Whistling Ducks | Richard Tiberius & Kiry Tiberius

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to Florida where my daughter and I used to have our studio. We saw this pair in a nature preservation area. They appeared to be very relaxed, engaging in personal hygiene like preening. They didn’t seem to show any of the skittish behavior often displayed by ground birds who must remain alert to predators. One reason for their laid-back style may have been their location, on a little island in the middle of a pond. A ground predator would have to swim over to reach them. They were also protected from aerial predators by several huge black mangrove trees overhead. I painted the so-called “knees” of the black mangrove trees popping up all over the island.

Whistling Ducks detail
Click for detail

I enjoyed painting the background, intentionally rendering the reeds in a rough style to provide contrast with the birds’ velvety, smooth feathers. Painting knives are the perfect tools for  producing this kind of texture. Kiry was fascinated with the subtle blending of colors and forms of each of the different types of feathers. She depicted the texture of the fine body feathers by cutting hundreds of fine, long, parallel streaks into the paint with the edge of her knife blade. The result is a velvety appearance, contrasting with the rough background. These birds nest in tree cavities, when possible. As the abundance of old, hollow trees becomes more scarce, they are increasingly nesting in human made next boxes, according to the Audubon website. Let’s give a shout-out to those who construct these nesting boxes so that we can enjoy such beauty.

Roseate Spoonbills in the Mangrove Shallows, Evening Light | Richard Tiberius & Kiry Tiberius

18 x 30 in. | 45.7 x 76.2 cm – oil on panel, painted with knives

Detail image
Click for detail

Spoonbills feed in shallow water by sweeping their partly opened bill from side to side, snapping it shut when an insect, tiny fish, crab or shrimp touches the inside of the bill.

We saw this pair wading through the shallows between the mangrove islands in the Florida Everglades National Park. Some species of Spoonbills reproduce in large flocks but most species mate with a single partner each breeding season and choose a new partner for the next season. Although we don’t know which of these species we have painted, they do look like a happy couple.

A mangrove is not the name of a specific tree or shrub. It’s a name given to several plants that grow in shallow coastal waters. The red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) is the dominant plant in this painting. Red Mangroves have what are called “prop roots” that grow out of the trunk and into the water. This growth pattern creates shallow water by trapping sand and mud so storms cannot wash it away. And the tangle of roots provides a safe habitat for the tiny organisms that are the Spoonbill’s food.

“Prop roots” are illustrated by the young red mangrove on the right side of the painting. It looks as though it is standing on stilts. In time, this little tree may be the beginning of a new island.

On slightly higher ground, further from the water, the black and white mangroves live. You can see the white mangroves sticking out of the top of the island.

It was a tranquil and beautiful evening. The sun had already set, leaving behind a soft, pink glow to the clouds and reflections in the water as if it were borrowing color from the brilliant pink feathers of the spoonbills.  

The Massive Sycamore | Kiry Tiberius & Richard Tiberius

36 x 23.75 in. | 91 x 60.3 cm

I first experienced the sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) as a teenager, when I visited my aunt and uncle in Arkansas. A large sycamore grew in their back yard. More accurately, it grew “over” their back yard, because its canopy covered most of the yard. I was fascinated with it at first because it was so massive. Later I learned that the sycamore is the most massive deciduous tree east of the Rocky Mountains, typically reaching up to 130 ft (40 m) and over 6 ft. (51 m) in diameter. And its bark is extraordinary. Its bark flakes off in irregular patches like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, revealing, under each flake, colors ranging from creamy white, yellow and reddish-brown to grey. Moreover, the structure of the Sycamore rivals the southern and west coast live oaks in its branches that curve in unpredictable twists. I thought the tree was beautiful. I was shocked when they told me they had decided to take it down.

Click to see detail

After this experience, whenever I told the story about this wonderful tree, I found that people who knew sycamores firsthand, asked if I were joking. They would tell me how much trouble it was to rake up bark flakes and cut down seedlings. A typical tree produces 10,000 seeds that sprout into fast growing seedlings, reaching as much as 10 ft. (about 3 m) in a year. One gardener told me you can’t kill them. If you cut one down, several shoots will appear from the stump like the Hydra. And, he added, the wood holds so much water that it isn’t good for firewood. As if that weren’t a sufficient condemnation, he told me that even the wildlife don’t benefit from the seeds, which have no nutritional value.

