This is a Japanese Maple drawn during lunch breaks and after work the past few weeks. It’s a managable 12 x 12 inches but still, this was a slow and clumsy endeavor. I’ve always wanted to be that artist who makes fantastic drawing look easy, but I fall into the practice and perseverance camp, even after so many years. Tree shapes are wildly complex and detailed, and you almost instantly feel lost trying to map them in space. Plein air artists have a technical toolbox of resources, ways to break down the living landscape and then translate that to pencil and paper. These tools include measuring scale and proportion, shade, form, distance and texture; and these skills are juggled as the artist muddles through. Ideally, the drawn line can simultaneously convey a specific contour, the shade from light to dark, its form, and scale. But it's just so hard to do that when drawing a tree! The detail is immeasurable, like stars in the sky, and changes with the wind and light. So, you erase and redo, and, over time, it sorts itself out. In that process, you’ve gotten to know the tree like an ant across a lawn, and a memory develops for its peculiarities. That's why a drawing is usually a study for a painting, because the act of drawing gives you enough familiarity and grit to later create a studio painting with merit. Below are some of my favorite trees by artists who have influenced me.
Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Summer Solstice (In Memory of the American Chestnut Tree), 1961-66; watercolor on paper, 54 x 60 inches; Image from the Burchfield Penney Art Center Archives
Summer Solstice is the radiant first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. It will be the longest day of the year and the shortest night. Charles Burchfield wanted to celebrate “this great moment when the sun and earth meet in their greatest intimacy—a truly mystical event—” by painting one of his grandest landscapes. - The Burchfield Penney Art Center
David Hockney, Bigger Trees Nearer Warter, Winter 2008, oil on nine canvases, 36 x 48 inches each, 108 x 144 inches overall
“Trees are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see. No two trees are the same, like us. We’re all a little bit different inside, and look a little bit different outside. You notice that more in the winter than in the summer. They are not that easy to draw, especially with foliage on them. If you are not there at the right time, it is difficult to see the shapes and volumes in them. At midday, you can’t do that.”
“Yes, the trees become friends. One road I like particularly has trees that must have been planted two hundred years ago. I’ve always liked trees, but being here you look really hard at them. You notice things. The ash trees are always the last to come out.”
Stephen McKenna, An English Oak Tree 1981. Tate. © Stephen McKenna
In making this painting, McKenna was very aware of the importance of the oak tree as an English national symbol, and of pictures of single trees by other artists such as Courbet, Crome and Caspar David Friedrich. The artist made drawings of a particular oak tree in Dulwich Park, south London, and developed the painting from them. The landscape background is imaginary. 'An English Oak Tree' is a pair with one of a beech tree in a large park in Brussels, painted at the same time. McKenna has painted several pictures of city parks, being interested in their combination of the natural and the man-made.- Tate Gallery label, September 2004
Graham Nickson, Monumental Tree—Serena's Tree, 2000 Watercolor on paper 18 x 24 inches
Graham was my primary teacher at the New York Studio School and he basically formed me as a painter. I will always be grateful to him.
“It was 1972, and I went up on the roof of the Academy. I was looking at this dramatic sky, and it occurred to me that the most dangerous thing would be to paint the sunset, because it’s so clichéd, so hackneyed, so well known. Even at its best, it had already been done so well by Turner, Nolde, and other people. So I painted the first sunset, and it was awful. Then I painted the second one, and it was equally awful. Then I thought maybe I should try the dawns, because it’s the same thing but earlier. So then I’d have two goes a day. And before I knew it I had painted every dawn and sunset for two years.”
“In the last decade or so, I’ve been painting—mainly with watercolors as opposed to oil painting—every sunrise and sundown that I can do. This activity has become seminal. In a way, it has given me a kind of permission to explore the radicalness of color that happens in the big oil paintings.”
“His color is extreme.” “In all of his work,” wrote Mr. Forge, “there is a sense of something being pushed to a limit–a limit of saturation, of tonal contrast, of dissonance. What establishes the limit is a certain conception of light. This is where the line is drawn beyond which color would run berserk.”
Stanley Lewis, “Hemlock Trees Seen from Upstairs Window in the Snow” (2007-2014), pencil on print paper, 68 3/4 x 59 3/4"
Stanley was my first landscape teacher. Here's a great little video I found which is very much what it was like to learn from him, and is, basically, how I think as a painter.