Technique-of-the-Week — Through the Eye of a Flower

Last week I did a step-by-step coloured pencil demo of a flower, in response to a question from a follower. The second part of her question, however, was a little more complicated; she asked for “pointers like: where to start – bloom or overall plant, perspective in landscape – I usually draw a bed like I’m standing looking down at it”

Now, I don’t style myself as a flower painter; while I do the occasional floral painting, there are many people who specialize in this fascinating subject, and are much better at it than I am — I’m much too easily distractible to specialize! However, I’ve been taking botanical reference photos for many years (if I were to never take another photo, I’ve got enough to last me for the rest of my life!), and have come to look at composing with the camera as an extension of my art. Creating drawings, paintings, or photos of flowers is like portraying any other subject when it comes to composition, so I’m not really talking exclusively about this one subject in the examples I’ll show here.

I also have to say I’m not a photographer, at least in the technical sense — I used to use an SLR, but have become a digital convert, partly because I can take LOTS of pictures without incurring crippling film developing debt. But I really do take better pictures with a digital camera — I usually leave it on auto except in extraordinary circumstances. I do own a DSLR, which features far more bells and whistles than I know what to do with (and a manual that, if it weren’t digital, would be a tome), but I keep defaulting back to my little Canon A700, which is almost a surprisingly versatile little camera. All of the pictures below were taken with that one.

But on with the question at hand:

The first part of the question, where to start, is pretty much like starting any piece of art. You have a lot of decisions to make: to work from reference or not; what medium; large or small; how much work you’d like to put into it; and so on. Deciding what mood you want to convey will affect colours and values, the viewpoint you use, even the style of your brush or pen strokes. Odds are, you’ll have some of these things worked out unconsciously already, but it helps to think about them anyway as options. For example, here is a nice, bright picture of some tulips, taken from a typical viewpoint of someone (me) leaning over them:

orange tulips spray

They’re pretty and cheerful, and nothing wrong with this viewpoint at all. With a little cropping and editing, this would make a beautiful painting. But what if (start asking yourself “what if” frequently!) I were to adopt a different viewpoint:

orange tulips

By getting down to a side view, I’ve done several things. I’ve changed the shape of the flowers themselves; I’ve allowed them to stand out against a contrasting background; and I’ve altered the perspective of the viewer. Suddenly those tulips are a presence, like fellow beings instead of the landscape below our feet. Or take this a little further:

magenta tulips

With this angle, we are the intruders in the tulip world; we are small and insignificant in a land of lordly tulips and their blue and yellow minions! We are looking up at a subject that we usually look down upon, which creates an element of surprise. A stack of books, a cat, a piece of fruit all take on a monumental quality when viewed from below. The same kind of effect applies when we look down on things we usually look up at or see from the same level, like trees, buildings, cars, and even other people.

Then there’s the close-focus idea; get so close to something that it becomes iconic; it fills your field of vision (or at least the picture field) and takes on the kind of importance that we usually reserve for other people’s faces:

striped flower

This is even more effective if you paint it BIG like Georgia O’Keeffe did. As she famously said:

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.

Again, this goes for other small objects; try a seashell three feet across, or a five-foot tall feather.

Look for unusual viewpoints. Everyone knows the cheerful face of the sunflower, with its Fibonacci spiral centre; but who ever looks at the back of it?

Sunflower

This photo also illustrates that composing with only part of a thing can be very effective.

Consider movement. How does your eye travel through this picture? Mine leaps from flower to flower, entering with the ones at the top left, circling downward then up and to the right, then jumping off the last pink and yellow dahlia and back to the top left again. If I were to paint this, I’d probably strengthen that effect with a slight rearrangement of the dominant flowers to close the circle a bit better (but not so much as to take away the random feeling of the arrangement). I might also downplay some of the background flowers to make the foreground stand out.

Dahlias

in this photo, they eye travels from top to bottom along the line of begonia blossoms, then back up again in a nice swooping curve.

