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.

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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).

Engelmann Spruce in Yellowstone National Park (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

36 x 23.75 in | 91.4 x 60.3 cm

According to the Yellowstone Park website, “Forests cover roughly 80% of the park and lodgepole pine comprises nearly all of that canopy.” There is a little lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) peaking out of the lower right hand corner of this painting, but the focus of the painting is on a less common resident of the park—an Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmanii).

Click for detail.
Click for detail.

The Engelmann’s ragged appearance and complex pattern of branches caught my eye, while the brilliant yellow wolf moss provided a lively contrast to the dark chocolate brown bark. Its isolation against the sky allowed me to observe its beautifully complex structure. In contrast, had just hiked up from the valley where trees were so densely packed that they presented a uniform wall of green. I recently read an article in American Forests magazine (Summer, 2016) by Richard Higgins in which he quotes Henry David Thoreau “A tree seen against other trees is a mere dark mass, but against the sky it has parts, has symmetry and expression.” Old trees like this have so much character. I have no idea exactly how old it is because Engelmann spruce at high, wind swept elevations like this tend to be very slow growing. Some stunted trees can be 1000 years old.

The tens of thousands of spires poking up from the mountains in the distance are mostly young lodgepole pines. Living in New England, Thoreau may not have been familiar with lodgepole pines, but they are the perfect example of the “dark mass” in his description. Frequent fires kill the lodgepole pines but some of their cones are sealed and stay on the trees until a forest fire heats them, after which they burst open and drop their seeds onto the newly burned area. The new seedlings grow so thick you can’t squeeze between them if you are wearing a pack.

For me the most important feature of this particular tree is the fact that my daughter and son-in-law wanted the painting for a wedding gift.

Water Lilies and Pickerel Weed (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

36 inches (91.4 cm) wide by 24 inches (61 cm) high

Although trees in their autumn color are among the most popular landscape subjects aquatic plants are rarely included as part of autumn’s splendor.  But aquatic plants also change color as the weather turns cold.  My wife, Joyce, an expert canoeist, was maneuvering our canoe through aquatic plants while I looked for promising compositions with my camera.  At first, while we were facing the sun, the glare washed out the color of the leaves and water.  But as soon as Joyce turned the canoe around so that the sun was at our backs, the glare disappeared and the leaves came alive with many shades of violet, red, yellow, and green.  I snapped pictures as fast as I could.

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In my studio I drew a composition based on the photographs.  In the final composition the leaves of the lilies swirled around a dense patch of Pickerel Weed like a cornucopia.  I could imagine a frog hoping across the flat leaves as if it were on a garden path.

Flat objects are difficult to paint with knives, especially when they are imprinted with delicate veins.  I rotated the bottom of the knife in a rough circle parallel to the surface to create the flat leaf.  Then I tapped the edge of the knife in paint of a slightly different color and tapped it onto the leaf in rays creating a pattern like spokes of a wheel.  Finally I stroked the rays to blend them into the leaf.  This kind of stroking must be accomplished with very light pressure.  I held the knife so lightly that only the weight of the knife was pressing on the surface.  In fact, every now and then the knife slipped out of my hand.

Almost all of the leaves on the surface of the water belong to Fragrant White Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata).   Their rounded shape, narrow V-shaped split and white flowers distinguish them from other floating lilies.  I have also painted two flowers and three leaves of The Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar varietgatum).  Their leaves are smaller than those of the White Water Lily and heart shaped with rounded lobes.  The little oval leaves that are not split are something totally different.  They are Water Shield (Brasenia schreiberi).

And the Pickerel Weed?  Those are the tall shoots with long pointed leaves and violet flowers that look like little bottle brushes.  What a feast of color on such a little patch of water!


Binding Love (sold) | Richard G. Tiberius

18 x 16 in | 45.7 x 40.6 cm

Hiking in the hills above the sea on the California Coast, I found this little Morning Glory clinging to dry stalks of grass.  The petals seemed too delicate to compete in such a harsh environment.  It made a direct hit on my protective instinct.  How bravely it seemed to hold onto the grass on this dry, windswept hill.

After finishing the painting I reached for my flower guide certain that it would confirm my discovery of some rare and delicate native beauty.  Here’s a summary of what Wikipedia has to say about Convolvulus arvensis (“Field Bindweed”).

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Although it produces attractive flowers, it is often unwelcome in gardens as a nuisance weed due to its rapid growth and choking of cultivated plants. It is one of the most serious weeds of agricultural fields in temperate regions of the world.  Its dense mats invade agricultural fields and reduce crop yields; it is estimated that crop losses due to this plant in the United States exceeded US $377 million in the year 1998 alone.  It was most likely introduced into North America as a contaminant in crop seed as early as 1739, as an invasive species.  It intertwines and topples native species, and competes with other species for sunlight, moisture and nutrients.  It is difficult to eradicate because the seeds remain viable in soil for up to 20 years and one plant can produce up to 500 seeds! The deep, extensive root system stores carbohydrates and proteins and allows it to sprout repeatedly from fragments and rhizomes following removal of aboveground growth. It’s even toxic to cattle.

It’s a monster!  I had to laugh at myself.  This little vine challenged my moralistic principle of painting only plants in their natural habitat.  It forced me to choose between two perspectives—art or environment.  I asked myself, as a dedicated environmentalist, if I had known about the history of this vine would have painted it?  My answer was “yes”.  Aren’t there beautiful faces in a rogue’s gallery?  Besides, this tough little plant was here before the United States was a country.  Doesn’t that give it some “native” status?  And art is in the eyes of the beholder.  In this composition it evokes my sympathy.

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.

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.

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.

Mountain Clouds | Richard G. Tiberius

40 x 48 in | 101.6 x 121.9 cm

Although the subject of this painting is obviously a tree, I named it “Mountain Clouds” because the mountains were indirectly responsible for the graceful shape of both the clouds and the tree. The mountains created the wind currents that blew the clouds into ragged tatters. And the mountains shaped the tree as well, at least indirectly. In the valley Aspen trees are crowded together so they grow straight trunks like telephone poles to complete for light. But on steep mountain sides at higher elevations there are few places for trees to get a foothold.  Here the Aspen are solitary. Since they need not compete for light they do not need to grow tall and straight. Here their branches can begin to spread nearer to the ground. The result is a crown of gracefully curving branches, breathtaking when outlined with new snow against a cobalt blue sky.

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Since this was the first snowfall of the year the snow had not yet covered the land with a uniform white blanket. The snow sat on the trees like blobs of cotton decorations. As if that decoration weren’t enough the last leaves of fall were still hanging from the tree like brightly colored ornaments. There is another surprising bit of color in the scene as well. In the lower right is a cluster of trees that are probably Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), hanging with bright red berries.

This Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is lucky to live in the mountains where it doesn’t have to compete for light. The downside is that it is an excellent lightning rod during mountian storms. Notice that the middle main trunk is broken off at the top.  Also notice that the twin tops of the fir tree in the lower right hand corner are also bare. They have probably been struck by lightening too.