Ephemeral Beauty: Painting the Floral Still Life

 Ephemeral Beauty:

Painting the Floral Still Life

oil painting of peonies by Ann trusty
Troubadors                                   30 x 40"                       Oil                         Ann Trusty

A Brief History of Modern Florals

   Anyone who chooses flowers for a painting subject is joining an historic and impressive line of artists who also felt the inspirational power of this quotidian subject. The short-list of French artists who tackled florals reads like a "who’s who" of modern French painting of the nineteenth century from Chardin and Redoute to Manet, Renoir, Monet, Caillebotte, Cassat, Degas, Pissaro, Sisley, Bonnard, Morisot, Cezanne, Gaugin, Redon, Fantin-LaTour, Matisse and of course, van Gogh. While artists have always explored the subject throughout history, it was not held in much regard among French art academies, salons and exhibitions until the middle of the nineteenth century. For two hundred years prior to that, still life, or Nature Morte (dead nature) was considered the lowest rung in the formulaic “hierarchy of genres” of French art criticism—below landscape, portraiture, or history painting:

   “This system had been codified in 1667 by Andre Felibien, a theorist and historian of art, who explained it as a gradual movement from the base to the divine: 'He who paints landscapes beautifully is above the artist who only paints fruits, flowers, or shells. He who paints living animals is worthy of more esteem than he who represents things that are dead and no longer moving. And since man himself is God’s most perfect work on earth, it is certain that he who imitates God in painting the human figure is far more excellent than all others.'"
Heather MacDonald and Mitchell Merling, Working Among Flowers, Floral Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth Century France

           oil painting of flowers by Redoute       oil painting of flowers on a table by Frederic Bazille        
        Flowers in a Crystal Vase     Pierre-Joseph Redoute         Flowers                       Frederic Bazille

           oil painting of flowers by Eugene Delacroix    oil painting of flowers in a pot by Pierre Auguste Renoir
              A Vase of Flowers          Eugene Delacroix               Mixed Flowers in an Earthenware Pot 
                                                                                                  Pierre-Auguste Renoir

   Today it is hard for us to fully comprehend the oppressive power of such an established code upon the work of artists trying to break free from such academic attitudes. However, the marketplace told of a different reality. Since around the middle of the eighteenth century, coinciding with the remarkable still life works of Chardin, there was a quiet revolution in the advancement of still life as a serious subject for artists. By 1850, still life works were competing very well with other genres as a new class of affluent working people began to collect art, despite the lack of critical support from the establishment.

         oil painting of flowers by Henri Fantin LaTour   oil painting of flowers by Henri Fantin LaTour
                     The Engagement Still Life       
Henri Fantin-LaTour     Chrysanthemums       

           oil painting of Lilacs in a window, by Mary Cassatt
   oil painting of flowers by Victoria Dubourg Fantin - LaTour
               Lilacs in a Window      Mary Cassatt                    Still Life with Pink and White Stock  
                                                                                              Victoria Dubourg Fantin-LaTour

            oil painting of flowers by Edouard Manet    oil painting of flowers by Pierre Bonnard
       Vase of White Lilacs and Roses  Edouard Manet  Wildflowers, QueenAnne's Lace and Poppies  
                                                                                                     Pierre Bonnard

   It was into this cultural foment that the young French artists stepped, ready and willing to see nature as alive, not dead, and a worthy subject of serious art on equal footing with portraiture. Not only that, but there is evidence and considerable research to support it, that the still life, especially florals, paved the way for the revolution in art that was to eventually become known as Impressionism. This makes sense. There was a thriving market and demand for still lifes and florals. Artists who were producing numerous works would naturally use this subject as a basis to explore new ideas and new ways of painting. That the Impressionists believed their floral works were serious works of art cannot be disputed. During the period when Monet and Renoir were working out their ideas to found a “New Painting” in 1864, they both created big canvases, three feet and larger, of flower still lifes, at a time when they had to reuse canvasses for lack of money.

          oil painting of flowers by Claude Monet   oil painting of flowers by Claude Monet
                     Still Life with Flowers and Fruit        Claude Monet         Spring Bouquet          

            Oil painting of flowers by Paul Gaugin    oil painting of flowers by Gustav Caillebotte
                 Flowers and Cats             Paul Gaugin           Vase of Gladiolas        Gustav Caillebotte

             oil painting of flowers by Odilon redon   oil painting of flowers by Odilon Redon
                            Bouquet of Wildflowers              Odilon Redon        Vase of Flowers  

    Monet remarked that his Spring Flowers of 1864 was the best thing he had done until then. The artists' motivation was in part economic, but was also to exhibit their skill and attract attention. As these new modes of expression caught on, the next step was to expand the still life idea into the landscape itself, and so on, until a self-sustaining movement of a New Painting, which encompassed all of life, was fully under way. In short, they elevated floral painting from the disregarded basement of commercialism and decoration to a place in the history of pictorial modernity. We have them to thank for the rich legacy of beautiful floral and still life subjects which serve to inspire us today.

