Technique: Growing Your Own Garden

0810garden3_600x420_2 For many artists, growing and tending to their own gardens provides an additional outlet for creative expression.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Tulips in a Square Vase,
by Susan Van Campen, 2006,
watercolor, 23 x 30.
Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries,
New York, New York.

Every artist has, at some point in their studies or their career, painted from nature. One of the most common subjects is the potted flower or plant, which can help one learn about color, form, and working with a living subject. For many, flowers provide endless inspiration and can be beautifully rendered in all media. Artists who have the time and space often plant their own gardens, giving them ready access to their subject matter. However, many have also found that working on their garden enables them to employ the same concepts of design and composition that work so well in painting. Artists Carl and Sandra Bryant, have grown flowers and vegetables for several years on their property, and many of their plantings serve as inspirations for their mosaic artwork. “We have a lot of favorites,” Sandra says. “Tiger lilies, rhododendrons, dianthus, and peonies, to name a few. Some are gifts from friends, and many I choose for the color. Both Carl and I tend toward big, showy flowers set off my more subtle flowers in the background.”

Many artists plant flowers with an idea of what they think will create a beautiful overall space, but soon learn that nature must indeed run its course. “Many times I have really tried to design and plant my gardens, but plants have a funny way of telling you where they want to be,” says watercolorist Susan Van Campen. “So after a lot of trial and error, I have begun to just let some things happen—very similar to painting in watercolor.” The unpredictability of planting is part of what can make gardening so enjoyable for an artist. For those who want to begin planting, it is important to be prepared for the time and energy that is required in the process. Most gardeners do not simply plant seeds and spend the rest of the season watching the flowers grow. “We do a lot of rearranging as plants come up,” says Bryant. “Designing is an ongoing process,” echoes artist Trudy Kraft, who often uses the flowers from her own garden for her watercolors. “Perennials—the plants that survive from season to season—often need to be divided and moved. This can be fun because it provides a recurring opportunity to modify design. Annuals, which have only one growing season, are also fun to play with. In the fall, I sometimes plant a whole bed of tulip bulbs, forget the details of what I planted, and am amazed by the profusion of color that appears in the spring.”

Flowers on the Table,
by Sandra Bryant, 2005,
glass mosaic, 30 x 24.
Private collection.

For those who prefer a less intensive method, artist Christopher Leeper takes a more hands-off approach to his garden, which he recommends. “I like a natural-looking design and let the garden grow and change as it sees fit. Because of my busy schedule, this  seems to work. Low-maintenance flowers are great.” Such flowers include Black Eyed Susans, Siberian irises, peonies, and purple coneflowers. These are suitable to most climates and soils but, “read books on what works in your area and plant what you like,” advises Leeper.

Garden’s End,
by Christopher Leeper, 2007,
acrylic on linen, 32 x 44.
Collection the artist.

For most artists, it is the plant’s ability to serve as a subject that motivates their planting choices. Depending on the growing season of the flowers one has chosen, along with the area’s climate, such choices do not have to be difficult, because there is a constant flourishing of new subject matter. “Planting what I like to paint has been my priority, but some of my preferences have changed over the years,” says Van Campen. “I like every color, shape, and form, but I don’t enjoy painting tiny little flowers, because I find them too finicky.” Leeper, who has more than 10 kinds of plants in his garden, finds that he too only prefers a few of them for painting. “Of all the flowers I have, only the coneflowers and sunflowers were planted with an idea to paint them. I also planted corn because I like how the dried plant looks in the fall and winter.” It was one of his paintings of dried corn plants, Garden’s End, that made him a semifinalists in the most recent Watercolor Cover Competition. Of the inspiration for that painting, he says, “By the fall, the garden gets neglected, and the weeds compete with the remaining vegetables. This makes for an interesting, albeit untidy, scene.”

Akbar’s Folio No. 6,
by Trudy Kraft, 2007,
watercolor and gouache
on Nepalese paper,
12 x 9. Courtsey Gross
McCleaf Gallery, Philadelphia,

Indeed, it is the unexpected moments of inspiration that is the greatest gift to artists who choose to plant a garden. “I find that painting and gardening go well together,” says Kraft. “They stimulate each other.” Van Campen shares this sentiment. “Having a garden has been the best thing for me as a painter because not only do I get a lot of exercise but I also get to observe my subjects throughout their lives, at every stage, which can be perfect for a painting.” For those interested in starting their own garden, many recommend getting to know your climate and soil by reading books and talking with other gardeners. “See if your neighbors or friends want to thin a planting,” suggests Leeper. “It’s an easy and inexpensive way to add plants to your garden.” And it’s important to keep in mind the same rule that artists use when approaching painting: be flexible. “Enjoy the entire process, failures as well as successes, since there is so much to learn from both,” says Bryant. This same attitude should be readily applied to the process of creating fine art, which often requires much trial and error in order to render the subject properly, as well as develop a unique style. With these connections, it is not surprising that so many artists also turn their property into a beautiful source of inspiration. Kraft also offers advice that could easily apply to tackling a painting: “Start small and expand gradually. Make sure that you have the time and interest to do the work involved. As a teacher once told me, ‘In cultivating a garden, you are also cultivating yourself.’”

Naomi Ekperigin is the assistant editor of American Artist.

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