt umber, mixed with blue if they want it darker, or orange if they want it lighter, for the center of each flower.

Step 5: Add Petals, Water Line, Jar edges

Now we are getting somewhere with the painting! The yellow/gold petals are just like the green backings: brush stroke size! I noticed I needed to add white to my yellow to make it stand out against the green and blue, so more than one pass, may be needed on these petals: but only those in front. I put down the petal brush strokes in the direction the flower is facing; still only generally referring to the still life. I also add the water line and add dark blue smearing down from the water line. Light blue along the shoulders of the jar and to the rim.


Final Touches!

Putting the final highlights and colors on a painting is rewarding. I add a shadow to the bottom of the jar, lighter touches to the petals, a few brilliant green streaks to the stalks and flower backings, and finally, some muted white to the sparkling highlights of the mason jar.



The Runner-Up

I tried two types of flowers to paint at first. I thought the irises would be easier than the sunflowers, but they turned out to be more difficult. It was the sunflowers that were easier to explain. This is the painting created over the primed canvas in Step 1. That was how sure I was this would be easier for students. You can still see the painting the jar technique, also no shadow.


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