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 some 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 were really weird. Check out the photo of a coco palm tree from their website. But that’s 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 stand-out 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 someone 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 of what I call structural characteristics of trees that I have painted in the past:
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.