Anatomy of the Landscape: Trees in Plein Air Painting

Anatomy of the Landscape: Trees in Plein Air Painting

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Yesterday morning I had a wonderful conversation with Carolyn Anderson, the talented figure artist and workshop instructor from Montana who teaches at some of the top art schools around the country. I was fascinated by the amount of knowledge and insight she had on the visual language of art, the process associated with how our brains interpret information, and the science behind why things appear as they do.

Although she is not a plein air painting artist, Carolyn’s method of delving deeper into the science behind what we see is an approach that applies to every genre of painting, especially the landscape. Time and time again I hear artists emphasize the importance of understanding the underlying structure or anatomy of what you paint before you paint it, and for plein air painters this means taking the time to carefully observe and study nature—sometimes spending countless hours outdoors sketching the intricacies and variations of the landscape—and making a point to really take in and reflect on the beauty of creation.

For this reason, I would like to make Anatomy of the Landscape a regular part of the Plein Air blog and develop articles that help you better identify and understand what you’re painting. The first previously posted Anatomy of the Landscape article covered the five basic Cloud Formations, and in this article we’ll take a look at five Types of Trees, their general characteristics, and their typical appearance.

In his 1855 Letters on Landscape Painting, the legendary Hudson River School painter Asher B. Durand advised aspiring landscape painters to draw the individual pieces of the landscape for as long as it takes to understand them before painting them, advising them to:

“Take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity the outline or contour of such objects as you shall select, and, so far as your judgment goes, choose the most beautiful or characteristic of its kind. If your subject be a tree, observe particularly wherein it differs from those of other species; in the first place, the termination of its foliage, best seen when relieved on the sky, whether pointed or rounded, drooping or springing, upward, etc; next mark the character of its trunk and branches, the manner in which the latter shoot off from the parent stem, their direction, curves, and angles. Every kind of tree had its traits of individuality—some kinds assimilate, others differ widely—with careful attention, these peculiarities are easily learned, and so, in a greater or less degree, with all other objects. By this course you will also obtain the knowledge of that natural variety of form, so essential to protect you against frequent repetition and monotony. A moment’s reflection will convince you of the vital importance of drawing, and the continual demand for its exercise in the practice of outline, before you begin to paint. …”

So, grab your sketchbook, print out this guide, and go sketch the trees in your backyard, local park, or nearby forest. (And if they’re not drawn with “scrupulous fidelity,” we’ll keep that between you and I.)

FIVE TYPES OF TREES (Note: Within each tree type are numerous species, and the images shown are just an example of one)

OAK: The oak tree is a type of deciduous, broad-leaf tree that sheds its leaves during the fall and winter seasons and is found in numerous geographic locations throughout the world. Oak trees can live 200 years, and they produce acorns once a year during the fall. Physically, the oak tree’s branches shoot off at nearly a right angle, with many branches changing direction as they grow to avoid overcrowding. The Oak’s branches are extremely sturdy, can hold themselves well horizontally, and are more numerous than most other types of trees.

ELM: Elms are very large trees that often exceed 120 feet in height and about 40 or 50 feet in width. The limbs of the tree typically branch into one or two huge horizontal limbs to a distance of 30 or 40 feet from the trunk, and generally fork above into ascending branches. When bare of leaves in the winter, the tiny twigs on the topmost boughs appear almost as delicate lace-work silhouetted against the sky. The Elm exposes large surfaces, which result in the appearance of evenly displayed light, and the overlapping of foliage masses in the recesses of the tree’s structure creates its dense appearance.

POPLAR: Most poplar trees—including the Aspen—have rounded contours while others have a conical or—like the Willow—a triangular outline. The branches of these trees tend to shoot off from the trunk at very acute angels, with leaves hanging separately from long, rather flexible boughs that are produced at wide intervals (instead of being bunched in groups.) At the end of April or the beginning of May the Poplar produces little triangular leaflets on their characteristically long leaf-stalks in a beautiful variety of yellow and brown, while in the fall these leaves turn a bright clear yellow or green.

SYCAMORE: Sycamore trees are known for their incredibly dense foliage—that tends to be rather dull in color—and their smooth-barked cylindrical stem. These trees grow rapidly, with some Sycamores reaching their full growth of 50 to 60 feet in as little as 10 years. The braches of a Sycamore are stiff, and even in seasons of strong weather, the tree retains its symmetrical outline. The branches tend to lessen toward the top of the tree, which results in a rounded-crown look to the overall mass. A Sycamore’s typical lifespan is between 140 to 200 years.

CYPRESS: Seen most often in the United States on the jagged coastlines of Northern California, this evergreen conifer is known for its unique silhouette and for its branches that divide repeatedly to form flat, frondlike sprays of leaves. The Cypress has a short stem, and it seldom reaches beyond 50 or 60 feet in height. This tree in particular is known for its wood that is extremely durable, fine in grain, reddish brown in color, and pleasantly fragrant. The Cypress tree has a long life span, and the oldest known living Cypress is the historical and gigantic tree at Soma, in Lombardy, Italy, that is said to have been planted in the year Christ was born.

Watch the video: 2 COLOR CHALLENGE - Painting with James Gurney (August 2022).