But from my point of view, sycamores are beautiful. How can an artist reveal this beauty in paint to those who see little good in the tree? I teamed up with my daughter, Kiry, with whom I share a studio. We decided on a close-up view of the central canopy to display its massiveness. As it turns out, our painting knives are well suited to making sharp-edged patches on the tree trunk. And, By the way, although wildlife doesn’t eat the seeds, they do live in the hollowed-out trunk.

Brown’s Creek, Late Summer | Richard Tiberius

24 x 17 in. | 61 x 43.2 cm

Trees in the Northeast of Canada and the US present a dramatic show of leaf colors in the fall. This show is so spectacular because the various species of trees turn color at roughly the same time. But if trees are stressed, for example by growing too close to the water, they may begin to turn color early. I made this painting based on a canoe trip down Brown’s Creek in late summer when only a few of the trees close to the water, mostly red maples (Acer rubrum), had turned to their fall colors.

Click to see detail

Although red maples are very tolerant of wet soil—they can even survive having their roots submerged for short periods of time—too much water stresses them. This ability to tolerate flooding gives the red maple an advantage. It can colonize swampy areas ahead of other species. One of the common names for the red maple is “swamp maple.” But too much water exacts a price. When trees are stressed, they can shut down food production and lose their green chlorophyll, which usually masks the other pigments. The result is this unusual landscape, a soft green backdrop studded with brilliant red color of the maples, a composition that drew my attention.

My wife Joyce and I have navigated a canoe down this winding creek many times. It’s a tricky run because there are lots of rocks and water logged stumps to steer around. But It is always beautiful and full of surprises. Once we startled a deer who lifted her head from the bank where she had been drinking. We have seen ducks, songbirds, great blue herons and even a beaver. Wildlife are unaccustomed to seeing people on this creek because most of the year it is not navigable.

All along the length of the creek were semi-aquatic shrubs like swamp roses (Rosa palustris), high bush cranberries (Viburnum trilobum), Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) and Button Bushes (Cephalanthus). The tall pine trees (Pinus strobus) on the left and the boulders in shadow framed the composition urging the viewers to imagine themselves paddling quietly through into the sunlight.

Not a Common Focus

In my last blog I explored one of my goals in painting, namely, to capture the “character” of a tree. I searched the Internet to find out if any artists or art critics have written about the character of trees. I found just a few references to “character” none of which shared my definition. My first thought is that I didn’t look thoroughly enough. So, I took another shot at it and came up with nothing. I tentatively concluded that focusing on the “character” of trees may be rare among tree painters.

At that time, I was reading a book entitled “Woodlands” by Oliver Rackham (pictured here), who was one of Britain’s best-known naturalists. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the book included a section on “Works of Art” (pages 187-8). I did not expect the book to contain a discussion on the art of painting trees.

Oliver Rackham

Here is what he wrote:

“Maybe artists could paint trees if they wished but thought it unimportant. One hardly expects El Greco, or Turner, or Picasso to get the trees right: that was not their job. For many others, trees are mere fillers of unoccupied spaces. But an artist may take immense pains with the details, yet still fail to draw a convincing tree, especially in a studio painting.” [from Oliver Rackham, “Woodlands,” Collins Press, 2006, pp. 187-8.]

"Woodlands" by Oliver Rackham
“Woodlands” by Oliver Rackham

Later on, Rackham invites us to perform a little test. “Go into a gallery, take a landscape painting at random, and ask ‘What is that tree?’ Surprisingly seldom can you give a definite answer. Representing trees is perhaps the most difficult task in art, and few artists succeed. No picture (or photograph) of a big tree can be naturalistic: life is too short to depict the complex reality. Any tree picture is a caricature. The art of caricature is to identify the distinctive features … and discard the non-distinctive ones. Most artists keep the non-distinctive features and get no further than the traditional Army classification into Fir-trees, Poplars and Bushy-topped trees.”

Go into a gallery, take a landscape painting at random, and ask ‘What is that tree?’ Surprisingly seldom can you give a definite answer. Representing trees is perhaps the most difficult task in art, and few artists succeed. No picture (or photograph) of a big tree can be naturalistic: life is too short to depict the complex reality. Any tree picture is a caricature. The art of caricature is to identify the distinctive features … and discard the non-distinctive ones. Most artists keep the non-distinctive features and get no further than the traditional Army classification into Fir-trees, Poplars and Bushy-topped trees.”

It was exciting for me to read that an expert with an intimate knowledge of trees believes that capturing the distinctive features of trees is both rare and difficult, because this is one of the goals I have been struggling to achieve in my paintings.