   Flowers as a subject for still life painting are immensely difficult to paint well, in part because their structures are often complicated, their colors often both luminescent and translucent. These challenges can be overcome with enough practice but nothing can alter the fact that flower blooms are ephemeral. The second an open bloom is picked the clock is ticking on the effort to capture it in paint. Photographs are undoubtedly helpful and necessary references in the case of a rapidly fading subject, but they are no substitute for observation. The eye sees so much more than even the best camera that it is dangerous to the art to rely too much upon photographic references. In short, working from life trumps the camera every time.

   Ann Trusty has always been inspired by flowers of every kind and has spent many years learning how to capture the beauty of flowers in her oil portraits. To her, they are living beings who shyly reveal themselves to anyone with the patience and passion required to appreciate them deeply. She decided to share her knowledge and experience with the readers of International Artist Magazine in this demonstration of painting the extremely ephemeral blossoms of the Coral Charm Peony.

Capturing the Coral Charm

Photograph of Ann Trusty Painting a Floral in Oil

   I am inspired by the ephemeral beauty of flower blossoms, many of which I grow in my own gardens. In my paintings, I am attempting to capture the vast range of tones in their petals as they reflect and absorb light. To me, each flower contains all the complexity and transcendent beauty of a large landscape.

   Their temporary urgency reminds me to be present in the moment as they are. Their blooming time can be so short—it is like painting a sunrise followed by a sunset. So I have learned to get well-prepared and then focus with great intensity on my work.

   After I have put my garden to bed in the winter, I continue to paint still life compositions in my studio with fresh flowers imported from warmer climates. My studio has large north-facing windows and skylights which provide a fairly steady source of light through the day. Working in the studio I am not subject to the fluctuating light conditions of working in my garden, but there are still many challenges. The blooms change rapidly and their colors begin to fade, making it imperative to study, sketch and block them in quickly. Photographic reference is important to have after the flowers have wilted, but does not replace working from life.

Peony Close Up, 12 x 16", Oil Painting © Ann Trusty                        Peony Close Up                                  Oil                                   12 x 16"

   Peonies are a special favorite of mine as they were to Victoria Dubourg and her husband Henri Fantin-Latour, both of whom continue to inspire my work with flowers. When I planned and built my own flower gardens, I made sure to build specific large beds for my peony collection from which I paint. I love their layers of sweet-smelling petals, which perfume our house and gardens in May. I work furiously to capture the softness and subtle color shifts in light on their petals to try to bring the to life on my linen canvas as their petals drop before my eyes.

oil painting of flowers in glass vases by Ann Trusty                            Filtered Light                                             Oil                                 24 x 30"

   I spend a considerable amount of time working out the compositions, colors, values and edges in my paintings, and I do this primarily in painted studies, which preceded the studio works. This classical process allows me the freedom to express myself fully in the larger works and concentrate on the beauty and impact of the subject.

oil painting of peonies in Provencal vase by Ann Trusty
Peonies in Provencal Pitcher                                Oil                                     12 x 16"

   This transitory nature is particularly apparent with Coral Charm peonies. Within only a few days, their brilliant coral pink fades to a creamy tone. For this reason, I found it valuable to carefully mix color strings on my palette of almost every color I would use in the painting before ever putting brush to canvas. A color string is made from the dominant mass tones of the subject in order to provide a wide selection of temperatures, values, accents and highlights of those mass tones. Color strings can also be cross-mixed to create harmonious grays. By working within the color string I establish on my palette, I can avoid introducing a new color that might result in a glaring, inharmonious tone on the canvas. The color relationships will remain harmonious throughout the painting. Perhaps the most compelling reason to use color strings it that they prevent me from "chasing the light" throughout the day as I work. Unlike sunlight, oil paint is a subtractive process and cannot hope to match the luminance of light. Therefore compromises must be made in the tonal range of the painting to create the illusion of light. A pre-mixed string which includes accents and highlights helps to keep my tones in a manageable and consistent value range.  

   The light on my flowers is coming from my studio window and skylight to the left and slightly above the still life table providing strong cool highlights on the tops of the left flower and darker warm shadows on the lower right flower.
            My Composition of Coral Charm Peonies   Coral Charm Peonies and Three Days Later 

   Above, Left: My still life set-up captured the steady, cool light from my north-facing studio window and skylight. I used a black fome-cor sheet to block light from the right. Above Right: I chose to focus on the enormous Coral Charm blooms close-up and to crop the base and background for this composition. Bottom Right: Only three days later, my Coral Charm Peonies have faded to a creamy yellow!

photo of Ann Trusty's oil palette My Split-Complementary Oil Palette with Prepared Color Strings

   The particular hue of the Coral Charm Peony is difficult to match with my standard split complementary palette reds (Cadmium Red and Alizarin), so I chose two new colors to add to my palette from which to make my color string. Charvin Rose Vif and Rembrandt Quinacridone Rose are my base colors. I created a warm to cool color gamut by mixing toward Cobalt Blue. For deeper accents, Ivory Black in small amounts deepened the mix further. Cadmium Yellow Light and Medium were mixed in to tint the color from pink to coral. By adding Titanium White to the warm to cool mix, I created a warm to cool highlight mix. Titanium not only lightens, but cools any color to which it is added.

