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.
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.]
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.
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
Sometimes I paint with my dog on my lap. Of course, I have to be careful not to get paint on him. Wolfie (short for Wolfgang) is a Maltese, so his white fur makes any paint quite noticeable. At one point, while I was painting the Crabapple Blossoms, he had a small streak of bright pink near his tail. (Whoops!)
Last Friday was the South Miami Art Walk opening event. Green Monkey South Miami, the studio where I currently teach yoga—another occupation of mine—hosted the Tiberius Art Studio. Together, my father and I had fifteen paintings on display in the large, gallery-like room. It was invigorating to be able to discuss the art with so many people, old friends and new viewers alike.
Everyone agreed that the texture of our knife paintings was something that had to be experienced in person. It doesn’t come across in the photographs how three dimensional they really are. As I watched people’s reactions, I noticed that some people seemed to connect most with the birds, some with the more traditional landscapes, and others seemed most interested in the unusual close up compositions.
One of the most encouraging conversations I had was with a young woman who expressed that the paintings captured the feeling of being in nature. It was just like being there, she said, and they gave her a sense of peace and well-being. She connected her emotional response to the paintings with the theory of biophilia, popularized by E.O. Wilson and originally coined by Erich Fromm. Briefly, biophilia is “love of life or living systems.” Biophilia explains our attraction to other living things as a product of our evolutionary history. We have evolved to be in nature and not in cubicles within a concrete landscape.
I am very interested in her comment that nature has the power to restore our equanimity. I have noticed this restorative effect myself. I am encouraged by the idea that my paintings might help people reconnect with the value of wild nature for their own well-being, rather than out of obligation to an abstract moral ideal.
In this video I describe my childhood passion for trees that grew into a desire to express these feelings in paint.
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.
In this video I explain how I choose a subject to paint.
In this video I explain the difference between landscapes and what I call portraits of nature.
Our art celebrates the beauty and complexity of wild nature. We hope our work will encourage the conservation of wild habitats. All of us are aware of the immeasurable value of plants in providing useful products—from food to furniture—but our art celebrates an aspect of nature that owes nothing to the industry of humanity. We don’t paint captive animals or garden plants. We are focused on the species in its natural habitat. Honoring the context that shaped each magnificent species is a kind of empathy. The more we learn about the natural history and ecology of each plant or animal the more connected we feel with it and the more likely we are to conserve it.
Another defining characteristic of our work is attention to details. The details are fascinating. Take the bark of a tree, for example. Trees grow from a layer just under the bark so they outgrow their bark every season. Therefore the bark must crack or shed to make room for the growing trunk. Birches solve this problem by peeling off the bark the way a snake sheds its skin; Sycamores and Jeffrey Pines shed their bark in jigsaw-like pieces; and Oaks develop cracks that deepen and widen as the tree ages. When we are painting trees we pay attention to these differences to help the viewer appreciate the particular tree as if it were a character in a novel. We hope that these details will help you appreciate these lovable characters.
Richard learned quite by accident that this kind of empathy with natural things is close to what the First Nations People call understanding their “spirit”. He learned this as the guest at a wedding where he happened to be seated next to a Micmac Shaman. The Micmacs are a first Nations People originally from an area that is now the Canadian Maritimes. When he found out that Richard painted trees they got into a lively conversation about the native flora. The Shaman told fascinating stories from the mythos of his people. Richard told the Shaman how much he enjoyed his beautiful stories, but honesty obligated Richard to say “I appreciate that your people have had a connection to the trees of this land many thousand times longer than my people have had, but with respect, the tree that I want to paint was here long before even your people arrived”. Richard was concerned that the Shaman might consider this statement insulting, but he looked at Richard with an expression of delight and recognition. He said, “That is exactly the idea of the spirit of the tree that we Micmac understand!”
Being in the presence of something wild can be an awesome experience. Most of us experience this awe when in the presence of large wild animals or dramatic flora like a giant sequoia or red maple in blazing fall color. We like painting such dramatic images, but we take a special pleasure in revealing the majesty of a species that may not be so dramatic, capturing the unremarkable at an ideal moment.