“I love your flowers, but I’m curious– why do you paint them?,” a man at a gallery exhibition asked me. “Normally you paint landscapes, portraits, street scenes, dreams…. The flowers are beautiful, but they seem like an odd fit.”
It’s thanks to Soroptomists, I told him. It turned out that his wife was a member, so I didn’t have to explain that Soroptomists are a service organization that is dedicated to helping women, children and families throughout the world. Every Spring, as part of fundraising efforts, Soroptomists of the Sierra Foothills, a chapter in our area, sponsors a tour of flower gardens. Participants pay for a ticket to visit the beautiful gardens of local residents. Artists and musicians are invited to the gardens to draw, paint or play music to help create a welcoming ambiance. We get to abandon our studios and spend a few hours in the fragrances of flowers and the chatter of birdsongs. Whether our presence has contributed to the success of the tours, which over the years have raised thousands of dollars, I can’t say. But I’m grateful to the Soroptomists for placing me, one weekend in May a while ago, in a radiant garden where I encountered the irises you see in the image.
If you don’t pay close attention to them, flowers seem to be simple creatures, yet the more you observe them, the more complex they become. Needless to say, this is also true of everything else in this world, but drawing and painting flowers in a garden present specific challenges. As usual, before anything else, it’s essential to be practical: find yourself a spot in the shade. This means paying attention to the path that the sun will take during the hours you will be at work, so that the light in the composition will remain as consistent as possible. In other words, if your spot is in shade now, will it still be shady in a couple of hours? You should also provide food and water for yourself. At its best, painting can be an act of meditation. This is especially true of painting flowers, so cultivating the ability to ignore distractions is helpful, although the visitors in the gardens are usually more interested in flowers, so they tend to leave you, and the musicians, in peace.
These yellow lilies were not painted outdoors in a garden, but in the home of one of my oldest friends in Spain, Manolo Blasco. He and his wife, Toti Romero, live on a tree-lined boulevard, the Gran Via, in Valencia, and one of the great pleasures of visiting that beautiful Mediterranean port is to draw and paint with him and other artist friends, like Antonio Gomis and Isabel Boscá. On the day of the lilies, Manolo and I met at his home with our pencils, brushes and colors and papers, but without knowing what we would be painting. I don’t remember which of us suggested flowers, but we agreed immediately, and then we walked a few blocks in the heat of the July morning to the Mercado Rusafa, where we bought the lilies at a flower stall.
In silence, like a pair of Benedictine monks, we drew and painted these six lilies, inhaling their fragrance for the rest of the day as the buds swelled and the petals of the blooming flowers gradually began to droop. We returned the next morning to resume painting and were surprised, but not disappointed, to discover that the flowers had lost much of their vitality. In the space of a day and a night they had fallen into the downward spiral of their lives, and observing this we kept painting, as if painting them would somehow keep them alive.
For me, part of the meditation of painting is the recognition of a millennia-old continuity of making colored marks on a surface– strokes on the walls of a cave, or on the walls of a cathedral. Even paint on a fragment of paper in a city founded by the Romans in Spain or in a Gold Rush town in California is part of that living tradition. When you make a colored mark you are part of a long history of artists. The vast majority of them are anonymous, but who cares? It’s the act of painting that matters. I immediately understood Pablo Casals when he said that he loved to play the music of Johann Sebastian Bach because, even though separated by two hundred years, “Bach is my friend.”
So why paint flowers? Well, they are beautiful creatures and deserve our attention and care and remembrance. They emit exotic fragrances, always a pleasure. Also, If you want to bring beauty into this abrasive world, painting flowers is a good way to do it. You might paint in a garden with musicians or just spend a few hours with a friend, painting quietly, or paint in the solitude of your own room, it doesn’t matter. Katsushika Hokusai died in 1849; he is my friend. When I paint flowers he is always near.