The Flowery Cake Shoppe of Compromise

A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.

 — Ludwig Erhard

for Mick's mum
I talked myself into an ambiguous state in my last post. See, although it is just a painting in exchange for some canvas that Mick probably would have thrown away if I didn’t take it, I have to admit that I wanted Mick & Mother to really love the painting. I wanted him to feel that the debt had not only been repaid, but had been handsomely recompensed. I wanted to give him something that was a little better than what he was expecting.

When I sat down with a resigned sigh to start the painting, I knew that I would do my best to produce something that ticked all the conventional “Still Life With Flowers” boxes.


As it turned out, I managed to strike a compromise between those conventions, my technical limitations, and my abhorrence of a certain kind of impasto oil painting with soft-edged, ruffle-daubed, faintly muddy-colored and impressionistic flowers. I was so out of my depth, tackling this subject matter, that I really thought long and hard about what I wanted, and how it should look.

When I am unsure of myself, I tend to splat a lot of gunky paint on, every color I have, aiming for “texture” and “interesting” messes, hoping that I will manage to “save” it all at the end by some well-placed motifs and a bit of stitching; these are leftover bad habits from the scrapbooking/mixed-media school of art that was such a rage for a few years. My approach is usually very heavy-handed and, yes, why not say it?…lazy. I’m too lazy to think things through, to pay attention to composition, values, line, and order; and the rare times when I do, I drop them all by the time I have the brush in my hand—and then spend as many hours trying to cover my mistakes up with yet more paint, ending with a really hopeless sludge of splatters and childish shapes, the color of mud.


I was so determined to steer clear of this approach, here, and so I very atypically kept to a strict palette of about 5 colors. I took three separate photographs—two of flowers growing around the yacht club, one of an empty olive oil bottle in my kitchen—and used them to sketch an arrangement. I decided on liquid acrylics with some gloss medium for glazing, and aimed for a painting that evoked watercolours rather than oil paints, leaving areas of white canvas exposed to serve as the highlights, rather than painting them in later (which never quite works)…I wanted the whole painting to be simple, almost graphic, in its shapes and colors. I wanted clean hues, with lots of transparency and the illusion of light through glass and water. At the last minute I rejected the idea of patterned tablecloth or lace-curtain backgrounds, and I am so glad that I put a very pale, neutral background in, instead, as it doesn’t compete with the rest and the feeling of the painting remains one of clean spaces and light.

*breathes out in relief* Surprisingly (to me) the time I devoted to really thinking very hard about what I wanted, until I could see it in my head, and what I woud have to do to get that look, paid off in the end…because the washes were kept thin, translucent and minimal, the actual working time of this painting was about 6 hours, not counting drying time…and no time spent covering up, scraping back, or trying to right any wrongs with cheap tricks.

This experience has been another valuable lesson to me! I am pretty sure that Mick will be happy with it, and I am happy with the way it turned out, myself. Many big wobbling slices of pink and white cake for everyone!

14 thoughts on “The Flowery Cake Shoppe of Compromise

  1. This painting is outstanding and the text goes right to the heart of it. The agonising of doing something for someone else, the ‘wanting to do my best but make it my own style’ and the feeling of accomplishment at the end. You deserve to be thrilled with the end result.
    It’s reminded me to reduce my choices and perhaps I won’t get so overwhelmed. I tend to take loads of pictures, tip out the entire collection of paint colours I have and then freeze because I don’t know where to start. It’s time to pin a huge sheet on my workboard reading LESS IS MORE.
    Thanks for sharing your journy.


  2. It’s lovely! You managed to get representation without the “photo” effect and that’s what you were after, right. I usually jump in, too but a little forethought does wonders.


    1. Liquid acrylics have a similar feel to old fashioned, shellac inks…they don’t dry rubbery but hard, with a brittle sheen. They puddle and can be made to bleed like watercolors, though they might need a little help from methylated spirits or ox gall.


  3. I loooove it. This painting is so beautiful. I love everything about it. You ended up (unintentionally?) with a wonderful composition as well. And the colors are just delicious! Well done.


    1. Pretty much unintentionally, though I invented the leaf to provide an opposite-going angle, balance the bottle. 🙂 Thank you! I’ve never done anything like it, so this has been a real eye-opener.


  4. This painting is gorgeaus! I do the same thing – always try and cover up mistakes with little tricks. I applaud the way you held back and my goodness it was worth it. It is honest and beautiful. I truely thought this was watercolor at first glance. My favorite section to zero in on is your highlight treatment in the olive oil bottle.


    1. What embarrasses me is that I was 38 before I let myself experience the adage “Less is more,” and restrain myself from throwing the entire paint box at the canvas, or using every mixed-media trick in the book, or trying to squeeze every single tropical flower from my plant book into the painting. Kris keeps gently hinting that “it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out”, but I never let the message sink in. Now he rolls his eyes and says “finally.” 🙂


      1. You’re way ahead of me. I’m in my forties and I still haven’t perfected the KISS method. In my commercial work yes, but as far as my personal mark-making meanderings go, it’s convoluted and it shows. Ironically it seems, the less I care about the topic I am attempting to describe through image, the more intuitive and free my expression is. Freedom personifies simplicity and simplicity exudes beauty. For everything else, it’s about as clear as mud.


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