Invisible Willow | Richard G. Tiberius

20 x 25.75 in | 50.8 x 65.4 cm

For years beavers had maintained a series of dams across a riverbed. Because the riverbed was shallow, each dam backed up the water for a hundred meters or more, creating a series of lagoons that resembled wide, shallow stairs. Each time we pulled our canoe over a dam to explore the lagoon above it we had to find a gap in the willows that were growing out of the dam like a thick hedge. I was enjoying the animals—deer, waterfowl, beavers—and not particularly noticing the flora. While returning downstream, scanning the line of willows for a gap, I noticed how extraordinarily colorful they were.

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The twigs displayed a range of color from red through orange, ochre, brown, and purple. To add to the celebration, the twigs held their leaves at playful angles and waved bright greenish-yellow catkins in the wind above them. I wanted to set up an easel in the canoe but I settled for several pictures with my digital camera and waited until I returned home to sketch a composition.

The strange part is that I had canoed this river many times before without noticing them. Stranger still is the fact that the Bebb willow is one of the most common trees in Canada. In fact, a map of their distribution looks a lot like the map of Canada itself if you add Alaska and a little bulge at the bottom to take in some of the northern states. I’m not the only one who has missed this common tree. The Bebb Willow (Salix bebbiana) is not a name that I have heard very often. This particular cluster lives in Brown’s creek, off of Buckshot Lake, in Southern Ontario.

Pinwheels in the Sun (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

22 x 18 in | 55.9 x 45.7 cm

I remember the first time I saw the Coulter Pine. My wife and I were hiking in the mountains of Southern California with our four-year old daughter. As usual, there was a particular tree that I wanted to find as a subject for painting. I was hunting the Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri), named after its discoverer, Thomas Coulter, an early 19th century physician. We had a rough idea of where we might find it. I knew it had huge pine cones, exactly what we needed to give a four-year old a sense of adventure and keep her from wanting to be carried. She charged around under the trees as if she were on an Easter egg hunt. In no time at all she was carrying this enormous cone, more than a foot long, about half as wide and weighing somewhere around five pounds! She was so proud of herself.

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As a painter I’m interested in the Coulter Pine and other dry land pines because they are such fitting symbols of the Southwest. The characteristic that defines the forests of the Southwest is their light foliage that lets in the sun. There are often open spaces between the trees which are covered with wildflowers and dry grass. The flowers tend to have pale, grayish green foliage, another adaptation to the dry conditions. While the floor of a northern pine forest is often dark because of the thick canopy, dry land pines of the Southwest tend to let the sun shine through because their leaves are thin and sparse. Even back lighted trunks are alive with reflected light. Shadows are sharp and clear but not very dark because the whole area is bathed in light.

The Coulter Pine needles are almost a foot long and clustered in star-bursts at the end of the branches. Combine this feature with the sun and the wind and you have a thousand pinwheels spinning in the sun. Counter Pines live only in Southern California. This particular group lives in the Cuyamaca Mountains.

Yellow Birch beside a Frozen River (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

18 x 24 in | 46 x 61 cm

The Yellow Birch is an uncommon subject for a painter. White Birches are usually favored because their trunks add sparkle to a summer scene or reflect the cool colors of winter. In contrast, the Yellow Birch is a serious forest tree. They thrive in the deep woods because they are the most shade tolerant of the birches. To most of us an old Yellow Birch doesn’t look like a birch because the bark is not thin and papery. Instead, it breaks up into plates with ragged edges. In fact few people recognize them as birches unless they look at young branches which show the characteristic papery shredding bark. So what is the attraction for an artist? The plates of old birch bark are shiny so they reflect surrounding colors like jewels.

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From the standpoint of composition the dramatic shadow of the small tree on the trunk draws the viewer’s attention to its massiveness. It was fortunate that I came upon this scene at a time when the shadow was in the right place. Also, the composition has some other plants that show color in the winter. The Maple leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) in the foreground has huge ochre buds that are fuzzy to the touch. And on the opposite river bank the brilliant red-violet stems of the Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) poke through the snow. Add the shadows on the snow that flow down the bank of the frozen river and up the other side and you have a lot to look at.

This Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) lives in Quebec where it is celebrated as the provincial tree. Yellow Birches can be seen in Northeastern United states and the Canadian bordering Provinces.

Whirling Scarves (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

24 x 20.3 in | 61 x 51.4 cm

As my brother and I returned from a walk in a swampy wood, we were surrounded by the gray trunks of swamp maple trees. When the sky grew more overcast and the sun fell even lower, the maples took on a blue-gray cast. I was engrossed in our conversation and trying to keep from getting a boot full of water.

