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One of the main themes of this painting is the similarity of the colors of the Hawk and the Cypress forest. As a predator it is well camouflaged. Therefore, I painted the Hawk first so that I could adjust the shadows and colors of the trees with respect to the Hawk. I tried to strike a balance between several elements. First, if the hawk’s camouflage is working it shouldn’t stand out too much from the background. Second, I don’t want the cypress trees to overwhelm the hawk. Finally, I don’t want the trees to look like nothing but a background for the hawk. Cypress trees are beautiful in their own right and represent another theme of the painting.
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I have to laugh when I look at the drawing for this painting. It’s a mess. I sketched the painting on a panel on which I had a previous sketch of a scene I decided not to paint. It’s difficult to erase sketches on a textured surface so I just drew the second one over the first.
Notice that I began by painting a stripe from top to bottom rather than blocking out large areas of similar color according to the standard painting technique. In this painting the color range doesn’t change much from left to right. The big changes are from top to bottom. So the first task was to adjust the colors, lightness and brilliance of the mountain in the distance relative to the mountain in the foreground. Once I made that adjustment I could move horizontally, keeping the same colors.
Whenever there is a telephone pole or barbed wire cutting right across an otherwise perfect scene I’m grateful that I’m a painter rather than a photographer. One of my friends once asked me if I intentionally “paint out” objectionable elements like telephone poles. Yes but it’s actually easier than that. I just leave them out. This scene of Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and ferns was the exception. Nothing was in the way.
Even the balance was perfect. Okay, the tree on the right would have overwhelmed the scene if I had included all of it. It was massive. Bald Cypress trees get that way. So I didn’t show all of it. By the way, you won’t find many ancient Bald Cypress outside of this Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Most of the old giants were logged for shakes and shingles. The Audubon Society had the foresight to buy a piece of the unlogged Cypress back in 1912 to preserve it.
One of the features about a forest like this is the subtle variation between the colors of the bark. Although they are all the same species of tree each trunk is a slightly different color. The ones on the left are more reddish; in the middle they are decidedly yellow-brown; and the big guy on the right has pink tones.
Since the scene is backlighted you wouldn’t even know the sun was shining if it weren’t for the ferns. The sun can’t peek around the trees because it is directly behind them but it shines through some of the fern leaves and reflects off others. The combination of arching stems and angled leaflets produce every possible angle to the sun making the ferns come alive.
Do Landscape Paintings Appeal to Our Survival Instincts?
One of the questions that has always puzzled me is what motivates people to buy paintings or photographs of landscapes and hang them on their walls. Is there something in our evolutionary history that predisposes us to prefer landscape paintings? In this video I reviewed the works of Denis Dutton and Daniel Berlyne who attempt to understand our inherent preferences for certain types of landscape art.
Painting white birches in the snow reminds me of the joke that kids like to play. They ask if you like their drawing, which is nothing but a blank piece of paper. When you look puzzled they explain that it’s a drawing of a polar bear in the snow. I was reminded of this story when I considered painting this scene because the colors of the landscape in the North on cloudy days after a snowfall are very subtle.
But, after walking through the woods for a while my eyes adjust to the dull colors allowing me to see just enough color in this scene to find it an exciting challenge. I begin to see green in the leaves of the little Spruce tree in the foreground although they are dull compared to the fresh new leaves of spring. I begin to see the blush of mauve in the background, the little flecks of orange in the remnants of fall leaves, streaks of pink on the birch trunks and a range of brown colors on the trunks of the little Maple saplings.
After a while I’m not even aware of how subtle the winter colors are. Enter the Cardinals. The Cardinals’ brilliant colors provide a striking contrast that throws the whole winter palette into perspective. Cardinals seem to belong to another region. In fact, they do. Cardinals have traditionally been a southern bird until the last few decades when parks and bird feeders have enabled them to move north. When I lived in the North I was grateful that they stayed with us all winter. Apparently my feelings are widely shared. The Cardinal is the official bird in seven U.S. states.
Both the White Birch, or Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) and the White Spruce (Picea Glauca) live throughout Canada, Alaska and some northern States.
The Manzanitas enjoy the mixed blessing of being among the most desirable plants for use in decorative displays. Their blood red bark and twisted branches make a perfect center piece for a dried flower arrangement. Remember to pack a saw if you go picking Manzanita branches. The wood is very hard. The First Nations used the wood for spoons and tobacco pipes and early missionaries fashioned pegs from Manzanita wood to fix the joints of their Mission buildings.
