Comments About Shape

Cottonwood Tree Sketch Studies
As a landscape painter the artist is often confronted with trees to paint. The beginner will resort to attempting to make ‘leaves’ or to match local color of the tree, which, in my opinion, is a huge mistake.

An artist who rocks my world, Gregory Stocks, is an expert at making tree SYMBOLS with a few simple strokes layered atop each other to build an overall SHAPE that belies the species of tree.

So, there are two words that any painter must learn to bury into his or her consciousness. Shape. And Symbol. It isn’t the branches. It isn’t the leaves. It even isn’t the color. It is the overall silhouette that makes the statement. It is merely a symbol of a tree, not the accurate depiction that makes it interesting.

As for making a painting entertaining and fascinating to the viewer, shapes must be unpredictable. As for that characteristic, symmetry is the enemy of a good landscape painter. The temptation to make the trees symmetrical can lead a painter straight to the confines of never escaping novicedom.

My recent trip to Wyoming revealed a variety of tree of which I wasn’t familiar . . . .cottonwoods . . . .they grow there among the sagebrush. They are a stark, often lonely, bastion against the wind and are torn into disarray as a result of their refusal to submit. No doubt, early homesteaders planted them as windbreaks. Their shapes are stunningly irregular and do not indicate their name in the least bit.

I thought some studying of their shapes might reveal some unifying characteristic among the singular representatives . . . .but no . . . . .not a hint of similarity that I can see. Each one . . .even groups of them . . . .seem to entice my eye and hold my wonder.

These sketch book studies are some of the many I did this morning. I used a ‘wet erase’ pen, whose purpose is for overhead projection (drawing or writing on acetate), then I wet the line with water. Interestingly, the black separates into variations of grayed orange and blue. (This pen was courtesy of Myrna Wacknov, an incredible watercolor portrait artist).

I’ll be doing some more studies of these trees . . .and may see what a few other artists are doing with them. Much to learn in so little time !!

8 thoughts on “Comments About Shape”

  1. Could not have stated it better. I have been thinking a lot about the same thing. Trees and breaking it down to the basics. The silhouette is the most important, but I also find that the number, size and type of sky holes in a tree have a lot to say.
    Here we have trees with small leaves and lots of sky holes. When I travel to the north east at this time of year the sky holes are few and far between.

    Scott Christensen paints a lot of those cottonwoods.

  2. Yup! The holes make a difference alright.

    I have been doing a lot of looking at Scott’s web site these last few weeks . . . .only to learn that he lives 20 miles from where we were!! No wonder he paints a lot of cottonwoods. I would have loved to have ‘dropped in’ to see him and his work . . .but alas!

  3. Thank you for these tips, I always have trouble painting trees and sometimes I avoid painting them altogether, but I will try your tips next time I do plein air.

  4. Hey Ambara!! Good to hear from you! What is described here really is THE trick to painting trees . . . . . and a lot of other stuff. If you have a great profile, you can pretty much do what ever you want to the inside of it. Most of the A R T work is in the shape.

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