Watercolor: Susan Van Campen: Capturing a Flower's Likeness

0703vanc3_600x447_1Likening her process for painting flowers to that of her portraits, Maine artist Susan Van Campen puts patience, skill, and heart into interpreting the life of a flower.

by Allison Malafronte

Bouquet, June
2006, watercolor,
42 x 29½. All artwork
this article courtesy
Hirschl & Adler Modern,
New York, New York.

I think having a garden—being the caretaker of my own flowers and putting tremendous effort into nurturing them and helping them develop—has allowed me to see my subject matter in a more natural way,” says floral watercolorist Susan Van Campen. “It’s almost like raising children: You put endless energy into rearing these tiny seedlings and, as you watch them grow, you’re fascinated by how beautiful each one is in its own unique way.” For this reason, painting a flower for Van Campen is not a matter of arranging an aesthetically pleasing setup or conceiving the most striking composition. It is instead about painting the life of a flower—the naturalistic details that give each its own likeness. “My aim is not to paint a pretty picture,” the artist emphasizes. “Rather, I am trying to capture the character of the flower—almost as if I’m painting a portrait.”

In many ways, flowers have always been close to Van Campen’s heart, and she recalls two instances from her childhood that made a lasting impression on her artistic imagination. “Growing up, there was a watercolor of an iris by Precisionist painter George Ault—who was my mother’s half-brother—hanging in my parents’ bedroom,” the artist says. “I used to just stare and stare at that painting—it definitely had an impact on me.” Van Campen also recounts the life-altering moment she painted her first flower. “I was in third grade, and I remember sitting at the table as the teacher rolled in a huge vase of marigolds to paint,” she says excitedly. “I painted a full sheet of those flowers and thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever produced.”

First Sunflower, July 14
2006, watercolor,
42 x 29½.

Of course Van Campen’s floral paintings have come a long way since her childhood days, and now, instead of using grade-school paint or even the oils with which she learned portraiture, she employs the versatile, direct medium of watercolor—and has come to love the process. “In oil painting, each brushstroke counts,” the artist explains. “But, with watercolor, great things can often happen without the artist expending too much effort. In the beginning, when I was first learning watercolor, it was difficult to adjust to the medium, but the more I worked with it, the more I realized the water actually does a lot of the work. It’s one of those things you can’t teach—just like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better you become at it.”

Van Campen knows this holds true for gardening as well, as she has spent countless hours tending to the sunflowers, daylilies, dahlia, plums, pears, apples, and berries that constitute her lush garden in Thomaston, Maine. But the artist wouldn’t have it any other way—how else could she step into her backyard at any given moment and paint the subject that has always brought her so much joy? “I often go out into my garden first thing in the morning to see what’s newly opened, what catches my eye and makes me want to paint it,” the artist reveals. “I always paint from life—sometimes I sit on the ground in my garden and paint directly from the subject, while other times I’ll cut a bunch of branches and bring them inside, setting them up on white surfaces and in front of white walls.”

Tulips in a Square Vase
2006, watercolor, 23 x 30.

Once inside, Van Campen arranges her setup to bring the most clarity and focus to the subject. “I work on a large white counter with a plain wall behind it,” she describes. “Everything is cleared away so I can concentrate only on the fruit, flowers, and vases that I want to paint.” The artist always stands when she paints indoors, keeping her paper on the counter and her paints on the chair next to her. She uses Winsor & Newton watercolors and Arches 300-lb cold-pressed paper and notes the dramatic turn her work took when she changed the quality of her materials. “When I first started painting in watercolor, I used cheap brushes and paper,” Van Campen admits. “When I switched to a higher-quality paper, I was astonished at how much my work improved—the water and the pigment hit the paper in a completely different way.”

In addition to the quality of her paper, Van Campen counts preserving the white of her background as greatly adding to the freshness and spontaneity of her work. “For me, it’s important to have that white background spacing the flowers,” she says. “It’s like painting a portrait—I wouldn’t want a lot going on in the background distracting from the face of the person. The same is true for my florals—having a white background and surface simplifies everything for me and the viewer. There’s no clutter, and the focus is on only the characteristic details of the flower.” The artist also uses the white of her paper to highlight areas of shine or illumination on her subject.

Apple Tree, October
2004, watercolor, 22 x 30.

Once satisfied with her arrangement, Van Campen begins composing, starting by drawing only the vases or bowls. “I never sketch the flowers, just the containers holding them,” the artist explains. “In a sense, I am drawing all along—only I’m drawing with my paintbrush. I don’t work with a dry brush at all, nor do I work in washes. I am very direct with the paint and am basically just playing with puddles of water throughout the process—a puddle here for the shape of a flower, a puddle there for a stem or leaf—and, as I add the pigment to the puddle, I watch how it’s going to react. At any given moment, I may have four or five wet areas of paint, so I have to be aware of what’s going on around the paper. Because I have been doing this for so long, I know how the water is going to treat the pigment, and I use that knowledge to describe the shape of what I’m painting.” 

From this point the process becomes organic for Van Campen, as she continues to respond to her subject and move around the painting in no particular order. “I’m just observing and responding, soaking in the subject and concentrating quietly,” the artist says. “I continue to paint whatever I’m drawn to—perhaps a leaning sunflower, an interesting stem, or a uniquely shaped leaf—there’s no definite process. I am just in the moment and copying what’s before me, always moving throughout the composition to achieve an overall balance.” Sometimes the artist will leave the arrangement and come back later, only to find her subject was unable to remain still. “The flowers move when you paint them,” she attests. “You put them in a vase and come back in the room later and see that they have moved toward the light or they closed up—they are very much alive.”

Amaryllis in Two Pots

2006, watercolor, 40 x 17.

The relatively large size of Van Campen’s watercolors—ranging from  22" x 30" to 40" x 60"—is a direct reflection of her interest in the grandest, most original types of flora. “I love large flowers,” the artist says. “Tulips, irises, poppies, peonies, delphinium, daylilies—they have such great height and character.” The artist also appreciates flowers at every stage of their development, including when they’re first budding, when they’re in their prime, and when they’re beginning to fade. “One of my favorite paintings is Last Bouquet, October because I knew there was going to be a big frost the next day and all the flowers in my garden were going to die,” she recalls. “So I cut a bunch of fruit and flowers, set them up inside, and painted them. In that way, I was able to somehow capture and preserve them in the last phase of their lives.”    

About the Artist
Susan Van Campen received a certificate of fine art in oil portraiture from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia. She currently lives in Maine, where she maintains a diverse garden that provides endless inspiration for her watercolor paintings. The artist’s work is in numerous private and public collections, including the Delaware Art Museum, in Wilmington; the Farnsworth Art Museum, in Rockland, Maine; and the Woodmere Art Museum, in Philadelphia. She is represented by Hirschl & Adler Modern, in New York City, where she recently closed her first solo exhibition, titled “Susan Van Campen: Recent Watercolors.”

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One thought on “Watercolor: Susan Van Campen: Capturing a Flower's Likeness

  1. This are beautiful paintings, delicate, and fragile, it gives the feeling of the real flowers, so ligth, I just love them
    Raquel Solis