Controlling Your Light is Key to Painting Realistic Florals Outside

Monet in his garden at Giverny, 1921 – Musée d’Orsay, Paris Photo ©

Monet had a real dedication to gardening as well as an obsession with colour. He designed both his flower garden and water garden at Giverny, France, which became his greatest source of inspiration. He painted his water lilies over 250 times, capturing light and texture with effortless ease.

“I perhaps owe it to flowers that I have become a painter.”
Claude Monet

Flowers are always a fascinating subject to paint. I got chatting to a beginner painter at a recent visit to Arley Hall, who was expressing their frustration because they couldn’t seem to recreate a realistic study of the rose garden in paint.

They had gone out in the midday sun because they wanted to capture the garden in its best light.

The colours of the rose heads in front of them seemed impossible to match with their paints. Their pigments didn’t seem to have a high enough chroma, and they couldn’t see the detail in the petals because the sun had blown the highlights out.

They had come back the following day at more or less the same time to take more photos to capture it because they were disappointed with their previous efforts with paint. This is when we struck up a conversation about how the photos on their phone just didn’t capture the range they could see with their eyes.

So we had a beautiful subject, brilliant sunshine, but not necessarily perfect conditions for painting a realistic rendering.


The importance of light

The dynamic range of a scene is the difference between the brightest and the darkest objects within your scene.

The dynamic range of light is measured by Exposure Value or EV, and cameras can’t capture the same dynamic range as the naked eye.

In fact, most cameras on phones only see a small range of light; they probably have an EV of 11, almost half of what our eyes see, which is about 21 EV.

When the light is too bright, the rose photo, for example, would look too dark or too blown out.

And the thing is, trying to paint under this harsh contrasting midday sunshine en Plein air is the most difficult light to paint under.

The glare from the sun on your subject can make you squint. It’s hard for your eyes to capture the colours accurately; judge the contrasting values, and see the subtleties and details in the shadows. 

More variety in your mid-tones

Lessen the dynamic range of a subject, and it will be closer to the dynamic range we can capture with paint.

If I’m looking to paint outdoors, I tend to look for a subject in my garden in an area where the lighting conditions are a little softer.

You can see in this flower photographed in the bright light that the white is glaring, notice how blown out the rose heads are at the top of the image.

The easiest diffusion to look for is in the shade.

I’ve found that if you move your position or angle so the subject is even slightly shaded, you’ll see more variety in the mid-tones. And surprisingly, you’ll create more of an effect of sunlight hitting the subject when it’s translated into paint.

This is a crop from the photo above, but it’s of a rose lower down the bush, more in shade. This already looks much more like a painting. Delicate light and texture, velvety petals and you can see a wider range of hues.

There isn’t as high contrast, but the key thing here is that there is enough contrast for a sunlit painting.

Swatches taken from the green leaves light and shadow. Notice how close the values are, even though they appear brighter.

Pro-tip: You can also diffuse the light hitting the subject with a handheld photographic diffuser; it will make it easier to capture with your camera because you’ll be mimicking a bright cloudy day, reducing the dynamic range within the scene.

Sun dappled is often in the evening

Sun dapples in the evening.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Oil on Canvas, Around 1885

In the softer dusk light, it’s easier to see all the nuances; you can see into the shadows. If you look at Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose above, this was painted in the twilight.

But he worked hard for the light.

He painted it for over two years, and when trying to paint it en Plein air, he only had between two and twenty minutes to try and capture the scene. All in the search to get the perfect light.

You can see the beautiful variety in the colours from just one of the roses.

Here is a great Tate Short about How Sargent Painted Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.

So next time you’re struggling to paint a flower from your garden, wait for a bright but cloudy day, go out in the morning when the contrast is naturally lower, or try in the evening and unlock some of the colours hidden by the sun.

And if you’d like to learn more about subtle greys and greens, and how to create a realistic sense of sunlight hitting the leaves & petals you might enjoy the floral painting course.

This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Elizabeth

    I always look forward to your posts. Thank you for linking to the Tate short. Wonderful.

  2. Bethany

    This was a fascinating article and so helpful! I would have tried to paint in light with higher contrast light too and you’ve explained this so well. I’m excited to explore this more in my painting!

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Bethany, yes, it can really help when choosing subjects.

  3. Kay

    Interesting and very helpful. I have painted my granddaughters in the garden several year ago. Photos helped, but I needed to look at the flowers and leaves in person to match colors. Admire John Singer Sargent.

  4. Jean

    Thank you Will for a most informative article. I learn so much from everyone of your newsletters and courses.

  5. Vanessa Enos

    Thank you Will. This is a great article for me as I am trying to paint the large daises in our garden. We went to Monet’s Garden in June and were blown away by the beauty of Giverny. Living in the artist’s hub of St Ives with all the current activity and the ghosts of the those who have contributed so much to our art history obviously suits you.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Vanessa, really hope it helps, and so pleased you were able to experience Monet’s Garden first-hand.

  6. Trudy

    Carnation Lily Lily Rose is a painting I have never seen and now won’t forget. It was a great example to enhance your article on light. Most people think the best way to capture flowers in their glory is to paint them in sunshine. I learnt a lot from your article and over the years realise cloud with sunny spells is best. Here in Ireland we are not short of a cloudy day with shots of sunlight. Never thought of diffusing the light myself so that was a great tip. Would love to see Sargent’s painting in the flesh. Thank you for your educational article.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you enjoyed it Trudy, yes Sargent’s painting is ace. Yes, a little diffusion, even a sheet of tracing paper taped over an empty frame can work wonders to soften the light.

  7. Katja

    Great subject! Absolutely true… light is paramount. It makes the painting live.
    Thank you for this.

    Best regards, Katja

  8. Robyn pearce

    Very useful article – as always. Thank you!

  9. Joseph

    Great information…

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Joseph, pleased you found it helpful.

  10. Jan

    Your posts are so inspirational. The link to the Tate is fascinating. Thank you so much.
    Until next time, allow the Cornish magic to continually charm and inspire you.

  11. John

    so very very helpful and informative – thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure John, glad you found it helpful.

  12. Sue T

    Another inspirational post – one of my favourite paintings, but the back-story and Tate link brought it into a new perspective. Having spent time focussing on photography as well, it brought everything together – thank you! My paint brushes have been dry for a quite a while but I’m hoping to dig them out again soon. PS as a frequent visitor to my mum in Cornwall (near Fowey), I just love your Cornish views.

    1. Will Kemp

      So glad you enjoyed the video Sue, Fowey is so nice.

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