Better yet, leave your saw at home and bring your camera. While it’s true that a saw will help you harvest a decorative piece whose red bark and gracefully twisting branches will grace your living room for many years unchanged, with your camera you can capture some wonderful changes.
For example, if you take your camera to the field in February, when few other plants are flowering, you can catch the beautiful pink and white flowers hanging like little upside down jugs in dense clusters. The Manzanita is one of the earliest bloomers in the Chaparral. A few months later you can photograph birds eating the clusters of berries, maybe even catch a bear or fox if you’re lucky. Take a wide-angle shot and you can see how the Manzanita sprawls out over the rocks, hugging every contour.
But don’t forget the rocks. They are an important part of understanding the Manzanitas place in Nature. The Manzanita live in the dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I dedicated almost half of the composition to this rocky stone ledge to make this point. Another reason for including the rocks is compositional. The cool violet and blue colors in the shadows of the stones extend the color range of the composition. I painted the stones with a technique called “wet on wet” in which I ran one oil color over another while the color underneath was still wet. It’s a perfect technique for rendering the lichen encrusted and eroded surface of the soft rocks. But I had to be careful to ensure that the color underneath was very viscous or my knife would smear instead of skipping over the surface.
Whenever I think of birch trees I usually picture thin white poles reflecting into the shores of northern lakes. But birches, like most plants, can change their shape to take advantage of their situation. When growing alone, like the tree in this painting, they spread out to take advantage of unimpeded sunlight.
Looking at this birch, which seems to be stretching out its limbs, I was struck with its similarity to people, who stretch out their arms to enjoy the first rays of a warm spring day. I love painting birches in early spring when their delicate structure and fine twigs are visible as well as the many colors reflected in their white bark that are usually obscured by leaves.
This birch grows in a region that was once a narrow valley between rugged mountains. The glacier flattened the mountains and then erosion wore them down into the well-rounded forms that are in the background. The silt created a flat, boggy delta. Shrub Dogwoods and Willows were among the first plants to colonize the delta and still dominate it. Birches, Elms, Red Maples and Willows followed the shrubs. The graceful trunk of an Elm that grew here, before the Dutch Elm disease killed it, is still visible on the right. It is covered in vines. The land will have to become much dryer before other trees will join these early starters.
Paper birches (Betula papyrifera) can be seen throughout Canadian forests, in the very Northern United States and throughout the high regions of the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. This particular one grows in Parc Cape Tournmount, in Quebéc.
30 x 23.75 in | 76.2 x 60.3 cm
The Impressionists were more interested in the play of light on trees than in faithfully rendering their unique structures. At the other end of the spectrum lies the botanical tradition. It celebrates the unique structure of each plant but sacrifices light and the natural arrangement of living plants. Botanical paintings usually show cuttings carefully arranged, detached from their natural environment and frequently including flowers, fruit, leaves, and stems—all taken from different seasons but combined in one image. These paintings provide a comprehensive display of a species but they lack the emotional impact of the living plant caught in a moment of its life cycle.
In contrast, my starting point in painting flora is an emotional response to their unique structure and complexity. I’m delighted when viewers recognize the plant I have painted as a familiar friend that lives in their garden or along their favorite hiking trail. A response to this painting that I would be very satisfying to me is “Look honey, that’s a Rhody!” as if the viewer is greeting an old friend. But I would dearly like the viewer’s response not to end there. I hope that the painting will provoke viewers to explore the details too—the shape of each flower, bud and their clustered arrangement, the graceful sweeping arches of the branches, and the leaves, bright yellow when new, then dark green and various shades of blue. My goal is to encourage viewers to experience the plant as they would the portrait of a dear friend. Familiarity with every line would not render the friend’s face boring. The details only add to the pleasure.
As I looked up into this kaleidoscope of leaves sparkling in the sunlight I did feel as if I were reuniting with an old friend. I am very familiar with the rosettes of leaves fanning downward, the upright clusters of flowers varying in hue from a deep red to the palest violet, and the arching curve of the branches. I look forward to the Catawba Rhododendrons (Rhododendron catawbiense) whenever I’m in the Smoky Mountains National Park.
