There is something so alluring about water lilies, floating flowers, I think it’s because they’re both obvious and mysterious at the same time.
Most of us don’t have water lilies growing in our gardens, they are not a part of our everyday lives, so it is a delight to spot them – in a pond in a Provincial Park, on a friend’s property, or at a hotel or restaurant.
In this case, my reference photos were taken in the Hendrie Gardens at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, ON.
By “obvious” I mean predictable, the petals follow a certain pattern. They’re big, brightly coloured, beautiful, but if you’re photographing them, one fully bloomed flower looks much the same as the next.
I think it is because they have stiff petals, so they generally stay in place, unlike the paper-thin petals of hibiscus flowers, which flutter in the wind, or rest uncomfortably when crowded by leaves and branches. There is a serene, time-less beauty about water lilies, whereas hibiscus flowers are active, unpredictable in the slightest breeze – striking one pose after the other, and like paparazzi I click and click in a frenzy. The same flower can yield numerous compositions, invoke a variety of moods for me to paint.
When I zoom in on a water lily (like any other flower), there is a heady hunt for the perfect photo where the bloom fills the frame, and the image is crisp. Whether or not the photo will inspire a painting, there is pleasure in the capture.
The thing about water lilies though, is that they are floating flowers. Often they are hard to get close to, unless you’re willing to wade into the pond, and depending on the quality of the camera – or skill of the photographer – that perfect macro photo can be quite elusive.
Once I was photographing a friend’s garden, and seeing my interest, and wearing the right get-up for it, she did go in and pick a white flower for me. We set it up in a bowl of water in the kitchen and I was delighted to be able to get as close as I wanted to, to examine the details, and photograph from any angle.
That was more than a decade ago, and I have yet to do a painting from that photo shoot. I realized that a huge part of the allure of the water lily for me as a painter, is the opportunity to also paint the pond reflections. With the flower, I feel constrained by the predictable contours, but reflections are an invitation to play.
Painting Water Lilies
I have always preferred to paint flowers in situ (so that the environment they have been growing in adds context) rather than isolate them – for example, painting them with a black background. The goal of that style of painting seems to be to paint the ideal version of that flower, or a stereotype, whereas even when I paint a flower realistically (which I’m less and less inclined to do), I tend to let loose in the background.
In fact, I’m probably drawn to confusing, messy backdrops. And it’s not just the pull of abstraction, it’s because I think the imperfections and idiosyncrasies are what help to convey individuality, and therefore authenticity. When I paint a single flower, I approach it as a portrait of that flower.
As you can see by this painting, Floating Flowers, I’m not really going for accuracy in terms of the details, but I’m trying to capture a mood, convey a feeling that the viewer may recognize, and appreciate.
So far, I have not painted a close up of a water lily, instead I’ve chosen to step back a bit, and include some lily pads. Often lily pads are much more chaotic than the water lilies they surround … they’re ripped, overlap each other or curl at the edges. This adds variety & character to a composition.
There really are endless possibilities, even if an artist stuck to one subject, like water lilies. So far I’ve been painting them in the middle ground, with a loose style, but I’ve had a student do a close up of the flower and render it in a much tighter, traditional way. And of course when most people think of water lilies and art, they think of Monet’s big, gestural Impressionist landscapes.
I have not painted a landscape with a pond yet; on a regular sized canvas, the water lilies would just be dots. However as I write, I am getting excited to try a close up of a water lily, but painted in a semi-realistic style, using patterning. The eye loves a mystery, and the artist loves a challenge.