Many truly great artists were also gardeners: I fit into neither category. Monet, Bonnard, Matisse, Pissaro, Kandinsky, Nolde and Klee all had (chromium oxide) green fingers. It makes sense: the organic forms, the color - a garden is an open goal for artists. As Seneca said: 'All art is but imitation of nature.' But if Monet was prouder of his garden than his art, with me it's the other way round. I would rather watch paint dry than plant nasturtiums. Pansies are for sissies. But a gallery in which I exhibit seemed to do well with flower pictures so one day, completely out of the (cobalt) blue, I resolved to paint some flowers on my largest canvas ever. It seemed like a bigger commitment than...er... having children.
My feeling is that the artist-gardeners mostly painted their gardens or flowers in pots, but that flowers in contemporary paintings are invariably to be found floating in space with blurred, bland or indistinct backgrounds. This highlights the flowers, which is good, but to me it is an easy option. And I am a masochartist. I wanted to locate my blooms somewhere relevant. Eventually I decided to put them in a Roy Lichtenstein-type room.
On the internet I came across a picture of one of Lichtenstein's Room Paintings, hanging on the wall of a room that matched the room in the picture. I liked this conceit. I want people to be able to put my painting on their wall and see it as an extension of their room. However, little did I know that designing a deceptively simple-looking Roy Lichtenstein room would lead me into the realm of double point perspective and vanishing points, about which I was doubly ignorant and knew vanishingly little. I now understand why most painted flowers are to be found floating around in space like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. It took me two weeks, and four drafts, just to rough out the sight lines of a basic room - French windows, fireplace, sofa, shelf for the flowers, the bust of a Roman emperor on a plinth, looking quite serious.
Once I had a satisfactory outline I first painted the fireplace wall in bright orange, with the complicated shadow of a blue tree in the top left corner. This was an overdose of color which would eventually detract from the sunset, however, so I eventually dulled it down to a trendy brown. The flowers emerging from the frames in the pictures on the wall are agapanthus and gladioli. Although flowers are not my 'thing', prolific flower-painter Georgia O'Keeffe offers a pragmatic philosophy: 'I hate flowers - I paint them because they are cheaper than models and they don't move.'
The dots and the stripes of the sunset are pure Lichtenstein of course. Except here each dot and line is individually hand painted - no stencils or masking tape were harmed in the making of this picture; no sleight of hand used; no Hirstian army of neophyte spot-painters did the drudge work for me.
The swimming pool was a complete afterthought. Originally there was a lawn sown next to the terrace, but nothing looks more exquisitely decadent than a large pool outside your French windows, so I ripped up the grass and installed the pool.
Back inside the room, I had always intended to balance the bust on the left hand side, with a naked woman on the right. She was going to be standing next to the flowers, gazing out the window in quiet contemplation. Having already painted the exterior, however, this was a risk if she didn't 'look right'. As a precaution I roughed out a white cardboard cut-out nude and stuck it on with tape to see how she would look. She looked OK, enigmatic even, so I painted her in. After she was done it took me a week to realize she didn't belong. She just looked like a mandatory nude, filling a quota - which is exactly what she was. So she had to go. This meant repainting a lot of the exterior - orange sky, purple hills, blue swimming pool, pink balcony, yellow gravel, blue window frames. This was a time-consuming, irritating chore. Working out the precise color mixes I had made weeks earlier was harder than finding a DNA match for a serial killer in a little watched, Scandi-noir, boxed-set. I replaced the woman with red dots.
I had intended the flowers painted here to merge cunningly into a flower pattern on the rug under the coffee table, but this proved way too ambitious and I reverted to painting the rug in bland sisal with rusty tassels.
By now you may well have reached the conclusion that, after roughing out the picture, I had very little idea how I was going to color it in, and you would be right. This is the way I work. Other artists may well produce copious drafts of pictures they intend to paint, but this is not for me. I adhere to Robert Bissett’s contention that any painting is just a ‘series of corrected mistakes’. The perfect painting has not yet been painted (apart from Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’).
Rubens asserted that a painting is finished when 'the backsides look good enough to slap.' This painting got spanked into completion when I finished the plants either side of the fireplace and, finally, the black clock with a green face on the mantelpiece, informing us it's 9.15, and time to move on.
Although it is probably true that to be a good flower painter you should also be a good gardener, ironically, painting the flowers was the least of my worries in this picture. They were the easy part. It is everything else that gave me grief. However composer Gian Carlo Menotti says 'Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers - and never succeeding.' I suspect even Monet & co would agree with that.