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.

Character

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.

Red Maple and Sumac in Fall

What excited me about the scene of Red Maple and Sumac was the colors. Not just the intensity of the color, but the range. Sumacs display every hue in the rainbow. My neighbor asked me why I put all those colors in the sumac leaves. Is that real? he asked. He had seen sumacs as a kid, but I don’t think he looked closely enough. Maybe the next time he sees them in the fall, he will.

One of the collectors of my art, Dr. Roger Martin, wrote me the following when he first saw a photo of this painting: “The sumac piece — well, that has a rich feel of community and company in it for me. It made me want to go there, shelter under the rich colours, feel the shade of the branches, the warm company of the quiet water. That’s got an unbelievable appeal for me.” I was delighted that he felt the richness of the colors, as I did. But he felt more. For me the existence of the pond was a lucky accident because it enabled me to reflect the colors of the background. For him it became quiet and warm. How wonderful! I did not think of that but it’s surely there in the scene. And his sheltering in the shade of the Maple, what a comforting image. Actually I came upon the scene rather late in the afternoon. The sun had peeked out for only a few minutes for which I was hugely grateful because of the way it lighted up the leaves. But, again, perhaps earlier in the day, when it was hotter, leaning back on the soft grass, yes, I can see it. It’s so exciting for me to see my paintings from different points of view.

Even when I include botanical characteristics of the plants in writing about my painting the botany is simply a means of achieving a greater sympathy for the subject. I’m in good company here. Thoreau saw no incompatibility between his emotional and scientific approach to trees. Richard Higgins wrote an article in American Forests (summer, 2016) about Thoreau’s “visceral connection” to trees. He writes that “Botany gave him [Thoreau] a way to see the invisible energies of trees and new words to describe them”.

Richard, June 18, 2016

Painting Wild Nature with Knives: Painting and Survival Instincts

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.