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Artistry in Bloom

Gardens are both inspiration and workshop for photographers and painters with eyes for the outdoors.

September 19, 1998|SHARON WHATLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I perhaps owe becoming a painter to flowers."

-- Claude Monet

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Some of the world's finest artists, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Van Gogh, began their study of art in the garden.

Monet considered his gardens at Giverny to be his greatest work. Poppies and sunflowers became subjects for still-lifes; he brought them indoors to paint during inclement weather. Monet even used vegetable gardens to add dimension to his living canvas.

An artist's particular affinities are often reflected in his or her private landscape. Monet cultivated white peonies and irises for their shimmering quality; Renoir planted roses to re-create the delicate skin tones of women and children; Van Gogh, without gardens of his own, relied on those of friends and the flora around him to capture the natural juxtaposition of complementary colors.

Regardless of the medium, inspirational art can emerge from a well-planted border, a single potted plant or a natural tangle of flower and foliage. All it takes is an eye for detail and for when your leafy subjects are at their peak.

A Planter's Paradise

"Just look around you for inspiration," says Rafael Maniago of Bellflower, an artist, teacher and, he adds, perpetual student.

"I become instantly engaged by the way the light hits a certain spot, the way its luminousness filters through a leaf or casts a complexity of surrounding colors onto a nearby petal. I make that the focal center, the beginning of my painting, at the spot where the light becomes so beautiful."

Maniago is a plein-airist, working outdoors in the method of the Impressionists, replicating in oil the beauty of nature on canvas. His courtyard is surrounded by rich, deep plantings of exotic flowers and a raised balcony.

"I taught myself the complexities of dealing with stone and brick because it was important to my art," Maniago says. "I plant in my garden what I want to paint."

A front garden is filled with roses, his favorite subject; a side trellis allows clusters of grapes to double as still-life studies. Nestled among the large-leafed plants at the garden's perimeter are white marble statues representing the seasons. Water hyacinths crowd together in tubs, their lilac-blue blossoms spontaneously appearing in Maniago's paintings.

"When I paint in my garden or on location, there are the problems of wind, sun, bugs, everything. That's part of it--to smell the flowers, feel the wind. If I don't have time to finish a painting, I take its photograph to my studio and turn on the fan, so I still have the feeling of the wind."

The Gardener's Eye

Caroline Linscott's wood-framed house looks like an illustration from a late-1800s gardening journal. A studio by day, her San Juan Capistrano home is 30 feet from the railroad tracks--so close that the frequent passenger trains rattle the paintings on the walls as they pass.

Surrounded by a grand confusion of sweet peas, hollyhocks, Oriental poppies, geraniums and bougainvillea, Linscott creates watercolor garden scenes and brilliant singular flower paintings, with an affinity for white.

"It's a joyous challenge to re-create white flowers using the translucence of watercolors," Linscott says. "There are so many shades of white, with shadowy tones of blue, pink and a range of other colors you wouldn't expect."

Linscott notes the importance of not working from the subconscious, but teaching oneself to truly see.

"As a gardener you know what a flower is and how it's put together," she says. "As an artist I've learned to study, get the magnifying glass out and look in depth."

Linscott relies on myriad methods to transfer her subject to paper. A simple approach is to first sketch the scene on plain paper, then use graphite paper to transfer its basic form to watercolor paper. If the work is very complex, she projects a photographic image directly onto the work surface with an opaque projector, lightly penciling in the details and erasing them once the work is underway.

Nature's Grown

Mari Penny of Anaheim Hills paints larger-than-life flowers and fruits with acrylic paints, an easy medium to work with.

"When I reach a stopping point, I simply cover my paints with a little plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator," she says. "Brushes clean in a flash with water--no linseed oil or fumes from turpentine. And acrylics dry incredibly fast compared to oils."

A grower of table grapes, Penny's husband, John, has access to growers who ship top-quality produce to other parts of the country. "I'm fortunate," Penny says. "If I want a certain kind of chili pepper for my art, or some figs or unusual type of eggplant, my husband is able to locate them for me."

Penny creates her garden borders by grouping colors. "Violet verbena and bright gold marigolds make a beautiful planting mixed with pink snapdragons," Penny says. These brilliant bouquets then fill her waiting canvases.

Picture Perfect

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