Our summer calendar of July and August hints at ancient Roman culture. These hot months of are often referred to as 'Dog Days', or in Latin ‘dies caniclares’. This is because in the summer night sky, the star of Sirius is easily seen and is in
constellation Canis Major, or when translated from Latin: Big Dog.Since then the phrase Dog Days has evolved into the contemporary image of pet dogs lounging in the shade, avoiding any activity or undue exertion. This epitomizes the essence of summer vacation!
The monthly order of July, then August, also makes it easy to remember Roman history. Julius (July) Caesar’s rule was followed by Augustus (August) Caesar. In addition to naming a month and expanding the Roman Empire, Augustus’ name also became an adjective which sums up his out-sized power and enduring influence. The definition of ‘august’ is: Imposing; Full of splendor; Dignity; Noble; Eminent; Grand; Majestic. As an adjective, august is often pronounced ‘aw-Gust’, placing the emphasis on the second syllable.
During these Dog Days of July and August, gardens often feature sunflowers and
for me, these imposing annuals are the epitome of ‘august’. At the beginning of summer I planted sunflowers seeds in my garden. It’s now August and the plants
are mature and majestic, several over 6 feet tall and about to bloom. I am looking forward to drawing and painting them because sunflowers are an enjoyable, re-occurring motif in my career of painting gardens.
A few years ago, I was one of several artists commissioned by Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton. They had already selected a painting of a springtime garden and they wanted a companion painting of a summertime garden: but it was wintertime and the dedication was in the spring; just a few months away! My solution was to create an imaginary garden of sunflowers with cosmos and zinnias titled “An August Garden”.
For my prime reference I used “August Sunflower”, a watercolor I had painted over a decade ago at Mission San Juan Capistrano. At first glance, a declining sunflower seemed like an unlikely motif for the hospital, yet by including the nurturing and life-giving aspects of nature I created an up-beat mood. There are birds are fluttering in the shadows of the big sunflower, gathering seeds. The ladybugs are feasting, the butterflies are collecting nectar from the cosmos.
The big, bold leaves and flower heads on the right side of the composition are painted broadly with warm, yellow and orange-based greens. To create size contrast, the cool pinks and blue-greens of the cosmos are painted with innumerable small brush strokes.
Another source of inspiration was “Nana’s Garden” which had been painted at the community gardens in San Ramon. In this watercolor, the big tall sunflowers have just one flower head and another variety branches freely and has lots of flowers. The low border of zinnias provide vivid color and more varieties of green foilage.
Into the composition of “An August Garden” I introduced zinnas, and in the background, multi-stemmed yellow sunflowers. I muted the colors of the far sunflower leaves to a blue-grey to suggest a day so bright and glary that the color seems washed out. The bungalow provided an excuse to introduce a vivid blue that would support the bright energy of the flowers and to be the counterpoint for the neutralized blue-greens grays.
I completed “An August Garden” and it was delivered, framed and installed in the mezzanine level of the Patient’s Pavilion lobby at Saint Joseph’s.
Enthused, I decided to interpret the San Juan Capistrano sunflower motif one more time. In this version, all of the sunflowers have finished blooming and are beginning their decline. However the cosmos remain perky because I have seen cosmos flowering in Livermore, well into October. In the upper right hand corner of the composition, I suggested the glare of the sun that is lower in the sky as the season shifts from summer to fall. My title “Eclipsed Sunflowers” suggests that the ‘suns’ have fallen into obscurity while the harmonious galaxy of the ‘cosmos’ continues.
As a gardener I witness the rise and eventual fall of these august sunflowers. As an artist, I paint summer gardens that can be enjoyed throughout the year!