May 26, 2016

Lessons from the Masters: the flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe

I have always been arrested by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe.  And macro flower photography has long had soft spot in my heart.  Surely the two are related?


"A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower - lean forward to smell it - maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking - or give it to someone to please them. Still - in a way - 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. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it. "  Georgia O'Keeffe, "About Myself," 1939

“Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same kind, it becomes simplified until it can be nothing but abstraction.”

To William M. Milliken (Director, Cleveland Art Museum), 1 November 1930:
"Dear Mr.Miliken: I have been hoping that you would forget that you asked me to write you of the White Flower, but I see that you do not.

It is easier for me to paint it than to write about it and I would so much rather people would look at it than read about it. I see no reason for painting anything that can be put into any other form as well.

At the time I made this painting - outside my door that opened on a wide stretch of desert these flowers bloomed all summer in the daytime.

The large White Flower with the golden heart is something I have to say about White - quite different from what White has been meaning to me. Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know that this flower is painted large to convey to you my experience of the flower and what is my experience of the flower if it is not color.      I know I can not paint a flower. I can not paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.

Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my efforts to create an equivalent with paint color for the world, life as I see it.

Yours very truly,
Georgia O'Keeffe."


“I often painted fragments of things, because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”


When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not. ”


List of Characteristics of her flower paintings (as compiled on

  • O'Keeffe loved the forms and shapes of nature. She would walk miles in the desert sun of New Mexico, collecting rocks and sun-bleached bones.  
  • Many of the forms she paints are pared down, simplified to essential shapes and forms,  sculptural, with gently rounded corners.
  • Lines in her paintings and drawings are curvy and sinuous, like a winding river.
  • O'Keeffe created a unique fusion of realism and abstraction. Although she worked from identifiable subject matter, she abstracted it in her own way.
  • She was interested in scale and experimenting with it.  She painted flowers much larger than life so that people would take notice and experience them the same way she did. Some of her paintings show foreground objects in grand scale, making them appear monumental, while mountains in the distance are diminutive, such as in her paintings of bones against a desert sky.
  • She used photography techniques like zooming and cropping. She magnified the flowers and cropped them, zooming in on them and filling the canvas, using a technique introduced by photography. By continuing to zoom in and crop her subject she created increasingly abstract compositions.
  • O'Keeffe loved bright, bold and intense color. She would often use bright blues, yellows, greens, reds, and purples.
  • She often painted using flat color, emphasizing the shape of her subject rather than three-dimensional form.  Her paintings convey an even lighting, as though everything is painted at high noon.

Nifty biopic film here at the  Includes film & photographs of the landscapes she translated into paintings/drawings.  Includes film and photography of O’Keeffe herself, as well as recorded interviews with her and readings from her letters. 



Tracy P. said...

You know what this makes me wanna do! This was a lovely few minutes of worship. Such appreciation for the creation. You have the most amazing way of choosing words, even when they aren't your own. Just beautiful!

Rebeckah Leatherman said...

These are so incredible, Skell.

You keep learning and growing. I love that about you. You are an inspiration to so many. Thank you.

Anita Johnson said...

So cool

tracey said...

I've always thought your flower photos felt like a O'Keeffe painting! These are beautiful!