Translating Flowers into a Painting

Flowers are an attractive subject, but they are also one of the most difficult for a painter.  Why?  One reason is in translating flowers into a painting.  There are so many ways to approach an arrangement of flowers.  The attraction may be the variety of color or the “prettiness” of the subject. Maybe you like the challenge of so much detail of every leaf and petal.  Often the intention at the beginning of the painting turns into something very different as the process goes on.  

No Pretty Pictures Please

Personally, I like to discard the want of a pretty picture by ignoring all the colors and petals as the basis, and instead going for the mood of the arrangement.  For instance, the quiet nature of the arrangement as a whole is easier to grasp and therefore grab onto for interpretation into a painting.  The overall shape directs my eye to one part perhaps, where a petal is falling off, which gives me a sense of an offering the flower has.   The light might be illuminating one particular part which may set the sentimental tone the painting should therefore communicate, whether somber, introspective or joyous. 

Oil painting of pink and white flowers in a glass jar.
A Sketch of Flowers, 2020 by Curtis Green

Gathering the Masses

Working in large masses of general tonality and color first, then “pulling” out the petals with little detail works best for me.  The intention I typically have for painting flowers is allow the strokes to impart the suggestion of the flowers so as to not overpower their soft and delicate aspects. I may work in grey tones first to construct the character of the arrangements. Little indentions of the background as the insert themselves around the perimeter of the bouquet really adds interest and gives me something to navigate around.

A Little Hint

A lot of times, I’ll just work with just  two colors and two neutrals to get started. After the massing is satisfactory and the darks are laid in, I can then begin to pull out the petals and other halo like notes. I like to just hint at the color in some areas first before setting the stronger lights. A very delicate sensitivity in brush handling needs to correspond to the delicacy of the subject. At this point, only the poetry of painting can be employed. The desire to employ a conscious technique seems to only get in the way of translating the flowers into a painting.

Let your Knowledge Grow

Some of the best flower painters that I know of today are Daniel Keys and Dennis Perrin. Each of these well known painters have YouTube tutorials and workshops that are inspirational and informative to the contemporary flower painter.

However, I recently saw an exhibition that included Manet’s flower paintings at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, CA. They were concerned about no details. They were crude in their rendering but powerful in their statement. Treat your flower subjects as a still life. Concern yourself less with detail and more about character. Pay attention to color harmony and overall unity. Be patient and enjoy the process.

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