The phrase “river of grass,” so familiar to Everglades National Park visitors, was coined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in her book “The Everglades: River of Grass”. Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense), in fact, grows out of a slow moving, shallow river that formerly covered the whole of south Florida . With its triangular stems, Sawgrass is actually not a grass but a sedge. The name is derived from its edges, which are serrated like the teeth of a saw. You can’t walk through it in short sleeves without sustaining numerous cuts. You can’t climb over it either. It grows to nine feet tall, dwarfing the Great Blue Heron in this painting, which is a little over four feet (about 120 cm) tall. Besides its vast expanse in the Everglades National Park, Sawgrass is also found in coastal areas north to Virginia and west to the Texas Gulf coast.
A huge diversity of birds, alligators and amphibians depend upon Sawgrass for nesting and food. Its energy rich nutlets at the ends of the flower spikes sustain migrating ducks and geese.
Painting Heron feathers with a painting knife was an enjoyable challenge. The wing feathers are soft and overlapping while the long breast and back feathers stand out individually. To achieve the soft, blended look of the wing feathers I patted the panel with the flat surface of the knife. The long feathers required a completely different technique. After wetting the background with a base of blue, I loaded the knife and, tilting it on the side, I pulled it over the base color in one continuous stroke, delivering an edge of paint that stuck out from the panel. When it dried I could actually pinch it with my fingernails.
The water lilies on the surface of the water are likely the Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar luteum). Pond Lilies rest peacefully on the surface and have a slit separating the leaf into lobes. The round leaves, without a slit, held above the water by a thick stem probably belong to the Yellow Lotus (Nelumbo lutea). Any fish reckless enough to venture out from the cover of these leaves, will surely be detected by the vigilant eyes of the motionless Heron above them.
Beauty often lies as much in the context as it does in the main subject. After hiking over miles of powder-dry sand and rocks, when I saw this lone tree, I was struck with how green and lush it was. The leaves seemed to sparkle because they were covered with a bluish-white bloom, an adaptation that helps repel the desert sun. Another adaptation to arid climate is the angle of the stiff little leaves, whose edges are turned up to shed the sun. To create the sparkle effect on the leaves I dabbed on Titanium white using the point of my painting knife.
The Manzanita is well adapted to semi arid regions. The sparse rain that falls in these parts drains off this hilltop rapidly. On the day I passed this spot there wasn’t a trace of cloud in the sky. It had been dry for days and would be so for days to come and the gallon of water I put in my pack at the start of the day’s hike was already half gone.
The name Manzanita, “little apple” in Spanish, describes the fruit. The diminutive apple-like fruit is a very important source of food for birds and other animals. On the trail you can often see their undigested seeds and papery husks in the droppings of Coyotes and Foxes. The fruit was also a significant food source for the native people. The Bigberry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) painted here is unusually tall, around 20 feet, while most Manzanita species are much shorter. The big size of its berry is relative to other Manzanita fruit. It’s the size of a large blueberry.
Manzanita live in the chaparral of western North American, from southern British Columbia, Canada, through Washington, California, Arizona and New Mexico in the United States, and extend into northern and central Mexico.
On this Autumn evening the light was bright but hazy, the kind of light that intensified the colors and creates glare off the surface of the water. The Red Maples (Acer rubrum), of course, stole the show, but the diffuse light also lit up the grasses and sedges on the banks. White Pines (Pinus strobes) on drier ground towered above the maples, framing the composition.
The surface of the pond was covered with the heart shaped leaves of Yellow Pond Lillies (Nuphar variegatum) mixed with round leaved Fragrant White Water Lillies (Nymphaea odorata). In contrast to the vibrant Maples and glowing banks, the pond lilies, usually a rich green, reflected the sky more than their true color because of their angle to the light. As a painter in love with color, I enjoy painting brilliant colors more than dull ones. I was tempted to paint the lilies in rich hues of green but it is important to stick to the mood created by the lighting effect—intense fall leaves and faded lilies.
The lilies had to look as though they were floating on top of the water rather than part of the reflections. To create the effect of floating lilies I painted the reflection with a flatter technique while I laid the lilies on top with much heavier applications of paint. Painting knives are so useful for these kinds of effects.
The ripples in the water in the foreground resulted from an attempt to steady the canoe. Otherwise the pond was still. Much earlier a beaver had slapped his tail on the water to signal a warning of our presence but his disturbance had died down before I took my photographs. The pond was so shallow that I could see the beaver ‘s wake as it swam under water. Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata), which grows only in shallow water, frames the foreground.
