Sunday, March 13, 2016

Drawing Trees

Today I spent a few hours drawing some huge Sycamores in Princeton, NJ. They are massive old trees. Their distinct coloring and gnarled limbs make them extremely challenging. I've been meaning to get out all winter to draw trees without leaves. I figured it would be a good way to study their anatomy. After all, I've spent a lifetime studying animal anatomy. What better way to understand trees than to study their anatomy? This winter has been so balmy and warm, I feel like I should have an entire portfolio of tree drawings, but as spring continues to give winter the bum's rush, I feel an urgency to go out and do it now. It's now or never. The tree pollen count is already very high, which means the buds are bursting on all the trees. So in a week or two, there will be leaves on many of the trees. This, while the pink magnolias are also just beginning to open and the forsythia have yet to show themselves. My quince bushes were blooming in December! Who ever heard of such a thing? The pink and white magnolias are varieties that bloom in early spring, so I know there's going to be another cold snap before too long, regardless of what the weatherman says. It never fails. As soon as the trees are looking magnificent, a cold freeze or late winter snow comes through and kills all the blossoms. It's such a shame. That's why I prefer the Magnolia Virginiana, which blooms in the summer. There's no danger of a cold spell to kill off the flowers and they have a heavier, headier scent than their March cousins.
Getting back to the drawing of trees, drawing them from life is much easier than working from photographs. Unlike horses or dogs, they don't move very much, so there's really no reason to work from photos. I find that photographs can be difficult to "read" sometimes, especially with a subject as complex (to me anyway) as trees. Cast shadows and branches coming straight at you can be impossible to decipher with a bad or unclear photograph, but sitting in front of the tree and working from life allows you to see how the branches grow from the trunk, how they overlap and are foreshortened. I can't help thinking this will help me when painting animals' limbs, as they have the same round form and go in all directions. Drawing from life is absolutely essential to keeping your work fresh and dynamic. There was a time when I used to work from photos so much, I became worried that perhaps I had forgotten how to work from life. Of course, once my subject was in front of me, I remembered how much easier it is to work from life, and how much more exciting. You can't peak around a photograph to see how the form goes or put your hand on the object to better understand its volume or how it occupies space. So my advice to any artist who wants to improve is to work from life as much as possible. Your work will improve more rapidly if you work from life at least three times a week. With animal painting, of course it's more difficult, but there are some excellent techniques to help you with the difficulty of a subject who doesn't stand still, like dogs (and small children).
To illustrate my point, I'm going to show you a drawing of an oak tree I did from life, and a photograph I took of the tree for later reference (in case I wanted to work it up into a painting). The drawing is simple and clear. I was trying to get the general shape and movement. The photograph is very confusing, with its cast shadows and high contrast. Even after adjusting these elements, I don't think I would have arrived at the same drawing if I took the photo and went home to work from it in the studio.

The trunk is the part I worked on from life. As you can see in the photo below, the cast shadows are confusing and make dark "holes" in the forms of the trunk and branches.

In the photo of the Sycamore, there is no bright sunlight and the forms can be seen more clearly because there are no dark cast shadows. However, the dappled effect of the trees colors actually help to define the form and direction of the trunk and branches, making it easier to draw. The "movement" of the tree looks a little static in the photo, and although there are some minor problems with the drawing, it is a pretty little study and worthy the effort.

The movement of the tree in the photo (above) looks a little static.

Although there are some minor problems with the drawing (below),
it's movement and directness make it worth saving.

Lesson Two:
Before the trees get their spring leaves, go out with a sketchbook and pencils and draw a few trees from life. You'll be surprised at the variety of shapes and sizes. It was actually difficult for me to pick "just one". Draw it from one angle, then draw it from another angle if possible. Note the way the branches change their relationship to one another, the way they grow out from the trunk, etc. You'll notice that they never form sharp angles, but rather gentle curves.

If time allows, work up a color study as well. Make sure you have pastels or watercolors in your car at all times so that you can make that quick study if the right tree comes along!

FYI: We'll be doing the same tree in a few weeks, so make a note of your location.

Reading List: The Artistic Anatomy of Trees by Rex Vicat Cole. A little dense, but the first six chapters have some very good advice on the painting and drawing of trees.
Dover paperback edition: ISBN: 0-486-21475-3

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