Monday, August 27, 2012

Sunflower Heatstroke Dordogne, France

The sunflower season started off with high hopes of a countryside draped in a cheery cloak of yellow spreading out as far as the eye could see. But, from the beginning, this season has proven to be less than the usual iconic sunflower-filled version of France. At first it seemed that there were not going to be any fields planted with these much anticipated flowers. But then, as the weather warmed up, we began to see the distinctive double-leafed sprouts and each evening we kept track of their rapid growth from tiny sprout, to knee high, on up to our shoulders, all in a matter of a few days. As the flower heads filled out the landscape was like a shawl of chartreuse and golds with threads of white and green. Finally it was just about time for the glow to start and I was all in a tizzy to get Tom out there en plein air to capture on paper the glorious landscape.

Then the weather changed from perfect sunflower growing weather to way too hot and way too dry. Suddenly that big locomotive of anticipation came to a screeching halt. Golden flower petals emerged, lasted a day or two and then wilted to miserable tufts hanging on the edge of the large seed heads. Quickly the golden petals drooped and clung as black fringes. It has just been too blinking hot and dry here for anything to flower for more than a day or two. If one was quick and in the right spot at the right moment you could catch the fields in their full glory.  But there were very few iconic sunflower filled days. The fields never really had one good glow, their golden robes faded to the rags of summer’s end: scratchy leaves and big black seed heads drooping heavily on the stalks. 

On our evening walks Tom would say, “Maybe it will be cooler tomorrow and I can get out there and paint.” But the days just kept getting hotter and hotter and there was no way I could fuss and push him out into that oven. Even rigging up an umbrella wouldn’t have done anything to alleviate the inescapable sun-baked air.
All this led to thinking about how we take for granted the beautiful en plein air paintings that are so iconic of France. van Gogh’s sunflower fields. Monet’s flower-filled Giverny paintings. Looking at these images in a museum we don’t think about the weather conditions, bugs and hunger that the artist had to endure to capture an image. My guess is that few of us ever stop to think about what was happening in those gorgeous fields around these obsessed, focused artists. Was it hot and did they have to rig up an umbrella or wear a bandana around their forehead to keep the sweat from rolling onto the canvas? Was it too windy and they had to figure out how to tie everything down? Did they leave at the crack of dawn to set up their easel ready to capture the first rays while the morning air was still fresh and before the beating sun rays rose to high? Or did they have to suffer the hottest part of the day in order to have the sun-light hitting the hills just to their liking?
Normally Tom would have been right out there battling whatever got between him and the perfect composition that he had found. But this year he has had to sweat through this heat wave by mixing concrete and laying a foundation for his new studio. My expectations for next year’s sunflowers will be doubled by this year’s dry spell - both of sunflower fields everywhere and new painting images that can keep us happy all the year long.

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