Small differences in the land can have dramatic consequences for the trees. As we walked up a small rise the scenery changed dramatically. Here the land was dry enough for beeches and white pines. The sun suddenly appeared as if to recognize the special moment. Warm rays streaked across the knoll at a low angle hitting newly fallen leaves not yet flattened by rain. The entire knoll sparkled with color. Later, it occurred to me that two other features had added to the drama. Beech trees are so shade tolerant that they don’t lose their lower branches as maples do and Beeches are among the last trees to lose their leaves in the fall.

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To my eye, the gray-blue of the maple trunks provided an excellent contrast to the subject of this painting—the warm, rusty hues of the Beech leaves. I enjoyed the way that the branches of Beeches grow in flat whorls. The trees appeared to be twirling multicolored silk scarves to celebrate finding this little island of dry ground.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum) and American Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) can be found in every state and province east of the Mississippi. This particular Beech grove lives in Eastern Massachusetts.

Valley of Gold (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

29.6 x 24 in | 75.2 x 61 cm

The scenery in the mountains of western United States and Canada is so dramatic that it seems unreal. Such beauty is a nature artist’s dream, but I find myself wondering whether anyone will believe the painting when it’s finished. One of the techniques artists use to fool the eye into seeing depth is to make distant objects increasingly more blue and violet. Distant objects are also more desaturated (grayer) and fuzzier. But in the clear, dry air of these mountains distant objects are still very sharp so a faithful rendition of the scene may fail to create an impression of depth.

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The quilt work of colors—patches of bright yellow trees, ochre, orange-yellow and even bare trees—also seems unreal until you learn how Trembling Aspens (populus tremuloides) reproduce. They spread by sending shoots up from the tips of their roots, like strawberries. One tree can establish an entire colony of genetically identical trees that tend to be the same color in the fall and lose their leaves at the same time, resulting in almost unbelievable patches on the mountain.

Finally, the pointed steeples poking up out of the aspens and oaks stretch credulity unless you know that Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) are giants, commonly growing to 200 ft (60 m) while aspens are rarely more than 80 ft (25 m). The little guys in this company are the Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) in the foreground, topping out at about 60 ft. (20 m). The Garry Oaks were helpful to the composition because their shadows created a dark stripe across the panel. Amsel Adams followed this principle of dark foreground.

This combination of trees lives in Utah, but can be found in most of the Western States and Western Canada except for the Garry Oak, which is mostly southern.

Red Maples in Spring (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

30 x 30 in | 76.2 x 76.2 cm

After kayaking across Buckshot Lake and down the stream that flows out of it, normally I can slip under a low bridge connecting the lake with a quiet pond. On this occasion the spring rains had raised the water level so high that I couldn’t make it under the bridge. What I thought was an annoyance turned out to be a lucky accident. As I carried my kayak across the road I saw Red Maples, sometimes called Swamp Maples, all around the pond. On the near side I could see the pink blush of their new leaves and the fresh green of the ferns. The far side of the bank was obscured in the soft evening light, providing a dull contrast to the back lighted young maple shoots directly in front of me. It was an opportunity to paint a rare sight.

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Red Maples are certainly not rare. Their stunning fall color is a staple of postcards and calendars, but few people are familiar with their colors in spring. The bright pigments are in the leaves spring, summer and fall, but we see them only when the green chlorophyll that masks them in summer is destroyed by the cold or when chlorophyll production cannot keep pace with the rapid growth of the leaf in the early spring. Few people see these spring colors, because they last only a few days, at a time when the mosquitoes are forming their attack squadrons.

To create the perception of distance, I painted the Maple leaves in the foreground with the brightest reds and oranges; those on the little point jutting out into the pond were painted in a duller range; and the leaves on the tall trees at the far bank of the pond were painted in still more muted colors.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are common throughout Eastern North America. This little cluster grows at the side of a gravel road beside Buckshot creek in Southern Ontario.

Ornamental Red Maple (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

28 x 24 in | 71 x 61 cm

Cold nights provoke Red Maples to display some of the brightest colors in the Northern forests. Cold also weakens the stems so that the leaves droop a little. I didn’t notice the drooping at first because I was so taken with the range of color. There were various shades of green through yellow, orange, and several shades of red and carmine. As a gardener I normally associate drooping with a troubled plant but these leaves looked more like ornaments hung on the twigs to celebrate the last days of summer. I couldn’t get that happy image out of my head the whole time I was painting it. After all, falling leaves are the trees’ preparation for winter. Lighten up!

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The painting technique was tricky. I often paint close objects like this with a technique called “scumbling” in which I drag my knife loaded with wet paint over paint that has already dried. This technique produces a ragged effect which is excellent for tree bark and rocks, but not so good for leaves that are still fresh. The colors needed to be blended as if they melted into one another. So I had to use a wet-on-wet technique by which I slip one color over another with a very light touch. It was pretty messy at times.

