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When One Flower Inspires Many Paintings

If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for a moment

- Georgia O'Keeffe

Natural beauty and landscapes have served as creative inspiration for many artists. But poppies are my true muse. California golden poppies represent a striking combination of beauty and tenacity; they are drought-tolerant, thrive in poor soil, and are among the first wildflowers to appear after wildfires. Their colorful blooms also persist after the green hills of spring fade to their dull straw color in early summer.

In 2021, with the rise of the Covid Delta variant, an early and intense California fire season, the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and the sudden loss of a friend, I was drawn again to our golden poppy (Eschscholzia Californica) as a symbol of hope and resilience.

At the time, I had not been able to visit my family in Malaysia for the past two years due to COVID travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. While I am thankful for the voice and video apps that allow me to stay in touch, they can’t fully capture the experience of being physically present. I came across a photograph taken of me and my four siblings from the last time we were all together. The tight composition inspired me to create the painting where each sibling has been captured as a lively bloom, nesting gently among the others.

L: Family photograph; R: Golden Family

The Golden Family turned out to be the first in an unintentional series. I call it “unintentional” because there was no planned series when I first touched my paintbrush to the canvas…it just kind of happened. As I was capturing the blossoms, I was drawn to one particular poppy whose gracefully curled and illuminated petals captured my imagination. The light reflecting from the delicate petals reminded me of fine silk or satin fabric. Although the petals aren’t shiny, they are still luminous.

Artists often paint the same subject more than once. They do this to capture new details, or to explore a particular subject in a new light. Claude Monet was known for painting the same composition multiple times, at different times of day and in different seasons. Featuring different aspects of the same subject can also highlight nuances of scale and color, an approach seen in Georgia O’Keeffe’s series of jimson weed paintings.

Like O’Keeffe’s series, the first in my poppy series is an arrangement of several flowers, while subsequent pieces zoomed in on single blossoms. But my single blossom paintings feature the same flower in progressing stages of magnification. As the poppy expanded on my canvas, new details and textures began to emerge as the lighting of each petal subtly shifted. Although they feature the same flower on a neutral background, the differences in scale and color gradients make each painting feel unique—whether you call it by its Latin name, “Eschscholzia californica”, or the one I like to use: “California sunlight”.

Although this flower was not one of the Golden Family poppies, it utilizes the same compositional approach. This painting was inspired by a quote from the John Steinbeck novel “East of Eden” (1952). "California poppies ... are of a burning color—not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of poppies." Copa de Oro is actually another of several popular names for this striking flower.

This triptych composition features three California golden poppies, each with their own unique character like the flowers in Golden Family. The title references the scripture verse, 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” While these are central to Christian theology, they are also at the core of human experience and the eternal search for meaning, purpose, and belonging.

Coastal Aurum 1, Coastal Aurum 2, Elevate (Native Maritime coastal poppies):

Coastal Aurum 1 was inspired by a springtime visit to Point Reyes National Seashore, when a wide variety of poppies and wildflowers are in bloom throughout the park. The title is derived from the Latin word for gold. The coastal form of the California poppy is a mounding, low-growing plant with striking gray-blue foliage and blossoms that are the essence of yellow, sometimes with a deep orange center. It is perennial and blooms for at least 3-7 months. The blossoms open flat as a dinner plate with bowl shaped, sunny yellow edges and showy orange centers, a magnet for bumblebees and other native bees. It seemed appropriate to take my title from the Latin word for gold.

Due to the persistent coastal breeze, these flowers were almost always in motion. To capture their seaside habitat, I added a sense of movement to the background using vertical lines and colors that evoke the sky and sea. Point Reyes weather is always in flux and variable clouds can quickly change lighting from one moment to the next. Coastal Aurum 2 and Elevate feature the same poppy subject as Coastal Aurum 1, but from a different angle and with a different background for a different atmosphere.

Despite the vast number of poppies I have painted, I feel there are still worlds to explore in this incredible flower. They are an emblem of all I try to achieve in my work: uplifting, joyful, and a bit magical.


Most works mentioned in this post are available as high quality Giclée canvas art prints here.

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