Yesterday Charlotte Hussey wrote, “I’m not a painter, but a poet. I’m writing more and more about nature. I’ve just returned from the woods near the Vermont border where I was working on a sequence of poems for a tree alphabet. Do you have any tips for working in nature? With trees in particular? I’m doing drawings of the trees I’ve identified, just to feel them better and to get away from always having to rely on words. I think drawing them makes me take their shapes into my body more and helps me feel them more deeply.”
Thanks, Charlotte. The painter Peter Ewart used to say, “To be alone with nature is to be one with nature.” I find it valuable, in solitude, to anthropomorphize natural objects, including trees. This means to attribute human characteristics to them. Trees of different species, for example, droop in sadness, empathize with one another, pray to the sky, take joy in the wind. Some trees reach out, others are smug or private, still others are exuberant or voluptuous. Understanding trees is a vocation in itself and your twin approaches of both sketching and writing is a good way to find their potential.
A painter or a poet would do well to look at what Vincent Van Gogh had to say about trees: “They are constantly occupying my thoughts,” he wrote in 1889. Van Gogh’s cypresses, for example, twist, curl, and sinuously flicker like candles in the Mistral — the northerly wind of southern France. Like an upside-down explanation point, they punctuate. “As beautiful in line as an Egyptian obelisk,” wrote Vincent, “A splash of black in the sunny landscape.” Anyone who has ever painted in Provence knows the value of the cypress as a compositional ploy. Vincent’s olive trees, on the other hand, are angular and anguished, as if hurled to the ground like so many jacks.
More than anything trees are metaphors. Firmly rooted, genuinely patient and content, willing to undergo insult and humiliation, they also open themselves to all manner of creatures and make a home for many. These oldest of living beings have nobility in every leaf. They bring warmth to the northern cabin, and shade to the southern traveler. Daily, they do the breathing for our increasingly fragile planet. If they were to disappear, we would soon be dead. To honour trees is to grasp life.
PS: “I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
Esoterica: How to Draw Trees by Frederick J. Garner is just one of the many excellent references available. Also, field sketching with an identifying guide-book gives the joy of private discovery. The idea is to claim the anatomy and spirituality for yourself. Our eyes, when united with our hearts, make one terrific organ. It seems to me that Vincent had no guide but the trees themselves (and a profound admiration for Velasquez). That was enough.
The personality of trees
by Margaret Norwood, New Zealand
I’ve always thought that trees have personalities, and attitudes, just as people do. To me, some trees are friendly and wise looking, others wispy and unsure of themselves. While others are tall, stern and disapproving, others look dependable and strong. They all seem to possess characters, and their attributes make them one of my favorite subjects to sketch or paint. By capturing their emotions, you can create magnificent works of art.
Value in naming objects
by Mike Jorden, Langley, BC, Canada
Another powerful tool for entering more deeply into a subject like trees or landscape is naming. To know that a tree is a sycamore or a cypress gives it an identity, and to understand where it falls in the pantheon of trees might be helpful. To know that a watery meadow by the Thames is called a Meade makes it more interesting than just a swamp. To know that the Magna Carta was presented to King John at just such a meadow gives it historic significance and depth. I once spent two months wandering in Europe, open to experience and sketching, but missing much because I didn’t know the significance — the names, the history — of what I was seeing. There is no substitute for knowledge.
(RG note) Thanks Mike. A valuable site where you can click on the name of a tree and it will take you to illustrations, descriptions and the places in North America where the tree can be found is here.
Just experience trees
by Donna Pierce-Clark, North Hampton, OH, USA
Perhaps I could go into much psychological self-examination and ponder the inner workings of my reaction to trees. Though, I would rather to simply experience the trees as I paint them. Sometimes too much introspection takes away the simplistic and grand beauty of a tree. As with anything, just paint it and enjoy painting it. Or if writing, just let the words flow from out of your heart.