Painters that pay attention to the structure of trees may be rare, as Rackham has written, but I would like to find some of them if for no other reason than to find out where my work fits in to the world of art. In the next blog I will report on a thorough search for tree paintings that are true to the distinctive features of trees.


One of my goals in painting trees is to capture the “character”of the tree, but, until recently, I had not thought deeply about what I mean by that. Then, a visit to friends near Rochester, N.Y. triggered some research and thinking that led me to a much clearer idea of what I mean by “character”.

My Rochester friends invited me to a local park, because they knew I would enjoy the variety of trees. I sure did. I found myself moving from tree to tree excitedly describing each tree by mimicking their unique structures with my arms.

I pointed to a giant sycamore (see photo) and held my arms out in rigid right angles, like goal posts, to model how its branches grow straight out, in defiance of gravity. I pointed out how strong and solid it looked, almost like one of those concrete trees reinforced with rebar that you might see in Disneyland.

I expressed the “character” of a dogwood tree by holding my arms one above the other to mimic the layering effect of its branches.

While we were standing in front of a Norway spruce, I swooped my hands up, in a half circle like a ski jump, to mimic the pattern of the Norway spruce.

Finally, my friend said, “you know, you’re a character. Fortunately, my husband and I like characters”. We all had a good laugh. I was relieved that, as weird as I may have sounded, she seemed to enjoy my antics.

When I returned home, I checked the Internet to see if anyone else had written about the character of trees as I have, or whether that was just my eccentricity. I found a website that featured “trees with character” from the International Wood Collectors Society.

These trees really were weird. Check out the photo of a coco palm tree from their website. That was clearly not what I mean by “character”.

I checked out a few dictionaries. The typical definition of the word “Character,” is not judgmental: “Character is the collection of distinguishing features that form the nature of some person or thing.” But if you describe someone as a “character,” you can mean anything from “you’re weird” to “you’re interesting.”

The Wood Collectors Society helped me see that my meaning of “character” was clearly about interesting features, not extreme weirdness. Also, it became clearer to me that I saw “character” as a property of a tree species, rather than of an individual specimen. The characteristics that interest me are those that have been hammered out during thousands of years of evolution and that enable a species to compete with others and overcome environmental challenges.

Even more specifically, what I mean by a tree’s character is the general structure and shape of the species. I realize that a species of tree also has many smaller “distinguishing features” like the shape of the leaves, flowers or fruit. But these features are not readily visible when looking at trees from a distance. Using the word “character” to describe these features is like describing people as having a particular character based on the shape of their ear lobes.

So, what are these structural characteristics that define “character” for me? Here are some examples, from the archive of my paintings, of what I call the structural characteristics of trees.

Does the tree commonly have several trunks as in this painting of a Silver Maple?

Or does it have a single trunk as in this painting of an old sugar maple tree?

 Are the trunks twisted as in this painting of tabor oaks?

Or straight as in this painting of ponderosa pine trees?

Do the ends of the branches turn up as they do as in this painting of a tamarack bog?

Or do they weep as this photograph of a Canadian hemlock? (I have painted hemlocks before but not one close-up enough to show the weeping branches)

Is the bark rough with deep cracks as in this painting of red pine trees?

Or do they have smooth bark as in this painting of aspen, beech and birch trees?

…and so on.

Taken together, features like these provide an holistic view that captures the general character of the tree, a concept that psychologists call the “gestalt”. This “character” of each type of tree is what I try to capture in my paintings.

Little Island on the Jacques Cartier River | Richard G. Tiberius

24 x 30 in.  | 61 x 154.9 cm

This is a third painting based on my early spring trip to the Jacques Cartier River. I described this place before, in connection with my second painting of the River, entitled “Jacques Cartier River, Morning Mist”. This painting is based on a part of the river that embraces a little island. The location of some yellow birches (Betula alleghaniensis) near the water provided an opportunity to show their structure.

Click for detail.

I was fortunate to catch this very short period, when the scales of the leaf buds have opened but before the leaves have opened. In another few days leaves would pop out but, on that day only the redish, coppery colored leaf buds were visible. Multiplied by tens of thousands, they clothed the mountains with a soft reddish glow. The Bebb’s willows (Salix bebbiana) and alder trees (Alder rugosa) in the foreground are also decorated with with reddish catkins, the downey flower spikes that look like caterpillars hanging from the twigs.

The balsam firs and red spruce trees (Abies balsamea and Picea rubens) helped define the distances of the mountains. As the distance from the viewer increases, the trees appear smaller, increasingly bluer, and more faded.