Begonias

Here is another example of flow; the lily pads cause the eye to do a kind of figure 8, crossing at the centre of interest, the water lily:

white water lily

Think about where the lines of the things surrounding your subject lead; do they lead your eye toward your subject, or do they distract or lead it away? In this photo of irises, the lines of the rocks and the shadows fortuitously converge on the main subject.

yellow iris

Here the huge leaves echo the direction of the flowers, but not so much that it looks static. If I were to paint this, and try to improve the composition a bit, I’d tilt that leftmost stem a bit more in the direction of the other ones, to lead the eye that way and to break up the vertical rhythm of the stems.

Canna Lilies 2

Give the eye some large, quiet space to rest. The water in this picture allows some relief from the busyness of the piled up lily pads. Notice also the centre of interest, the water lily itself, is not at the centre of the picture! But our eye is drawn to it for several reasons: it is the only thing that is bright pink; it is light against a dark portion of the picture; and its form is unique.

pink water lily

Here is another example of large swaths of quiet space setting off a busy area. It is also a very tasty contrast of textures.

wild strawberries

Speaking of contrast, here are several going on at once. The pale rose against the very dark background; the warm tones of the rose and its stem agains the cool of the green leaves. If this were the only place the contrasts were going on, it might seem a bit stark, but there are subtler echoes in the other stems and in the gold of the dying leaves and the red leaves on the dark ground. Also notice the many different colours of green — it’s amazing that our language is so impoverished as to have only one word for a colour family that surrounds us everywhere, relying on adjectives to make the distinctions.

Yellow Rose

More contrasts: the busy background against the quieter space of the rose and its leaves is a reversal of the usual more detailed subject and quieter background. A highly textured background such as this can be tricky to work with, so be sure your subject will stand out against it by contrast of colour, value, amount of detail, or all three.

Rose bronze background

Think about shapes. interesting silhouettes make interesting pictures, even if the subject is an ordinary one (not that there’s anything ordinary about flowers!). These strange flowers make dancing, fey shapes agains the quiet, flat space of the water-plant covered pool:

strange dangly flowers

(by the way, does anyone know what the above flowers are?)

This orchid in the Butchart Gardens restaurant caught my eye for the lines of its stems and the shapes of the leaves as much as for its colour. The straight grid of the window panes made an appealing contrast. Look for contrasts of regular, straight, man-made shapes against organic shapes.

Orchid

One of the best things about flowers is the way they play with the light. I try for backlit shots as often as possible, because it brings out the colours so well. But while flowers have a great advantage over many other subjects in this regard, every subject plays with light in its own way. Learn to see that.

Canna Lilies

Colour is what we usually associate with flower pictures; it’s almost the whole reason to paint them, isn’t it? Maybe not:

BW rose

The strong form of this rose would look great in charcoal or graphite (imagine it really big!). If you want to see the forms and values of something better, convert it to black and white, either on a computer or by photocopier. Here’s the same rose in colour — a very nice rose, but somehow, after the black-and-white version which is pure floral architecture, a bit ordinary, eh?

pink rose

I hope you’ve enjoyed this technique-of-the-week post; I normally do them on Saturdays, so check back next week. if you see anything in any of my posts that you’d like to know more about how I did it, please ask in a comment!

8 responses to “Technique-of-the-Week — Through the Eye of a Flower

    • Thank you, Marketa! I have the urge to go play with my photos now and see which ones look good in black and white. I have several friends who actually do their black and white work in a darkroom, and their results are always so striking.

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  1. Thanks so much for the awesome lesson! It explained a lot to me on perspective. I can’t wait to have a subject to draw. .. (that was a hint Ms. Spring). I don’t know what that vine was, not a Midwestern plant. Pretty cool tho.

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    • You’re welcome! I’ve recently learned that the word perspective is used differently by photographers — to me it has always meant the visual illusion of receding space — but it is being used by photographers to mean viewpoint, which is closer to its literary meaning. It’s a good thing I figured that out, or I would have been drawing lines and vanishing points on fields of flowers! Which might not make a bad lesson in itself…

      I’ll put the flower question out to my Facebook page — I seem to know a lot of gardeners!

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  2. I actually had the other meaning of perspective in mind when I read the the first paragraph of your post. But it made me read on till the very end. This is really an awesome lesson – and your photos are great!

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