I used a very close perspective—wall to wall leaves—instead of the more typical landscape perspective that shows the contours of the land and other trees in the painting. I did not want to distract the viewer from the image of brightly colored ornaments.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are common throughout Eastern North America, from the broadleaf forest belt of Canada to as far south as Florida. This young maple grows in a park in Duluth, Minnesota. I saw it while hiking with my daughter and son-in-law who live in Minneapolis.

Old Spruce with Green Beard (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

23 x 32 in | 58.4 x 81.3

This old Black Spruce tree, covered with moss and lichen, seemed to jump out at me as I walked by it. I wanted the painting to pop out of the panel as the real tree did. I used saturated colors in the old tree and subdued them considerably in the two younger trees to the right. I also painted the old tree using a highly textured effect while painting the younger trees with a smoother texture. Creating the heavy texture of the lichen was challenging for a knife painter because the lichen filaments were very narrow. I had to touch the panel gently with the edge of the knife blade.

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I was pleased with the results. As you walk past the painting, the old tree seems to move because of the way the light shifts as it hits the ridges of paint from different angles. Unfortunately, viewers who are looking at a photograph of the painting cannot see this effect.

When I think about how much I enjoyed viewing and painting this moss, I realize how dramatically my feelings were affected by my understanding of Nature. Years ago, before I found out that the moss does not hurt the tree, I would have been saddened by the sight of such an advanced “infestation”. However, the moss takes no nourishment from the tree. The spongy bark of an old Black Spruce merely provides an ideal anchor. The moss makes food through its own chlorophyll. The green tones looked even more beautiful to me as I thought about the self-sufficiency of the moss. Imputing morality to the plants is a little silly, but I think it is difficult for humans to refrain from viewing Nature through our own values.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) forests can be seen in every province in Canada, in Alaska and in the northeastern United States.  It is the Provincial tree of Newfoundland and Labrador. This old specimen grows in Le Parc de la Jacques-Cartier, in Québec.

Manzanita on a Switchback (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

48 x 36 in | 122 x 91 cm

To prevent erosion on steep mountain trails the parks people cut the trails in a zigzag pattern called “switchbacks”. Switchbacks offer plant lovers a rare perspective because they are literally cut into the hillside. On the side away from the mountain you can see a panoramic view of the valley below. While on the side against the mountain you can view the shrubs from a low perspective. Their branches looped into the most graceful curves, while their colors exhausted my pallet. The bark was as smooth as polished wood and of a brilliant hue. I used up a whole tube of scarlet paint. The smooth texture results from the fact that the bark does not form cracks when the growing branches expand but rather peels off, like the bark of a birch tree.

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The peeling bark added another dimension. The loose peels were translucent when back lighted. In places where the branches had died off, the weather worn wood had turned to a range of muted blues, greens and purples. The leaves also displayed an impressive range of color—brilliant green where the light shone through them, dark green where the leaves piled up and blocked the sun, and blue-green in reflected light. Completing the color spectrum were the older leaves which turned many shades of ochre, orange and red before falling. There is nothing more enjoyable than painting a subject that demands all my colors.

Manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish. It’s fitting that this shrub should be known by its Spanish name. Its range spans the semi arid lands of Baja and Alta California, although some species of Manzanita (Archostaphylos) grow all the way up the West Coast to British Columbia.  This one lives in Yosemite National Park.

Blackberries with Kingsolver (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

30 x 24 in | 76.2 x 61 cm

Blackberry leaves and canes turn a stunning array of violet colors in the fall. Evening light is ideal for bringing out these colors, especially when back lighted. The Maples at the edge of the lake were also lit up like stained glass. Even the old White Pine at the point of land was outlined in a glow of yellow-green.

It’s strange to think that just a few weeks earlier if I had walked through this little clearing I would have noticed nothing but the blaze of yellow goldenrod. And I would probably have walked right past the blackberry bushes—in their uniform green—if my eye were not caught by the occasional berry left behind by the birds and squirrels. But at the time of the painting all of the Goldenrod had gone to seed and the Blackberry leaves had turned a range of deep purple-reds. The fluffy, dull-white seed heads of the Goldenrod helped to set off the brilliant colors. Another feature that helps to set off the warm colors is the violet shades of the weathered stumps of cedar at the edge of the lake.

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Walking through blackberry bushes is something you want to do very carefully. I’ve been slashed by their stiff thorns, but this particular patch of blackberries didn’t have many thorns so they were probably the “Smooth Blackberry” or “Canada Blackberry” (Rubus canadensis), which has a lot fewer thorns than its heavily armed cousin, the Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis).