Jacques Cartier River, Morning Mist | Richard Tiberius

21.8 x 30 in.  | 55.2 x 154.9 cm – oil on panel, painted with knives

This is my second painting of the Jacques Cartier River based on the early spring trip I took to the Jacques Cartier National Park in Quebec. The combination of golden bark of the Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) with the dark greens of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) and Red Spruce (Picea rubens) was irresistible. The low contrast lighting gave the colors a softness that is not present in direct sunlight.

Click for detail

This phase in a tree’s life lasts no more than a few days each year. Despite the weather—cold, wet and overcast—I was fortunate to be there at that time. Perhaps if I had called the ranger station before booking my flight I would have missed this exceptional period. Besides, my spouse, Joyce, was born and raised in Quebec City and she loved being back home.

The Jacques Cartier river flows through the Jacques Cartier National Park, in Quebec, Canada. I have been to this park before, at roughly the same time, early in May, but at that time the trees were already bursting with new leaves. This time the winter held on longer than usual. Most of the trails were “fermé” (closed).

Tiberius Art Studio Newsletter – August

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Bison in Yellowstone National Park

36 x 24 inches | 91.4 x 61 cm

This painting was a father-daughter collaboration. Kiry painted the Bison while I painted the background. Kiry was interested in capturing the protective posture of the mother Bison. She did so in two ways. First, the mother appears to be looking at the photographer with an expression that says “That’s close enough. One step closer and I will show you what I can do with these horns.”

Click for detail

And the mother Bison could do a good job of it too. According to the information in the visitor’s center, female Bison can weigh up to 1000 pounds (454 Kg) and they can turn 180 degrees in a flash. That iconic hump on their back is not filled with water. Apparently, it is solid muscle attached to the neck. Whatever gets hooked by one of her horns could end up tossed like a rag doll.

Another thing that Kiry did was to place the calf in a protected position right behind the mother’s massive head. The mother’s head shades the calf’s, symbolic of her protective posture.

My task was to paint the background so that the viewer would appreciate the vastness of the Yellowstone landscape. To create the perception of distance I toned down the yellow and increased the blue and violet with each successive hill. The grasses on the distant hills would appear just as bright yellow as those in the foreground if you were to hike over to those distant hills, but colors desaturate (they become grayer) and often bluer as the distance to the viewer increases.

Three Ibises on Driftwood (sold) | Kiry Tiberius & Richard Tiberius

34 x 24 inches | 91.4 x 61 cm

Click for detail

We enjoyed our family vacation on North Captiva Island in Florida. Some of us collected shells on the beaches while others went kayaking. Kiry and I went hiking to the other end of the island, where there was a nature preserve. We had hoped to take photos of wading birds for painting subjects, but there wasn’t much open beach left after the last hurricane. In most places the shore was covered with an impenetrable tangle of driftwood. We had to settle for walking along parallel to the water, peeking through windows in the new growth and driftwood.

One of these windows offered a clear view of the water, the usual pile of driftwood, and three Ibis hanging out on the driftwood! They were no more than a few yards from us. I’m sure they were as shocked to see us as we were to see them because they wasted no time taking flight. You can see, by its crouching posture and ruffled feathers, the Ibis on the left was preparing to fly. And it did. The other two followed within seconds. Fortunately, I was able to fire off several shots with my camera during those few seconds. It’s a good thing I did take more than one photo. My pictures suffered from the classical problem of photographers—each photo had at least one ibis whose head was tilted at a weird angle when the shutter snapped. Fortunately, for painters this is not a problem. We simply chose to paint each bird in its most favorable angle.

It was a collaborative work. I painted the water, clouds and drift wood in a rough style while Kiry painted the birds in precise detail. The softness of the birds’ feathers was enhanced by contrast with the rough background. In addition, their blinding white feathers were complemented by the foam of the crashing wave and the clouds on the horizon.

Rocky Mountain Juniper | Richard G. Tiberius

48 x 30 in.  | 121.92 x 76.2 cm

Rocky Mountain Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum) are readily available from nurseries in the Western states, but they don’t look like this one. Nursery trees are usually cultivars, selected and pruned to a single trunk and compact form like Christmas trees. Most of the naturally growing specimens in the semi-arid Southwest, where I found this tree while hiking, were much messier but also shrub-like. Their small size is not surprising considering their slow growth rate. An average 80-year-old tree is only 18 feet (5.5 m) tall. This one was closer to their maximum height at 30 feet. I could easily walk under its lower branches. It could have been over 300 years old. Only a tree of its great age could have the twisting and arching form of the branches and trunks that I found so enjoyable to paint.