Florida, in the early 1500s before Spanish explorers arrived, was largely covered with pines and Saw Palmetto. These formed a stable ecosystem. Frequent fires burned off the shrubs and small trees that would otherwise create dense underbrush, overwhelming the Palmetto and preventing new pines from establishing. The pines, protected by thick bark were spared and the Palmetto trunks sprouted new leaves as soon as the fire passed. New grass sprouted up after the first rain to fill in the spaces.
This is the scene we were likely to see in 1500. Many pines would be quite large since they had not been logged. So would the Saw Palmetto. We could walk freely through the grassy underbrush. I did not include a path in the composition. Only Calusa Indians with soft shoes have walked here. There is an open space to the right of the Palmetto through which you will continue your journey, but you stop to view the complexity of the Palmetto in the sun. There is a lot to see.
These large specimens of Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii) and Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) live in the Collier-Seminole State Park. It was winter so the grasses were already a golden color. South Florida landscapes, unlike northern trees in fall, are not known for their color, yet, on close inspection there is an interesting color range here. The hard, glossy Palmetto frond surfaces reflect the bright sun in pure white streaks, with translucent yellow backlighted tips. The dead fronds, unmolested by gardeners, droop in sunlit rusty browns and ochres and dull violet in the shadows. The pine trunks are broken into jagged plates like jig-saw puzzles, each a slightly different color from reddish hues to almost blue.
In North America the Rowan tree is called a Mountain Ash but it’s not actually an Ash. It is in the Rose family, producing the characteristic fruit of that family, looking like clusters of bright red rose hips. Early Americans called them Ash Trees because they had compound leaves like the Ash. A compound leaf has a main stem with little leaflets coming off of it. This was good news for my daughter who wanted to plant one in her yard but was concerned about the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle. I told her not to worry about the Emerald Borer. Beetles know their trees.
I was disappointed when I first sketched the drawing for this painting. The panel was too small to allow individual leaflets to show. Each leaf became nothing but a streak of paint while the clusters of berries became red blobs. So I sketched another drawing on a larger panel. On the larger panel I could paint individual leaflets and berries, but it was very time consuming. The painting took over 100 hours to complete. It was time consuming but satisfying; one of my interests in painting is the celebration of details like these compound leaves. At least I didn’t have to count the leaflets! Rowan Trees are rather forgiving about the number. Anywhere from seven to seventeen leaflets are allowed.
By luck I encountered this tree at a most interesting time in the development of its fall color. About half of the leaves had turned color. They ranged from deep summer green to a spectrum of yellow, orange and red. Even more surprising were the variations within a single leaf. Leaflets at the end of the leaf were often a different color from leaflets nearer the twig. Sometimes there were even variations within a single leaflet. A leaflet might be dark orange where it attaches to the leaf and grow progressively more yellow toward the tip. To execute a single leaf could take 20 applications of paint with the tip of a knife.
I prefer the name “Rowan” because it avoids confusion with the Ashes but especially for this painting since Rowan is derived from Old Norse raun, and ultimately from a proto-Germanic word raudnian meaning “getting red”.
The Rowan is clearly a Northern tree, ranging across Eastern Canada and the most northerly states. Isolated patches grow as far south as North Carolina but only at the coldest heights of the Appalachian Mountains. If you bought a Rowan tree from a nursery for your garden it likely was the “Showy Mountain Ash” (Sorbus decora) preferred by gardeners because of its brighter fall color rather than its cousin, “The American Mountain Ash” (Sorbus Americana). By the way, if you are curious about the pink flowers in the foreground they are the dried remnants of Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium).
Trees need fresh water, stable soil, oxygen for their roots and, if they are to reproduce, an expanse of ground upon which to sow their seeds. The Red Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) thrive in a habitat which has none of these basic requirements. How do they do it? One answer is their marvelous prop roots which you can see at the bottom of this painting. These roots stabilize the tree in the muddy and infirm soil, filter out salt from the water and enable the tree to absorb oxygen directly from the air.
The ecological contribution of these prop roots is enormous. They tame surges during storms and provide habitat for breeding fish. I wanted these roots to be a major part of the composition. However, whenever I have looked at Red Mangroves from a canoe or kayak all I can see are masses of green billowing out over the water. I wanted a perspective from which I could look out onto the water through the roots. Such a perspective would also allow the viewer not only to appreciate the complexity of their root tangles but also the islands in the distance that are formed by these roots. I found this scene by hiking down a trail that led to the edge of a Mangrove thicket.
