Eye and Hand
Root and Branch
By Tamia Nelson
December 4, 2012
I was still in grade school when the urge to draw became all but irresistible. In part, art class offered a welcome refuge from the demands of arithmetic and grammar, but there was a social dimension, too. I wasn't the only would‑be artist in the class, and we all gathered at one table to swap tips and critique one another's work. Each of us had a favorite subject, and my friend Kate's was trees. Trees in winter, to be exact. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and under her patient tutelage I was soon capturing images of the trees around me, always working, as she did, from the ground up and from the trunk out.
My lessons continued when I spent weekends at her parents' house. The dirt road that ran past the old clapboard farmhouse was framed on both sides by sugar maples, and Kate and I sat on her front porch, doing our best to reproduce what we saw before us. I learned about a lot more than the best ways to smear graphite on paper during those weekends. In fact, they were my …
Introduction to the Life of (and in) Trees
Of course, I didn't neglect the business of making lines on paper. Trees are wonderful subjects for budding artists. They don't fidget, they never complain that you haven't done them justice, and they offer endless variety. Even a single tree — and Kate and I spent many hours studying (and drawing) a particularly striking maple — is never the same from one day to the next. Its appearance alters with the seasons, but that's just the start. A living entity in its own right, a tree is also a source of food and a place of shelter for an entire community of wild things, both furred and feathered. As Kate and I sat, patiently sketching, woodpeckers and sapsuckers probed the maple's bark for insects with a patience that matched our own, while restless squirrels chased each other in endless spirals around its trunk, and jaunty jays raised their broods in nests nestled among the branches. Taken all in all, that maple was a living kaleidoscope, presenting an ever‑changing roster of scenes and subjects. It was also a nurturing foster parent to countless two‑ and four‑legged creatures.
You could say that the maple nurtured two young artists, as well. I've no idea what happened to Kate — we lost touch many years ago — but I've never forgotten the lessons I learned on her front porch. And I've never lost the joy I feel when in the company of trees.
Chances are that you feel the same way. (If you didn't, you wouldn't still be reading.) Yet you probably wish you knew more about the trees you meet in your travels. Me, too. However much I've learned in half a century spent knocking about the backcountry, I always know that my education has only just begun. Luckily, there's no better way to awaken latent perceptions and make connections with the living landscape than by sketching. Something magic happens in the process of forging a link between eye and hand. You start out simply seeing. You end up observing.
Skeptical? Then put my assertion to the test. Just get pencil and paper and go …
Sketch a Tree
Choose any tree that interests you. Sketch it from life or from a photo. Broadleaf or conifer? That's up to you. Winter is a good time to get acquainted with deciduous trees, of course. Having lost their leaves, they now stand naked before the artist, revealing the intricate tracery of branch and twig in all its infinite detail. But the choice of subject is yours and yours alone. Then, once you've chosen, begin by penciling in a light sketch of the main forms. After that, it's time to introduce gradations of shade and shadow to give depth and weight to your hitherto insubstantial outline. You should still use a light touch, though. It's always easier to add than it is to subtract. And don't feel you have to strive for scientific accuracy, at least at first. Do take the trouble to get the proportions right, however.
Here's a sketch I made of a favorite maple:
I used a very soft (No. 1) lead, varying the density and thickness of my lines to grow the tree across the page. The result is a pretty fair representation of my subject, if I say so myself, though I should have added something to indicate the scale. The trunk is so big that three people would be hard pressed to join their hands around it, and many of the branches are thicker than a man's torso. A smaller tree — an ash, as it happens — has actually taken root in the accumulated detritus in the maple's main crotch, but I left it out of my sketch. The little ash is dwarfed by its massive host. The sketch also fails to do justice to the maple's gnarled and fissured bark, with its many plaques of variegated lichens.
I've often photographed this maple, but I've never been happy with the result. What I see on the screen just isn't what I see when I look at the tree. In this sense, my crude sketch is a more faithful representation. While it lacks photographic accuracy, it achieves a higher degree of subjective verisimilitude. In short, it simply feels right.
Which doesn't mean that I haven't also tried to capture the maple's finer features. I began as before, with a lightly sketched outline, using shading and hachures to suggest the texture of bark and limb:
This time I was able to include the ash sapling that's taken root in the maple's crotch. But I still wasn't satisfied. The picture needed scale, so I drew in a gray squirrel who calls the tree home. You see my final pencil sketch on the left, below, with a pen‑and‑ink counterpart on its right (minus the squirrel, who had better things to do than pose for another portrait).
Now here's a photo of the maple for comparison:
While my impromptu pencil sketch certainly isn't a photographic likeness, I'm quite happy with it. Deliberating over the placement of every line and shadow has given me a much deeper understanding of the tree's physiognomy than snapping a shutter ever could. And what is the crux of that understanding? Simply that …
Trees Are Beings of Many Parts
What do I mean by this? Well, when we say that someone is a "man of many parts," it's a great compliment, suggesting that he can do many things, and do all of them well. In the case of a tree, however, my use of the phrase is merely descriptive — though trees are certainly beings of many parts in the other sense, too. Yet this leaves another question unanswered: Are trees "beings"? That word is usually reserved for sentient life forms, but then our idea of sentience is necessarily parochial. Any living thing whose roots (sorry) go back many hundreds of millions of years and which measures its allotted span in centuries, rather than decades, is bound to "see" things differently than we do. Trees' sentience — their ways of perceiving and interpreting their environment, not to mention the means by which they communicate their perceptions to others — will be very different from our own. And it's not likely that we share any common language. So I'll stick with "beings."