What I Used

12 x 16” New Centurion Deluxe oil primed linen panel

Charvin Bright Pink (Rose Vif)

Rembrandt Quinacridone Rose
Gamblin Cobalt Blue
Gamblin Ultramarine Blue
Gamblin Ivory Black
Gamblin Cadmium Yellow Light and Medium
Gamblin Titanium White
Rembrandt Transparent Oxide Brown
Rembrandt Viridian

Royal & Langnickel Majestic Filberts - 8, 10 & 12

Rosemary & Co. Long Flat 279 - 8
Rosemary & Co. Long Filbert 278 - 6
Rosemary & Co. Short Flats 274 - 4, 5 & 6

A Step by Step Process

Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration   I applied a thin wash of Rembrandt Transparent Oxide Brown mixed with Rembrandt Viridian Green to create a warm middle-toned value on my 12 x 16" oil-primed linen panel. The smooth linen allows me to wipe highlights with a paper towel out of the ground color while it is still wet. I began by adding my deepest petal colors.
            Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration
Left: I quickly blocked-in the range of light, mid and dark tones to establish the relationship between them and to map my range of values at the outset. Right: I established the lightest highlights on the upper left tips of the petals and the deepest darks on the lower right petals.

Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration                  At this point, I focused on the structure of the composition, adding the stems, leaves and vase.

                 Adding Mid Tones and Enhancing ContrastsAnn Trusty peony painting demonstrations
Left: I added the mid-tones to the left flower here and began to finesse the shadow and highlight tones of the flower on the right. Right: The light color in the shadowed petals of the right-hand flower has a cool blue tone in it. Learning to see the subject honestly, without projecting what I think should be there is of utmost importance.

Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration   A close-up of the right hand flower shows the beautiful range of color tones and values in one flower.

Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration
I deepened the background tone with a darker mixture of Transparent Oxide Brown and Viridian to enhance the flowers. I am constantly aware of my edges as I work. It is important to not create a “cut-out” look to the edges of the petals, but to allow the brush to overlap in areas and even scumble into the background color when necessary.

      Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration   Ann Trusty peony painting demonstration
Left:  One of the things that I love about working on oil-primed linen panels is that I am still able to remove paint from the background color with a paper towel creating a more textured background. Right:  Value changes in flowers can be very subtle and it is easy to get into trouble while working. I use my digital camera to periodically take a black and white photo of my progress. The black and white reveals the true values without the influence of color relationships.

Ann Trusty peony painting demonstrationThe Final Painting, Coral Charms, Oil, 12 x 16"

STEM Education, 16 x 20", Oil, © Ann TrustySTEM Education                                  Oil                                   
16 x 20"

oil painting of peonies in a vase, by Ann Trusty
Peony Love Affair                                    Oil                                     12 x 16"

Photograph of Ann Trusty by John HulseyAbout the Artist

   Ann Trusty is a third-generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River, as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times. With her husband, artist John Hulsey, she travels extensively and publishes the educational website, The Artist’s Road. She writes, "It is important to me to share my knowledge and experiences as an artist with others. There is great joy and fulfillment in giving back what has been given to me and it has deepened my appreciation and gratitude for the artistic life I am allowed to live." For more about Ann's work, visit her website.

                oil painting of peonies in a vase, by Ann Trusty   Spring Delight, 12 x 16", Oil, © Ann Trusty
              Peonies on Provencal Tablecloth  Oil  16 x 12"        Spring Delight     Oil          16 x 12"

 More Wonderful Contemporary Flower Paintings

         oil painting of flowers by Dennis Perrin,©D. Perrin
                 Keira and Alabaster                                     Oil                                               Dennis Perrin

   Dennis Perrin is a masterful painter who seeks to capture the beauty of light in the essence of his floral subjects. He is also a talented and energetic teacher whose advice and training are in demand worldwide. See our Voices of Experience: Dennis Perrin. Visit Dennis Perrin's website.

oil painting of flowers in the artist's studio, by Jim McVicker.Studio Still Life                                Oil                               40 x 30"

   Jim McVicker is a highly accomplished master painter who has received numerous accolades and awards for his diverse body of work, including the Gold Medal at the prestigious California Art Club. He paints figures, landscapes, interiors and floral subjects and works extensively in plein air. See our Voices of Experience: Jim McVicker. Visit Jim McVicker's website. 

 watercolor painting of peonies by John Hulsey           Dancing Peonies                                        Watercolor                                         John Hulsey

   John Hulsey is a life-long professional artist, painter, author and sculptor and co-founder of The Artist's Road. He works in watercolor, oil and pastel, and teaches in those mediums in his popular classes and workshops.

 Oil painting of flowers and reflections by Ann Trusty Reflections and Epiphyllum                          Oil                                           Ann Trusty



Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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