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Where the Flowers Are

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

The series I’m painting rests upon a lot of background work. It requires rereading classic literature or discovering and reading new novels. I’m on a hunt for the strongest, most remarkable women in literature. With that comes much thought about how to also translate the characters into botanical portraits. Often, the flowers have to be dramatic divas to fully represent the women they symbolize. Occasionally, the character is also soft and subtle. Once I develop a good understanding of which flower best represents the character, I have to work to find that particular flower in the right lighting, setting and growth pattern.

Today, I set out in search of two particular roses for two characters who just happen to be well represented by the rose. One of the characters needs a floribunda red rose at the peak of its bloom. Red is appropriate because of her reckless, violently passionate nature. The other character needs a soft but opulent yellow rose. Yellow, because that is the color of the roses sent to her by her lover. By the way, it's a weird feeling to be driving across cities in search of an idea of a flower.

It was dark and cloudy today, so the lighting was not overly dramatic. Cloudy days are good for taking detailed photos and for rendering the leaves of plants a deep bluish green. Sunny days yield high intensity backlight and shadows. I try to be intentional about lighting, but I can’t control the weather. It’s been raining here for days, so I took advantage of the diffuse lighting. The flowers I choose for the paintings are best photographed wild as I like to gather their natural surroundings into the background of the paintings. Today’s subjects needed moody, grey lighting. This actually suits the settings of their stories.

Sometimes, on these outings in search of flowers, serendipity provides just what is needed. By chance, I discovered a rose garden about 25 miles from my studio. I did a search for “rose gardens near me” on Google, not expecting to find much. Surprisingly, I discovered that the town of Farmers Branch has a wonderful rose garden. It’s in a small park, but it has hundreds of beautifully cared for roses planted in beds and along trellises. I walked away with 112 source photos. There might have been more to capture, but my camera battery died.

One of the tricks I use to really see the right flowers while visiting gardens is to sit meditatively for a while before starting. It helps to develop a sense of the place and create the calm I need to work attentively. I like to take in the smells and sounds before diving into visual overload. Today, the atmosphere was soft with the smells of recent rains. There were monarch butterflies in the lavender. The grass was cool and wet. I was one of the only people among the circular paths of roses. It was extremely quiet with no wind.

The reference photo step in my process is the part that really gets the energy flowing. It’s the first step toward visualizing an idea. I really enjoy photography almost as much as painting. It’s exciting to find the perfect subject and to capture it for later reference. The shots I initially love are not always the ones I use to paint. It all depends on the composition and the way the photo works with it. I know there are artists who would never paint from photos. I love their fresh, vibrant work. The fact is, for realistic botanical work, the subject often dies or wilts before it can be fully rendered. I have to make careful notes about color and details while taking photos. Photography can distort both shapes and color. It’s great to have a pocket sized sketchbook along to make notes to help interpret the photos later.

Pictured above is one of the roses from today’s trip. It isn't one of the roses I found for the paintings. Those will be a surprise! The perfect yellow roses and that deep crimson rose are on my camera roll now. Stay tuned for two upcoming rose portraits!

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