"Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky."
- Khalil Gibran
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who paint from
life is to see and understand what is right before our eyes. This may sound
simple, but it is anything but, and it takes unrelenting practice to get good
at it. Why this is so has partly to do with the way our brains are wired,
partly to do with our visual biases, and partly to do with the sheer complexity
of the world. Learning to see the world in terms of paint requires the
unlearning of some visual habits and the acquisition of some new skills of
|This is an example of a mature Hickory tree. Can you see how it
has a cascading growth habit,
like a Spirea shrub? In this graphic diagram, we
have reduced the many small changes in value
to four only, and have also
consolidated the many small shapes into larger masses. This has
its unique shape and made it more paintable.
It is important and useful to learn to see masses and shape and
to reduce the hundreds of smaller shapes into a few larger, simpler masses.
Trees are a perfect subject for this study, because they are complex
forms and at first glance may appear chaotic in their organization. The truth
is, trees are highly organized in the way they grow and their leaf and
branching structures can be easily identified from a distance. It can be useful
for the landscape art painter to learn more about the differences between species
of trees they are painting. This familiarity helps the painter to understand
the trees' growth habits and to see them as volumetric shapes in the landscape
which reflect light in a predictable way.
||This is a favorite White Oak, with a second Oak sitting just
behind it. We love the shape of these old trees.
Notice how the leaves clump
into distinctive shapes with dark shadows around the clumps. This is typical
for a White Oak, and makes them easily identifiable. In this illustration we
have merged some of the many
small clumps into larger masses for simplicity.
"See, Simplify, State" is our mantra when painting outdoors, and
so we have to ignore leaf detail and texture to a certain extent in order to
render the overall large shapes of the trees. Employ the "squint" technique
when trying to see a tree's growth habit and form. Squinting-down consolidates
detail and shapes into large masses making the big shapes more easily
understood. Render only these large masses, making note of the shadows and
where they occur. Look for the negative spaces—the "tree-holes" where the sky
or the background show through. These are as important as the positives.
Finally, let your artistic eye improve and idealize the subject, remodeling a
bit here and there to make your picture more beautiful, perhaps heroic even.
Once you get good at seeing and painting trees, the rest of the world will fall
Give this exercise a try and let us know how it goes.
--John and Ann
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