Back to the subject at hand. A tree is a being of many parts. If you find the prospect of tackling a whole tree intimidating, therefore, begin by sketching just a few of its component elements, instead. (That's what I ended up doing with human beings, by the way. I drew hands until I could do them in my sleep.) Seeds and fruit make good subjects for your pencil. And here are four examples to choose from:
Starting at top left and moving clockwise, we have the fruits of a cottonwood (which yield tiny seeds when mature), the samaras of a red maple, stunted acorns from a northern red oak, and a scattering of beechnuts. Now pick one and sketch it. Satisfied with your work? Then shift your gaze. Study a tree's buds or individual leaves, and try your hand here, too. By way of example, this is a quick sketch I made of a quaking aspen twig, showing both buds and leaves:
Never be afraid to simplify. In executing this sketch, I left out many of the leaves in order to focus attention on the buds' shapes and the fine detail of the bark. And that's another subject for close study. Texture (smooth, rough, papery) and growth pattern establish the bark's theme, so to speak, while things like lenticels (pores, often elongated) and branch and leaf scars add grace notes. Four examples are shown in the photo panel below:
Once again, let's move clockwise from the upper left. Quaking aspen (note the transition from mottled to striated bark); paired gray birches, with their distinctive triangular scars; a deeply furrowed black locust (once much sought after for fence posts); and yellow birch, displaying its characteristic papery curls and prominent lenticels.
And then there are the branches. Do they grow opposite each other, or do they alternate? Here are two contrasting examples, sketched with a felt‑tip pen:
The originals can be seen below, a leafless maple on the left and an equally bereft beech to its right.
Of course, leaves are the things that most people notice about trees. Many casual woodswanderers rely on them almost entirely when trying to identify species. And would‑be artists can learn valuable lessons about proportion and shape simply by tracing leaves they pick up from the forest floor. The veins can be filled in later, and while you're at it, compare the leaf's venation with the branching mode of the parent tree, either alternate or opposite. (Hint: They aren't always the same.)
Then again, not every tree drops its leaves in fall, though the "evergreen" conifers do, in fact, shed their needles, but — with the exception of the tamarack — not all at once. I've already written at some length about the balsam fir, and I won't repeat myself here. Instead, I'll just offer up some photos of other representative Canoe Country conifers, including (from left to right), the cones of eastern hemlock and northern white cedar (the latter still green), the trunk of a young white pine, and the slim spires of black spruce, rising from a small island in an Adirondack bog.
The leaves (needles) of conifers exhibit almost as much variation as those of broad‑leaved deciduous trees. Some spray out in clusters from a single point, while others join serried ranks of near‑identical individuals along a stem. The photos below illustrate the leaves of some common species, beginning with the short needles of the eastern hemlock in the upper left, and continuing clockwise with new growth in red spruce, the needle clusters of jack and white pines, and (lastly) the long, paired needles of a red pine.
And while you're looking at the needles, don't neglect the cones that give the conifers their name. They're beautiful objects as well as vital sources of food for birds and mammals alike, and they, too, make good subjects for any paddler with an artistic bent.
I'm sure you can now see what I meant when I said that trees were beings of many parts. And that's one of the best ways to tackle the job of sketching them, mastering one element at a time, progressing from seed and bud to leaf and bark, and from there to branch and trunk. After all, great oaks from little acorns grow. Why shouldn't budding artists grow the same way?
There is, however, another approach. I began this column by taking a whole tree as my subject. My interest lay in its form, rather than the fine detail of bud and leaf. Let's repeat the experiment. Consider this white pine, silhouetted against the sky:
I concentrated on its outline alone, capturing the form and ignoring everything else. It's not a new idea. Silhouette portraits (also known as "profiles") of eminent gents and fashionable ladies were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the technique works equally well when the subject is a tree. Is this cheating? I don't think so. In the final analysis, how you choose to make your sketches is less important than the result. Progress systematically from bud to branch if you want, or take the whole tree as your subject from the start. Either way, you're bound to find that the trees which greet you when you travel through the backcountry are no longer just part of a faceless crowd. You'll be on first‑name terms with them now. And that's what matters, isn't it?
Trees were important in my education as an artist, to be sure, but they played a far greater role in my education as a human being. Trees taught me to see myself as part of the larger community of living things, and I got to know them as individuals as I struggled to capture their likenesses. Root and branch, in ways both large and small, they forever altered how I experienced my world — and forever changed my understanding of my own place in it.
Did the art come first, teaching me what to emphasize and what to ignore? Or was my artist's eye informed by the time I spent in the company of trees, both living and dead? I can't say. And it really doesn't matter. Henry van Dyke, the writer, teacher, and clergyman who first came to my attention when I read his Little Rivers, once wrote that "there is a good deal to be said in behalf of tree‑worship." While that might be going a bit far, and I doubt that van Dyke intended his words to be taken literally — he was, after all, a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, who composed hymns in his spare time — I'm pretty sure I know what he meant.
Not long ago, I wrote what I thought would be the last article in my "Eye and Hand" series. but I was wrong. The series continues to attract readers, and those readers have asked for more. So I'm going back to my drawing board. Look for further articles in the months to come.
And in the meantime, if you have any sketches or paintings that you'd like to share, photograph them and send the shots along to me. I'd love to see what you've been doing, and so would your fellow paddlers.
Related articles from In the Same Boat
- "Eye and Hand," a topical collection of columns from In the Same Boat
- "Shape and Shadow — the Art of Sketching (My first article on the subject, this came before the "Eye and Hand" series.)
- "In the Company of Trees"
- "The Lively World of Dead Trees"
- "The Noble Beech"
- "Balsam: The Fragrant Fir"
- "The Hardy Tamarack — The Evergreen That Isn't"
And some from my own website, too:
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