Mangrove is not the name of a particular plant but a number of plants that share a tolerance of salt water. In Southern Florida there are four such plants, often found together, the Red, Black, White Mangroves and the Buttonwood. In case you were wondering why the large tree, second from the right, has such rough shreddy bark compared to the others. Good spotting. That one is a White Mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa). The trunk is not standing in the water but behind the Red Mangroves, closer to solid land where I was standing.
And how do their seeds germinate in water? They don’t. They germinate into little plants while still on the tree. Then they grow into long candle like forms that plop off into the water and float like little buoys until their bottom end drags on the mud. Then they root. What an amazing adaptation.
One of the features of a successful painting is a broad color range. A scene combining brilliant blue water, rich green leaves and bright flowers usually grabs our attention. This scene is the opposite. It is a study in muted colors. But it fascinated me because of the harmony of the colors between the trees and the Hawk and the story that they told.
The pale grey color of the bark distinguishes the Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) from its big cousin, the Bald Cypress (Taxodium Distichum). In poor and drier soils, where the Pond Cypress often grows, it forms thick savannas of stunted trees. These dwarfs can be hundreds of years old and yet attain heights of only 20 or 30 feet. In this composition they form a grey-brown tapestry—a tangle of twigs and small trunks dotted by bits of blue sky.
The brown and ochre tones of the Red-Shouldered Hawk blend into this background. Even the russet colors in the feathers are echoed in the Cypress cones and in a torn section of the branch. The Hawk’s hunting success depends upon stealth, its brown and creamy flecks blending into the surrounding forest. Notice that its tail feathers are spread rather than ending in the usual point, indicating that it is preparing to fly. And fly it did, moments after I took the pictures from which I made this painting.
I used the edge of the painting knife to make the feathers, creating many fine cracks and ridges. This texture broke up the light so that the surface looked soft. I painted the trees in the background imprecisely so that they would appear out of the focus of the viewer. I wanted to push the viewers’ focus to the harmony between the tree in the foreground and the Hawk.
Most of the thousand species of Rhododendron are small shrubs. I remember as a child being fascinated with their brilliant flowers just at eye level. But since I’ve grown a few feet taller I usually admire their flowers from above. That is, I did until I went hiking in the Smoky Mountain National Park where giants live. Here the Rhododendrons towered over us as we hiked. This painting therefore represents an unusual perspective for these plants—looking up from underneath. Huge trees and the famous Smoky Mountain mist provide the background.
The leaves Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) are so dark green and leathery that I have never observed their veins before. But from the perspective of looking up into the sun the veins were revealed as darkened stripes with lighter patches between. I first painted the leaf with a dark green and then repainted the patches between the veins with a lighter green. Notice none of the leaves have bites taken out of them, probably because they are poisonous to deer. The roundish holes chewed in some of the leaves suggest that some insects have stronger stomachs than deer.
Long lengths of bare twigs are visible because the leaves are clustered in whorls at the ends. I made sure that a short segment of the larger branch was included in the painting because I wanted to show how the bark becomes scaly with age. I enjoyed making this bark with a painting knife, one of the many occasions when I’m glad that I paint with knives. This scaly bark would be difficult to make with a brush. While I am on the subject of the twigs, notice that the ends of the twigs are green. This is the new growth. Twigs grow about six inches per year, which is not very fast, a realization that increased my respect for these giants.
I have low expectations when hiking in the rain, but I shouldn’t. Colors are more saturated in low contrast lighting. And Sumac is unsurpassed for the brilliance of its autumn colors. They range from pale yellow-green through orange, red and scarlet. A month earlier these Sumacs would still have earned their reputation for outstanding redness but not on account of their leaves. In late summer dense cones of brilliant red fruit protrude from the ends of green leafy branches. Indeed, the name “Sumac” is derived from the Arabic for “red”.
While we are imagining how this scene looked a month earlier, those brown clusters were once brilliant yellow flowers of the Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). It’s a good thing that they are not in their prime. Their vibrant yellow would overwhelm the subtle yellow of the Sumac leaves.
In contrast, the violet sprays of Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), which were still in flower, do not distract from the composition. Their dusty rose and ochre provide a contrast with the warm Sumac colors.
The Sumac fruit is the source of a red spice used in Middle Eastern cuisine to impart a lemony taste to salads and meat. In North America we make a lemony drink (called “sumac-ade”) by crushing Sumac fruits in cool water, straining the liquid and then adding sugar or honey.
Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina) grows mainly in the Northeast, Midwest, Appalachian Mountains and Great Lakes regions including Ontario.