Mystic properties of trees
by Kevan Nitzberg, Rogers, MN, USA
Trees of all kinds have a variety of associated mythic properties in cultures around the globe, which illustrates how much human beings are shaped by their perception of the nature. That they have long evoked a wide range of responses: from embodiments of spirits or ethereal forces, to the extremely important roles played in ecological balance, and as a source of medicines. Artists have also depicted elements of the landscape in innumerable ways, endowing their work with personified interpretations of natural terrain.
(RG note) Thanks Kevan. For those who might be interested, Kevan Nitzberg has written an article on trees.
by Kichung Lizee, Butler, TN, USA
I am a Zen priest and I love your views on nature, trees and the woods that make up this planet. The following poem I read in a Zen Garden:
You see the woods at one tree
You feel the ocean in a handful of white sand
Feel the art of Nature
Power in drawing trees
by Gena Lacoste, Medicine Hat, AB, Canada
I’m a watercolorist, not a poet, but I really got “feeling the trees better” by drawing them. Aspens are my personal favorite; like flighty, spindly dancers. Even though I mostly concentrate on horses, a certain grove of trees, or an incredible face can also capture my imagination which makes me want to draw and paint them. When I witness sheer beauty, power, ruggedness, grace; I realize that those traits I desire for myself and I can somehow obtain it by painting the subject. It feels like worship, and definitely love, but I guess what that really answers is our desire to be “whole.” When my soul recognizes that power, or poignancy in something, it wants to incorporate it into my being.
Yearning for relationship
by Ava Shirley, Houston, TX, USA
As a new artist just learning about the world of art, everything seems fresh and new as I learn to look at the world in a new way. My lesson in class this week was about trees. Looking at these creations in a different light makes me appreciate the complexity of nature. Nooks, crannies and wrinkled texture of these magnificent growths planted on our earth to sustain our lives and the lives of the world’s inhabitants. Birds build their nest, while we destroy to build our lives. Kid swings, pretend forts, castles enter their world of imagination. Trees of all size, width and some that reach the sky that seem to never end. After my lesson, I will always look at them in a totally different way and as I turn my blank page, I yearn to develop my relationship with those mighty trees.
Trees as friends
by Pam Sharp, MS, USA
As a botanist, your tree essay was particularly relevant and beautifully done. I wonder, though, if Charlotte will ever be able to pick up the tree vibes if they haven’t entered her soul already. I grow orchids and play Mozart for them. I often take their leaves in my hands and stroke them. Soon, they respond with a glorious display of blossoms so beautiful I am awed and humbled. But you see, I’ve picked up their vibes and they are responding. Charlotte needs to look on her trees as friends, as companions, as life forces, as part of herself in the vast palette of nature. The poetry will only come then.
(RG note) Thanks Pam. Pam offers a free ebook online that aids in graphic design.
Use of less dominant hand
by Carole Mayne, San Diego, CA, USA
Shake things up. Get your art started in a new, fresh way by making slight differences to your process. For example, try using your non-dominant hand to map things out in the initial stages of creating your masterpiece. Even those with fine drawing abilities who might tend to get into the habit of ‘reporting the facts’ in their paintings soon can realize that by simply switching hands, you open a door to the wonders of your right brain, the non-judgmental, listening, loving child inside of yourself. You will get into the now and kick-start your experiences. I have broken through every barrier of negativity this way. Everyone who has tried this technique of writing and drawing with the ‘other’ hand has seen you can get into the flow of creativity to get all the answers you need. Many great artists said they wished to see or paint like a child, and this is a sure way to do it, to ultimately incorporate both hemispheres of the brain.
You might only need to begin for 5 minutes, till you feel the shift, which scientists have found lasts about 90 minutes. Even breathing out of the left nostril for 2-3 minutes accomplishes the similar awareness, calmness, and relaxation of the heart. When you’re safely ensconced in the ‘happy place’, return your brush or pencil to the other ‘other’ hand!
