on having a conversation with a tree

Felt quite stressed yesterday even though I’m on a break (of sorts): car troubles, finances, bills, the negative stuff that always surfaces to shatter one’s hope that things are beginning to look up for a change. So, I decided to take an hour out, in order to keep calm and carry on

Drawing of a tree (coppiced), in the woods – wax crayon, watercolour and watercolour pencil – in a sketchbook, about 9″ x 12″. I was surprised that this study took me about twenty minutes – I probably should have spent longer on it, but I can always return… I will need to if I want to discover what species of tree this is.

What is it about trees that is so fascinating to draw? Their gnarled trunks and writhing branches and limbs, the sinewy, spindly twigs, the downy covering of moss or the crust of lichen, the crags, crevices, ridges and striations in the texture of the bark – echo aspects of the human condition or form, and thus become imbued with some character – but with no deceit – genuine, pure, unrefined, resilient. It is often said that one should always draw just what one sees, not what (one thinks) one knows – that is, to translate through material marks the visual sensation or experience in the moment, and not try to reproduce a convincing reality, since reality is prone to being influenced by cultural factors – what is deemed as being (or looking) right or wrong.

Having a conversation with a tree is not so loopy as it at first sounds, if one interprets converse to mean an exchange (not necessarially in words or speech). Oddly, converse also means opposite. When one draws one hopes to break down or unpack (as we say in education) the complexity of the situation – the shapes and forms, in the perceived effects of light and shade – a largely neurological process. If I observe a tree as magnificent or beautiful then it becomes a projection (of my opinion, not a fact) and therefore not a clear perception. A tree presents itself as (or just is) interesting due to its pattern of growth in the location. The tree’s existence (or rather its appearance) then induces some contemplation and reflection in the viewer, and thus begins a type of conversation or discourse between the viewer and the subject.

This particular tree (which may be about 200 years old) continues to grow despite previous injury – it slowly grows new branches and limbs, as a means to later reproduce itself, securing the future or survival of its particular species. As I begin to observe and draw, it reveals its wounds, and its personal history – how the bark has cracked and splintered according to the growing conditions, of light and water, how its basal branches have grown, bent and leant according to the dappled light of the woods, and as with the other trees nearby, all following the path of the sun’s rays. The tree becomes food and shelter to assorted organisms. A tree that seems concerned only by its own survival is a temporary host to others. The others may in fact aid the tree’s dispersal of seeds. The light covering of moss on the bark softens its rough edges, it seems modestly camouflaged, and looks to be clothed for inclement weather. This tree is clearly different in form to the others, it has an individuality. I want to preserve that individuality and so the surrounding trees are only suggested with the lightest of marks in the sketch, but it seems important to retain some of the setting – such as a glimpse of greenery through the the criss-crossing of spindly growth in the middle-ground. The primary trunk of the tree is firmly-rooted within a frilly, soft skirt of curled brown leaves, broken twigs and compacted soil.

I chose not to (nor did I have time to on this occasion) record every nuance or intricacy of texture or surface as I was sat too far away to see sharply – so I focused on the three main branches and how they seemed to diverge, taking their separate paths to the sunlight. As I drew I realised that first few lines that I put down on paper were following quite truthfully the vertical path of growth, from the base of the main trunk up through the main branches, limbs and twigs and into the light – but then I ran out of a surface on which to draw (the paper). So, it was back down to the ground, and then extending the drawing outwards, beginning to set down the wider scene. Out came the wax crayons (acting as resist to the later watercolour) which being quite chunky, wanted to be dabbed, dotted and scrawled. I was fascinated by the vibrant green of the velvety moss and the dusting of algae, which, in a shaft of sunlight, looked almost chartreuse. I used some watercolour pencils to sharpen and define the tree and a little watercolour to flesh out and solidify it – but then my time was up – time to head off home.

There is a another (dual) aspect to observational drawing (for me) – which is, the challenge and the commitment. A challenge to unravel the complex truth in what you perceive, and a commitment to working through this with some form of material, concrete resolution, even if there is little time – in that what results on the paper is cohesive and sincere, sensitive to the subject matter, intelligently and thoughtfully rendered. It is not practical to spend hours on observational drawing due to other commitments – so I find myself always sketching quickly – and then I curse myself for forgetting some fixative, a particular colour of pencil (I take just the ones I think I will need), another (larger) sketchbook, or another brush that would better suit broad sweeps of colour or texture. Photography sometimes replaces the need to look long and hard at things in the way that drawing requires, so I made the decision that when I plan to go out sketching I will not take a camera.

Of course, drawing this tree didn’t solve any problems (except perhaps how to draw a tree better), but it was a much-needed breathing space. I spied the skip of a muntjac, saw a squirrel race up a tree, and some flustering pheasants squawked and scattered in a nearby clearing. Aside from the rumble of a passing tractor, I was also privileged to hear the myriad sounds of life in the woods… a hollow knocking (tap, tap, tap, and then silence, then tap, tap…), some low, long creaking…

N.b. Coppicing is a form of woodland management, but it also extends the life of a tree, providing more fuel (logs) over a longer period of time than if it was left to grow normally and then eventually felled. Thus, this tree has yet another (hidden) historical narrative…