20" x 24"
I was skiing along a trail in Gatineau Park, Quebec, when I passed a profusion of White Birch trees. My first thought was how perfectly this little scene explained the place of the these trees in nature. The White Birch (Betula papyrifera) is among the first trees to colonize an area of forest that has been burned out or logged. They are able to seed and grow more quickly than other species but they are not very shade tolerant. The second generation of birches cannot grow in the shade of their parents or of any other trees for that matter. The outcome of these two characteristics is that they function as a kind of nurse tree for the more permanent trees that eventually dominate the forest.
The complexity and disorderliness in the scene perfectly expresses the haste and transience of the birches. Some of them have already fallen. In the background Hemlocks (Tsuga Canadensis) can thrive in the light shade created by the birches. Other trees that can tolerate shade like Balsam Firs (Abies balsamea) will join the Hemlocks in a mixed forest. On the right side in the foreground is a little Balsam Fir waiting to join the more permanent members of the future forest.
From the artistic point of view overlaying birches on top of hemlock produces a striking contrast. Hemlocks create the darkest shadows of all the conifers and birch bark is the whitest. Another feature of this little landscape that makes it irresistible for painting is its wide color range. The newest stems of White Birches are almost black. They turn reddish brown with age and finally, after several layers of reddish brown bark peel off, they become brilliant white. All of these colors are reflected in the white surfaces of the snow and birch trunks.
White surfaces are tricky for a knife painter. It’s easy to paint dark trunks of trees. I can begin with a layer of various shades of brown or ochre, colors which tend to be viscous and dry more quickly than other colors. Then I can run my knife over the top of this first coat of paint with lighter weight paints to create highlights, mosses, reflections and so on. This technique, called “scumbling”, doesn’t work very well on subjects that have pure white surfaces such as birch bark, because, for these surfaces I must use Titanium or Zinc white, both of which are much lighter than the brown colors in consistency. To accomplish the textured and multi-colored bark and snow I have to wait a day or two until the white sets up. Alternatively I must use a very, very gentle touch. To get an idea of the problem, try spreading peanut butter on top of jam. In the bad old days I could use the Cremnitz white, which was very viscous, heavy and quick drying, but because it is made of toxic lead carbonate few artists use it anymore.
White Birches are a quintessentially northern tree. Their distribution looks like the map of Canada and Alaska with little dips into the continuous U.S. This profusion of birches lives in Gatineau Park, near Ottawa the capital city of Canada.