And what’s the Kingsolver? No, it isn’t wildlife. Barbara Kingsolver is the author of an audiotape entitled “Small Wonder”, which I listened to while painting this scene. I think of this as my Kingsolver painting. Her evidence-based approach to environmental debates is comforting.

Black Spruce Bog | Richard G. Tiberius

30 x 36 in | 76.2 x 91.4 cm

The longer I looked into this pure stand of Black Spruce the more trees I could see. Faint images appeared through the mist as my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. In this wilderness I would surely hear a large animal long before I could see it. Perhaps I’m giving away my city roots when I admit that a true wilderness excites me not only because of its awesome beauty but also because of the tinge of fear that it evokes. In this painting I tried to capture the mysterious depth by painting many layers.

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Lumbermen have told me that its cousins, the White and Red Spruces, yield better timber. Landscapers too, prefer the brighter, longer needles and perky branches of its cousins to the dull needles, stringy twigs, and short, droopy branches of the Black Spruce. In the bogs the bark and twigs are dotted with soft and flaky lichen. In fact, if you squeeze through a stand of Black Spruce your sweater will be covered with flakes. It doesn’t seem like an attractive picture.

But when millions of these wispy twigs circle around the dark trunks in thin arcs like cotton candy they create a mood that hits you like a freight train. The Black Spruce is the master at expressing the feeling of the northern bogs—deep, primitive, and utterly mysterious. Without peaks or valleys to orient us, the bog frustrates our human need to orient ourselves.

Black spruce (Picea mariana) forests can be seen in every province in Canada, in Alaska and in the northeastern United States. It is the Provincial tree of Newfoundland and Labrador. This particular forest grows in Le Parc de la Jacques-Cartier, in Québec.

Shiny New Leaves | Richard G. Tiberius

47.6 x 35.4 in | 121 x 90 cm

One of the reasons that I love painting natural scenes is their complexity. My timing was perfect to enjoy the complexity in this grove of young Trembling Aspen trees (Populus tremuloides). Since the new growth was not advanced enough yet to cover the twigs and branches, I could see both the structure of the trees and the leaves at the same time. The striking variation in the color of the branches and trunks added to the complexity as well as the astounding color range in the leaves and twigs. New twigs and buds were brilliant red. The leaves were brilliant yellow and orange with red to purple accents. I called the painting Shiny New Leaves because of the shiny surfaces of these new leaves.

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The Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) that you see peeking out under the Aspens is a very undesirable alien from Eurasia. It completely shuts out the light, preventing new seedlings of native plants from sprouting. I don’t like painting invasive non-native species but compositionally it worked out well. The dark green leaves of the Buckthorns poking out between the Aspens offered a perfect contrast to the Aspens. The artist won over the naturalist in this case.

In a week all the leaves of these trees will be green and their shiny surfaces will have become matte. The green color of leaves comes from chlorophyll, the factory that turns the energy from sunlight into chemical energy, which plants use to make sugar. The production of chlorophyll cannot keep pace with the carotenes and other chemicals in the leaf that give us the bright colors. I have no idea why the tips of new twigs are so red. Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides) can be found in all the forested lands of Canada, Northeastern United States and Alaska, except for the West Coastal region. This grove lives in a conservation area near Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada.

Red Maples on Lakeshore in Fall Color (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

40 x 30.5 in | 101.6 x 77.5 cm

Red Maples (Acer rubrum) are comfortable growing in swampy conditions.  They often line the lakeshore because they can survive much closer to the water than most other trees.   In fall the lakes of the Northeast are ablaze with reflected color from these trees.  I based this composition on pictures I took from a canoe.  Initially, the lake was a mirror and the reflections were perfectly clear.  But after jiggling around to get a good position from which to shoot, I created ripples in the water.  Perhaps the disturbance in the water was a good thing for the composition because perfect reflections look unreal and distract from the actual trees.  Besides, I enjoyed blending the colors in the uneven water.

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There are a few white birch trees (Betula paperifera) in the scene which lend their white exclamation points to the composition.  Birch leaves tend to turn yellow and ochre colors in the fall rather than red, which is fortunate for this composition because they relieve the solid red of the maples.  Not that the maples were solid red.  When I began painting them, I realized that I needed every shade of Red, Crimson, Orange, Rose, Permanent Magenta and Yellow Orange in my collection, to cover the range.

These maples live throughout northeastern North America.  They are prolific in wet places from the Canadian provinces to the swamps of Florida.  The birches are a bit more northerly.  They stick to the cooler mountain tops as they reach down into the southern states and are pretty rare below the Carolinas.