Click to enlarge

The other feature I found attractive about this tree was its complexity. It had not been tidied up. The small dead branches that curved through the canopy in bright arcs and the grey stumps of fallen branches would surely have been pruned off if it had been in a garden. One of our dinner guests, after looking at this painting for a long time, made this single comment, “It looks very dry.” His comment was very gratifying. It confirmed the impression I was trying to create. The shrubs and other plants in the foreground are typical of the region, growing at a distance from one another out of competition for water. And the pines peeking out over the hillside are pinyon pines, another drought tolerant group. Although Rocky Mountain Juniper grows in moist environments in its northern range, along the west coast of N. America from British Columbia, its super power is its ability to survive in the semi-arid regions of Arizona and New Mexico where it receives only about 10 inches (254 mm) of annual precipitation.

Three Trees with Pale Bark | Richard G. Tiberius

24 x 30 in.  | 61 x 76.2 cm

As a painter of trees, I’ve earned a reputation among friends as someone who can help identify them. One of the common confusions is between trees that have pale bark. Distinguishing aspen (Populus tremuloides) from white birch (Betula papyrifera) is particularly difficult because they both have smooth, light-colored bark. North American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are less often confused with the other two but it does happen, especially when the normal grey bark of the beech takes on blue reflections from the snow, as in this painting. Aspens exist in a range of colors from yellowish and greenish shades to almost white. The bark of the aspen in this painting is one of the greener tones. White Birch also show a range of colors, although their variation is more restricted. Some are chalk white, but most are off-white, with shades of ochre and pink.

Close-up of Three Trees with Pale Bark to show detail
Click for detail.

I smiled when I ran across this group of trees on a hike through a northern forest. There they were, all three of the species that have pale bark, providing a perfect opportunity for me to contrast the differences in paint. It was a lucky sighting because mature beech trees do not usually grow in close proximity to birches and aspen. Birch and aspen are the first to rapidly colonize newly opened land that has been burned or clear-cut. Usually beech arrive much later, growing slowly in the dappled light that filters through the loose canopies of the birch and aspen. Conversely, in a mature beech forest, you rarely see birch or aspen, which are too intolerant of shade to grow under the tight canopy of the beeches. I did not have to exaggerate the colors to make the point but tried to render the colors faithfully as they appeared in the several photographs I had taken. The differences in the colors of the bark even surprised me when I saw them beside one another in the painting.

Spruce Forest in Acadia National Park | Richard G. Tiberius

40 x 24 in | 101.6 x 61cm

The Spruces are tough trees. Their superpower is surviving harsh conditions like extreme cold, wet, snow, and wind. Such conditions exist at high elevations or regions close to the poles. Elevation divides plants into what Botanists call “belts,” each belt consisting of types of plants suited to conditions at that elevation. Spruce trees can thrive at the very highest belt in which full sized trees can grow, from about 9,500 feet (2900 m) to 11,500 feet (3500 m) in the Rocky Mountains and 4,500 feet (1372 m) in the Alleghenies of Tennessee and North Carolina. Latitude separates trees in a similar manner. And spruce trees thrive at lower altitudes in far northern regions.

Click for detail

Acadia National Park is in Maine, at the 44th parallel, a latitude at which there are many broad-leaved trees. And the highest point in Acadia National Park is Cadillac Mountain is only 1530 feet (466 m) high. I was therefore surprised to find a spruce forest there. However, it is a rocky peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic where it is slammed with storms. And in such conditions, spruces have an advantage.

In this scene that I have painted, the extreme wet conditions are obvious from the heavy encrustation of lichen on the trees and the pillows of moss covering everything. The lichen and blue-green mosses provide a striking contrast to the yellow streaks of sunlight, creating the artistic theme of the composition.

It was particularly satisfying to make the bark on the trees and the mosses with a painting knife. I skipped the knife over the panel to make the bark stick out like shingles. And, using the edge of the knife, I cut thousands of grooves into the paint to make the moss look soft.

As for the species of spruce, the needles were too short for red (Picea rubens) or white spruce (Picea glauca). They were more likely black spruce (Picea mariana).

Yellow Birch & Balsam Fir on the Jacques Cartier River – Progression

The pictures in the slideshow will cycle every 2 seconds. To view an individual step in the progression, click “Show Thumbnails”.

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