17.5" x 24"
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Chaparral, Southern California, United States
The phrase “Live Oak” struck me as funny the first time I heard it. I didn’t think the tree looked like a “dead” oak, I thought. Years later I became very familiar with live oaks as I traveled in the Deep South where they hang with Spanish moss, and in the Southwest where they survive in arid conditions. “Live” simply means “evergreen”. In other words, there is never a season in which they look dead. Hiking with my family in Palomar Mountain State Park up to 6000 feet (1830 m) we saw spectacular examples of live oaks. The views from the lookout points were gorgeous—gentle sloping hills of yellow grass dotted with live oaks. The oaks looked like green mushrooms popping up out of yellow carpets. The trees didn’t look natural because they were so far apart from one another, as if planted in an arboretum. Adding to this unnatural effect was the fact that we could not see the trunks of the trees nor many limbs. The trees spread out twice as wide as their height and their limbs often touched the ground. From a distance all we could see were mounds of green.
Both characteristics—the sparse distribution and low growth habit—are caused by the extreme aridity of the region. Not enough rain falls to support two trees growing close together. As for their squat form, when trees are so far apart they don’t compete for sunlight, which is what would force them to grow tall. Besides, a compact form helps preserve moisture. Whenever one of these squat trees was close to the trail I walked over to it and stood under its canopy marveling at the graceful twists and turns of their branches. I thought that I would love to capture their beauty in oils. The difficulty, from the compositional point of view, is that they were closed from the outside. There was no line of vision that would expose their branching structure. Then, in late afternoon while exiting the park we wound down a steep road where I spotted the Live Oak in this painting. Because the road was below the tree and because the tree was at the edge of a cliff, I could see into the branches from below. The characteristic dried grasses and boulders added authenticity to the story. Finally, the sun was in an ideal position to light up the tree but keep the foreground in shadow. It was an ideal situation to show off the Interior Live Oak. The Interior Live Oak (Quercus Wislizenii) was named after a Physician Wislizenus who explored the Southwest in the late 1800s. It may be found in interior canyons, slopes and valleys in chaparral and foothill woodland up to 6000 ft. (1830 m) from Southern California to Baja California in Mexico, but always away from the coast.