I love a still-life painting when the depiction is a fantasy conjured in the artist’s mind. Deliberate choices are made; elements that might not share company in nature sit side by side on a candlelit table. A skillful, painterly hand brings disparate elements together, manipulates them for a moment in time, and captures the natural beauty of these living, vibrant things—and the result is authentic and timeless. So how do we achieve this alchemy with flowers and floral arrangements? By breaking down a floral still life the way a painter would. Color, composition, movement, shape, and texture are the five basic principles to consider when creating a floral still life.
MovementAchieving the right balance is crucial in every aspect of a flower arrangement. In regards to movement, you don’t want random flowers flying out of a vase; you need a composition that is controlled and stylized with moments of whimsy and serendipity. Movement occurs when a maverick leaf refuses to bend to your will . . . when a branch covered in cherry blossoms searches for the table to try and support itself. Let them act according to their natures. That glorious falling motion for the sake of its own survival— celebrate that moment. Encourage it.
Branches covered in cherry blossoms that bend and curve naturally bring movement to an arrangement of peonies and chrysanthemums.
ColorSuccessful color combinations are ones that have an unexpected twist, like coral with pink and rust, which is an alluring mix of hues. The rust is crucial in that trinity; without it the resulting floral arrangement is so sweet, it’s as though your teeth will fall out just from looking at it! Salmon and olive; ruby, cerise, and coral; dusty lavender, aubergine, and champagne: these surprising combinations keep your eyes engaged and delighted.
Happy yellow peonies and garden roses pop against nautical-blue hydrangeas and violet anemones.
It is important to remember that the silhouette of an arrangement will change over time. An arrangement is a living thing; by day three the flowers will have taken on a new shape. Many admirers and consumers of flowers abhor this process; they think it happens too quickly instead of surrendering to how beautiful the evolution can be. To witness a flower open and, in time, collapse is wonderful.
“Tulips are great shape shifters," says Miller. “They die so beautifully. The blossoms begin in the shape of an egg and then each petal stretches and opens wide before it falls away.”
Overtly masculine responses to pretty, round flowers like roses and peonies come in the form of any fruiting branch: privet berries do the trick with their dark blue, smooth, wonderfully glossy fruits that resemble clumps of miniature champagne grapes. Fig and olive work well with their slender branches and stiff leaves. Herbs, thistle, and most tree foliage—Chinese pistachio, plum branches, and acacia leaves—provide great contrast to fluff.
Spiky bachelor’s buttons, veined foliage, and blackberries on the vine combine for a tactile arrangement.
Flowers, when composed in a container or a vessel, become a floral arrangement. Take that arrangement and put it in a room. Consider the size of the flowers within their vessel and their proportions to the room and how they relate to the backdrop, the surface they are placed on, the neighboring elements, and their environment. This is composition; when you introduce fabric, curious objects, and lighting, you have a still life.
The softness of an arrangement of pinks and greens is juxtaposed with rusted iron and gilded mirrors.
Excerpt from Styling Nature: A Masterful Approach to Floral Arrangements by Lewis Miller with Irini Arakas, Rizzoli New York, 2016. All Photography © Don Freeman.