Art History: Painting flowers

Being interested in painting means that you can’t just be interested in technique, you have to know where you fit into the world, or if you don’t know where you fit into the world then you should know about who came before you. Now, you may be thinking that you don’t have some sort of lofty ambition to become the next greatest artist, you just want to paint some flowers, and that’s ok, however even the decision to paint flowers on a table has a long, and vibrant history. And to deny yourself the history of flower painting also denies you of one of the greatest resources that you have. I’ll get more into this concept later.

Often times people are scared, offended, or angry with contemporary art. This stems from a feeling that the artist is trying to be smarter than the viewer. A sort of dictatorial power where viewers must look at the creations that artists make. This is generally made into a straw man argument, complete with references to some obscure performance art piece which seems highly inaccessible. Since we are focused on painting lets take a look at some paintings which are considered to be “hot” right now, and fetch extremely high price tags.

The work of Lucien Smith takes from artists who died nearly half a century previous. Obviously there is a connection to Jackson Pollock, because of the dripping. But if we really look at pollock’s dense canvases we can see that they are much more vibrant and full of life than Smith’s work. As we delve further into Smith’s work we see that these abstract paintings are just one of many different ways that he paints, and that he changes styles frequently from painting to painting. He isn’t bound by one particular genre and isn’t confined to one particular description.

Now, you may be thinking “I don’t like it” and that’s ok, I don’t particularly like his works either, but whether you like something or not is irrelevant. It still exists, and it still can be used as an example of where the contemporary is at the moment. With this in mind, it is nearly impossible to say if a work of art is “good”, or not. With that in mind, you may be surprised to know that Lucien’s works are not well received everywhere in the art world, one of the most influential critics living today “Jerry Saltz” said that work similar to his was “crapstraction” a play on the word abstraction, and that “This is not painting but semantic painterbation”. So as you can see, the art world isn’t some giant monolith that everyone makes it out to be. There is a wide variety of viewpoints and no clear consensus as to what art should or shouldn’t be.

Many times an agument is put forward by someone without a lot of historical knowledge that there are rich buyers, and snobby critics who just randomly choose some MFA student to make famous and then they all agree, and everyone makes money. One of the world’s most famous painters living today is Eric Fischl, who was known for his perverse paintings of American suburbia has devoted a whole slew of his new paintings to the theme of art fairs, where this stereotype certainly rings true in his paintings. And his paintings are not being shunned by the art world, instead the opposite is true. This is because most have an ability to be self critical, a skill which is mandatory if you want to become an artist.

So whats this have to do with the flower paintings. In the 1600s in the Netherlands what we now think of as still life paintings really flourished. These painters depicted everyday scenes with amazing detail and were true masters of oil paint as a medium. Artists such as Roelandt Savery and Jacob Vosmaer made a great living off of their works and lived very opulent lifestyles. The idea that historically speaking, you have to be dead to make a lot of money from your artwork simply isn’t true. As we dig deeper into one work we can see that in this painting, titled ( I could you not) Still Life there are over 40 different flowers from many different countries. To be able to paint from all these different flowers in real life meant that you had to have access to money, and it was no mistake that Roelant became the court painting for King Rudolph in Prague. Yeah, kings actually used to have painters because their works were seen as status symbols. So what else does this painting of flowers tell us about Prague in the 1600s? It tells us that Rudolph had access to flowers, which means established trade routes. It also tells us that his kingdom, (or certainly himself) wasn’t do too poorly as he could afford to spend money on things like paintings, and importing flowers from all over Europe. And as we look more into Rudolph as a character, we start to learn more about Roelant as a painter. Rudolph was a really strange emperor, interested in magic, alchemy, and astronomy. He loved collecting things, beautiful things. Could this be why Roelant moved from The Netherlands to Prague to paint flowers? Well, yes, yes it was.

Wait….Do you see what just happened? We just went from flower painting, to European empires, alchemy, and issues of wealth and class by looking at a painting. See why art and paintings are important cultural relics? And some would argue that flower paintings aren’t relevant today because they don’t address contemporary issues. Is that true? Should nobody ever paint flowers again because somebody else did it better? Well of course not, and there’s a way to ensure that doesn’t happen.

You see, first of all you need to discover what types of flower paintings you’re attracted to, and why. By default, you will most likely go to technique first, this is understandable because you still need to build a skill set. Perhaps you’re more interested in how flowers are depicted in Persian cultures. Perhaps you admire the precision of photo realists, but again, this is just technique. As one of my favorite paintings instructors Steven Sheehan said “If you’re painting a landscape put a car in it, because then at least people will know when it was painted” . So if you’re making a painting of a flower on a table – how are you doing it. What is your process? Are you starting with a photo you got off the internet of some flowers, how does this effect the final image? Are you going to your local grocery store to buy some flowers? Do you leave them in the plastic bag with the supermarket’s logo on it or do you take them out and put them in a vase? If so, what kind of vase? A hundred year old vase that your grandmother had, or a McDonald’s cup. How are you lighting them? Will you be using classical form lighting? Will the painting be done in chiaroscuro, with high contrast such as in carvaggios works, or will they be bland pastel colors like Morandi?

All great works of art can generally be defined by a certain set of criteria.

What materials and techniques are the artist using?
By identifying the materials and techniques that another artist used you can develop a work schedule which allows you to get better at your abilities. This is the nuts and bolts of the work, not the core.

What other artists are known for using this technique?

Do some research, and look into what other artists are good at the techniques you want to get better at. Make a list of them, make a blog about all of them, copy their works, and soak in their paintings. Study them, and understand what it is about their work that you consider to be strong.

What is the historical context of the work?

This one tends to freak out students quite a bit, and it’s understandable as to why. The history of painting is big and imposing enough, not to mention all of art history, and then all of humankind, and then all of the history of time and space and ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Stop. You’re freaking out again. As we discussed before painting doesn’t have to be about some lofty philosophical ambition, it can just be about flowers on a table. However, you must be aware of the decisions you’re making when you place that vase, and those flowers from your front yard in North Dakota, on a new table from ikea, light by a halogen bulb pointed at the ceiling. You can’t escape it. A time and place is infused into every great work of art. Don’t diminish your story in exchange for a cheap technique which can be copied. You’re more interesting than that.