Thanks to authors Dr. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and the book The Power of your other Hand by Lucia Capacchione, for their vital contributions to my sanity over the last twenty years. The late Helen Van Wyk once said, “I switched to painting with my left hand to be in better company.”
Personality in seaside stones
by Brennie Brackett
Your words on painting trees echo the sentiments I’m experiencing with a new body of work on stones I have found by the seashore. The color, the shape, and the personality of each differ immensely and the still life paintings I am creating have a story of their own to share.
Burnt into her soul
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
I live in beautiful Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I don’t often paint from memory. This time, however, an after-image was “burnt” well into my soul by the pure delight of such color and grace. We witness trees in all their glory from infancy on and know them so well. Much like the human form, if you study a few trees very well it becomes easier to grow one in your mind. Enjoy the thrill of building its personality, bathing it in light, shadow, or peeking it through a fog. That’s creative license at an all-time high!
Dialogue with the natural world
by Jill Cantrill
I never tire of painting them and have hugged a few trees in my lifetime. Currently, I am reading a book that I thought fits into this topic and may be of interest to other landscape painters or nature lovers. Drawing Closer to Nature, Making Art in Dialogue with the Natural World by Peter London is just terrific. If you would like to range into the mystical field, you might try: The White Goddess by Robert Graves — he decoded a tree alphabet. Also The Real World of Fairies by Dora Van Gelder — she believes trees, as other sentient beings, have elementals that help them grow and be as they are.
Be a tree
by June Raabe, Ladysmith, BC, Canada
When I tried to help my children draw trees, I would constantly say, “Be a tree.” I would make them try and feel the roots out to the drip line, and the limbs reaching up. I don’t really think of this as anthropomorphism (an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics), but just one way artists and others can understand things around themselves. We have to get inside the thing, pay attention to its shape, its edges, its effect on the surrounding shapes. By becoming our subjects we gain a better understanding, and the ability to create better art.
Natural solutions in trees
by Pauline Conn, Taos, NM, USA
In the 1930s, Dr. Edwin Bach was the first to take the energy of flowers and trees and distill them into healing remedies. For example, the Pine remedy can, among other things, be used to help you feel that you are enough and to let go of being hard on yourself. According to my favorite source, The Flower Essence Repertory by Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz, the crab apple helps with self criticism and to clear energy from the body, and the elm creates the confidence and faith to complete one’s given task.
I recall completing teaching a workshop several years ago and feeling really depleted. Across the street was a cemetery filled with blooming crab apple trees. My co-teacher and I stood in the center of those trees and felt completely renewed and cleansed. We stood there and laughed at how wonderful it felt. Bless the trees and wild renewing places!
Searching for answers
by Barbara Reid
Your letter this morning brought me to tears. I feel very connected to trees and nature in general since I started painting just a few years ago. My background is in finance but I “retired” when my 12-year-old son Danny was diagnosed with cancer. While caring for him I took a painting classsomething I had always wanted to do. At first, I wasn’t sure about my subject matter and often copied “pretty pictures” from magazines.
After my son died, I became very introspective and contemplative. I spent a lot of time observing details in nature and finding comfort there. I studied, drew and photographed dragonflies, butterflies, birds and trees. I have trees that represent me or guide in my life; I find faces; they speak to me. I have several on the drawing board now.
My art is inextricably linked to my son and my search for what is real in the world. I write poetry, too, and would like to find a way to incorporate words into my art.
I AM the tree
I have the seasons
I take root
I seek sun and nourishment from my source
I bud and blossom
I smell sweet
I taste delicious
I am all of the colors
Then I tire
And wait to start again
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Lily Kerns who wrote, “All members of a tree species share a common style, but each individual tree dances to its own drummer. As an artist, I try to capture that music.”
And also Pam Sharp who wrote, “Reading your letters makes me feel that I have come home.”