You Paint Them By Not Painting Them?

To Be Where There's Life by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 30 x 40, 2010.
To Be Where There’s Life by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 30 x 40, 2010.

The coolest thing I ever learned about painting flowers, specifically how to paint a rose, was when a painting teacher told me that you paint them by not painting them. Back then I gave her the stink eye because, really, how do I paint a rose by not painting it? Ah, humility. How you love to teach me lessons. I soooo get what my instructor was saying to me now-—and it is one of the truest art lessons I’ve ever learned.

Painted flowers, plants, and other organic forms seem all the more real when they are painted less literally—when you work to capture the sensation of an object but not necessarily every petal, leaf, and thorn. For example, a vase of flowers could be painted with an eye toward capturing the strong thrusting lines of the stems or the light airiness of a flower in full bloom. And that has nothing to do with the exact number of petals you paint!

Memorial by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 48 x 48, 2011. Dark Fall by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 48 x 48, 2007.
Memorial by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 48 x 48, 2011. Dark Fall by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 48 x 48, 2007.

Sometimes the best way to achieve these kinds of effects is with a combination of representation and abstraction. Recently, I saw artist Ryan Coleman’s work and his “floral paintings”—if you can call them such—do just that. The works are not literal depictions of flowers or bouquets or groves of trees, and yet when you look at them you somehow know what they are.

Many artists throughout the centuries have incorporated both representation and abstraction in their work, from El Greco, Corot, and Pissarro to Cezanne and Picasso. In the same way, Coleman strives to depict subjects and narratives without becoming too literal, which he finds restrictive. He strikes a balance between the two, so that he feels he can work freely and expressively while the end results are paintings and drawings with hints of representation that can be very reassuring and grounding to viewers.

Season of Light by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 30 x 40, 2011. Dream of Vermeer by Ryan Coleman, oil on canvas, 38 x 48, 2011.
Season of Light by Ryan Coleman,
oil on canvas, 30 x 40, 2011.
Dream of Vermeer by Ryan Coleman,
oil on canvas, 38 x 48, 2011.

One of the best ways to inject your painting with sensation and liveliness that can come with combining abstraction and representation is to work from a variety of inspirations or sources. Coleman usually has an assortment of images around him when developing any given painting, from images of nature and landscapes to those from art history, interior design magazines, graffiti, cartoons, or whatever else catches his interest.

Your art would also be well served by looking at all the variety of floral paintings out there and the levels of abstraction and representation they use so you have a strong understanding of where this subject matter can take you. Debora Stewart’s Abstract Art Value Pack is a perfect place to start. It covers how to achieve dynamic forms in painting, ways to experiment, strategies for gesture, color, and more. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.