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See the Forest NOT the Trees

8 Nov 2012

"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 observation.

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 strengthened its unique shape and made it more paintable.
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
strengthened 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.
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 into place!

Give this exercise a try and let us know how it goes.

--John and Ann

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