When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Georgia O'Keefe
I hate flowers - I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move. Georgia O'Keefe
They may be small and fragile, but flowers can provoke big, powerful feelings among artists, as you can see from the quotations above. And many of the feelings are negative.
"Flower painter" is a pejorative in my field. Ask any MFA graduate or art critic to rank the most unacceptable subject a painter can chose, and "flowers" (unless painted with irony) would be at the top, followed closely by "kittens" and "sunsets."
Why does the art world's elite have this prejudice against painting flowers? One reason is the current bias against quiet, intimate subjects, such as a still life, and in favor of the loud and large, the eye-grabbing wall-size abstractions, or ear-numbing surround-sound video installations.
It hasn't helped that flowers have been a popular subject for "Sunday lady painters." Even Georgia O'Keefe, with her modernist pedigree and formidable personality, was criticized by the critics of her day for a "feminine" interest in flowers as subject matter.
“Feminine" is just three letters away from "feminist," but a world away in connotation for an art work. The first denotes qualities of "modesty and prettiness," just the traits we see in blossoms. To say flowers are "feminine" is to imply they're easy to paint, boring to engage with, and intellectually unchallenging.
So, to quote a teacher of mine, "If you are going to paint flowers, you'd better kick some butt with those flowers." Especially if you're a woman artist.
This is a somewhat personal topic for me, because I myself paint flowers. I'm not sure if I kick butt. But I do observe those peonies, lilies, and anemones as carefully and honestly as I look at every other subject, from landscape to the human form, that I turn my eye to.
What I want from flowers in a painting is something more rigorous than mere prettiness. They need to hold a strong pose, provide a note of color to the ensemble, carry some light to a dark corner, support the other players on the stage.
In other words, flowers are important to me for the role they play in my painting's composition, rather than because I want to make use of their automatic sweetness as subject matter.
I'll select a bouquet of peonies as a member of the cast in a still life composition for "formal" reasons: size, shape, value, hue. I want those peonies to command a certain place on the stage in relationship to all the other actors on the table.
They have a role to play in the painting, equal in importance to every object, and every empty space between the objects. Everything I see, flowers included, should fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
But flowers are also something more than abstract shapes and colors. When you sit with flowers and study their faces, you see that each is an individual, and no two are alike. I wouldn't want to paint plastic fakes, no matter how much they might resemble the real thing.
I want to communicate with those living beings--because that's what those blooms, so easy to take for granted, are.
As you paint them, you notice flowers change. You watch them, hour after hour, open and close, breathe out their scent, drop their dew, then wilt, decolor, let go their petals. And when you've done observing, these flowers leave our studios, ready to return to earth.
If you grow flowers, you know that they bring pleasure, but also a sense of loss. Their beauty is gone so soon. In the same way, no matter what art critics may say about "saccharine" flowers, the act of painting a peony, rose, or tulip can feel more bittersweet than sweet.
When I'm painting a flower, I'm always conscious that this delicate organism has begun to fade as soon as I cut its stem. I feel the pressure: I have job to do, and the clock is running.
I know that this flower, whose shape and color we humans respond to as instinctively as bees, deserves from me the best portrait I can make. In return, I have the pleasure of preserving her beauty, and sharing it with others, for at least a few more seasons.