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.
Some scholars have suggested that Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous flower paintings, as well as her other paintings in which the subject appears greatly enlarged, were influenced by modern photographers such as her husband, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, who “zoomed in” on and closely cropped their subject in an attempt to discover its core essence. O’Keeffe emulates this technique in her compositions. She built her reputation on the fact that people tend not to notice small or seemingly insignificant details.
Poppies were one of O’Keeffe’s favorite subjects. For her 1927 painting, Poppy, O’Keeffe used a palette of primarily warm colors—shades of red, orange, and yellow. However, the center of the poppy, which forms the focal point of the composition, is in soft dark shades of black and purple. The contrast of these colors against the lighter colors at the edges of the petals, draws the eye of the viewer deep into the core of the blossom. By removing the poppy from any obvious context, and creating an oversized close up of the flower, O’Keeffe essentially abstracts the organic forms into black and red shapes. The resulting image is both objective, because the flower is a recognizable subject, and abstract, because the viewer is compelled to see the work in terms of pure form and color.
I’m sure O’Keeffe would have agreed that one of the first things an artist must learn is not how to paint or draw—or even how to sketch—but how to see. This can be more difficult than it sounds, because in the split second communication that goes on between the eyes and the brain, we tend to see what we expect based on prior experiences with the subject. In other words, if we know something to be a flower, we see it as a flower. Our brain doesn’t take the time, every time, to reconstruct all the little details necessary to reach this conclusion. The excellent book, Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards contains an exercise in which a line drawing is copied, but upside down. In this way, the idea of what the drawing is “supposed” to be is removed from the equation. The following drawing exercise uses a different technique, but is based on the same premise (and owes a lot to O’Keeffe, of course):
- Drawing materials—pastels, crayons, colored pencils, etc.
- Large sheet/s of paper (minimum 8 ½” x 11”) appropriate for the medium selected
- Small natural object to use as subject matter—fresh/potted flower, shell, rock, leaf, etc.
- A viewfinder. It should be small—roughly the size and shape of a 35 mm slide frame—and can be cut from a piece lightweight cardboard. Or, if you happen to have an actual 35 mm slide (remember those?) around, that will work perfectly (without the image in the middle, of course).
Place the item you have chosen to use as your subject in front of you. Use the viewfinder, moving it back and forth, closer or further away, until you have isolated the portion of the item you want to use for your image. The viewfinder serves the same purpose here as it does with a camera—it helps you to frame the image you wish to capture. For this drawing, your subject should not only fill the page, but extend somewhat beyond its edge.
Lightly sketch the image on your paper with pencil. As you look at the image through your viewfinder, try to separate yourself from what you know the subject to be, and see it only in terms of the colors and shapes that appear in the space you have isolated.
Next, use your chosen medium to develop the shape, color, and texture of your subject. Step back from the large drawing from time to time, and look at the subject again through the viewfinder to maintain the desired perspective on the image.
Georgia O’Keefe drew a parallel between taking the time to really “see” her subjects and the effort required to nurture a friendship. Once you’ve completed your drawing, take a little time to consider how you feel about the item you chose as your subject. Does it seem more valuable to you now? Would you be able to pick it out of a group of similar objects? Could you describe it in detail to someone else? Do you feel more familiar with it than you would if you had just walked by it on a path or at the beach?
Now, give a little thought to how these same ideas might be applied to the people in your life. How do you really get to know another person? Think about a time when you had a preconceived notion about someone and found out you were wrong once you knew that person better. Maybe there are some ideas here that can help our personal relationships grow and flower as well.
Note for teachers: A variation on this activity, as well as many other lessons designed to teach the wonders of art while promoting teambuilding and intercultural understanding, is included in CRIZMAC’s Creating a Peace of Art Curriculum.
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