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.

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