How to Bring Order to a Riot of Color

For a few weeks each spring, Mother Nature transforms the rolling hills of California’s North San Diego County into one of the most spectacular and coordinated displays of natural color and beauty anywhere in the world. With nearly 50 acres of Giant Tecolote Ranunculus blooms, the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch have helped usher in the season for more than 60 years.

“Carlsbad Flower Fields” (watercolor, 8 x 8 in.)

Hoping to capture the fleeting display in watercolor, California painter Robin Purcell had been stymied by gray skies three years in a row. Early this April, however, Santa Ana winds made the conditions perfect for her preferred way of working — low humidity and strong sunlight that would dry her shapes quickly. With the fields in full bloom, the artist completed three paintings in one week.

“The Flower Fields” (watercolor, 9 x 12 in.)

“The main problem this subject presented was how to anchor the scene in reality and not have it dissolve into a gaudy display,” says Purcell. The tan furrows of the fields helped. So did the dotted lines of greenery, which she found gave the fields dimension. “They reminded me of stitches in a quilt,” she says. The flowers she likened to “ribbons of color across a shallow slope.” In quiet contrast to the blooms’ bright colors, she used soft cool and neutral colors for the hills and fog in the background.

“Color Fields”
(watercolor, 8 x 16 in.)

Each piece in the series featured a different aspect of the fields, and they grew increasingly abstract as the week progressed. What started as an attempt to make the compositions more dynamic by painting the lines of blooms at a slight diagonal rather than in straight horizontal rows, turned into an opportunity to explore an idea that had been born years before. “I went to an exhibition of Carmen Herrera’s work at the Whitney several years ago, and it stayed with me,” says Purcell. “Having seen the circles, flags, targets, and squares of her male contemporaries, I was taken by her explorations of what one shape and two colors could do. Looking for a way to convey the immense length of the flower fields, I was reminded of Herrera’s elongated triangles. In Color Fields, the last in the series, I stretched the painting format to 8 x 16 inches (a 1:2 ratio). The more I stretched the shapes, the more I got the feeling of depth I was looking for. It had taken years but I finally found a way to use Herrera’s ideas successfully in a landscape painting. I may try a 1:2 1/2, 1:3,  or even a 1:4 format in the future.


ROBIN PURCELL describes how she developed her unique style of painting this way: “I must have been permanently warped by doing paint by numbers as a child. Then I fell hard for the paintings of the early California Impressionists, particularly Granville Redmond and William Wendt, whose work helped me to see the landscape as shapes. In my own paintings, I simplify what I see and organize it into shimmering patches of color. Working outdoors with watercolor makes it much easier for me to control the hard edges that I need for this approach.”


  1. Well that’s an interesting article about keeping colours cool. Thank you because here in the UK there are lots of green. As not to be b8ring I use a lot of bluish green with occasional warm colours.


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