Painting Trees: Seeing & Appreciating
When we breathe in, trees breathe out. They support the balance of life, processing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, and sequestering carbon in their very structure. Trees absorb pollutants to improve air quality, and (with the soils that support them) they intercept, filter, and absorb stormwater and improve water quality. Trees provide shade and are natural air conditioners. See this link for a fuller accounting of the benefits of trees.
In my Carry the Earth project, I convey my respect for trees, using my artistic talents to express a commitment to the natural environment. With the eye of an artist and the ecological focus of a landscape architect, I am producing a suite of paintings that looks closely at five tree species native to Southern California, where I live—coast live oak, western sycamore, California laurel, white alder, and Santa Cruz Island ironwood. I explore each species with three paintings—whole tree/grouping; trunk/bark; and twig/leaf. This telescoping of scale mimics how we might appreciate the environment, from big pattern picture to small intricate detail.
My paintings tend towards impressionist/expressionist views of what I experience, but they are all based on close observation. I largely focus on natural places, and I mostly paint outdoors on location. (The truth is that whenever I spend time in nature, I feel better. So plein air painting is a great excuse for spending time outdoors.) Painting demands close attention to the subject. When I paint, I look; when I look, I see; when I see, I comprehend; when I comprehend, I value. My hope is that these paintings will inspire viewers toward similar acts of seeing and appreciating.
Ultimately, we protect the things we value.
Notes about the paintings: This project is ongoing. At the time of this post, I’ve completed paintings of two of the five tree species. The photos below show paintings for white alder and Santa Cruz Island ironwood. As the project progresses, I will post images of all the paintings here.
White alder (Alnus rhombifolia): Painted in the bottom of Big Santa Anita Canyon (near Arcadia, CA), where the year-round creek provides the perfect habitat for this species, at least in Southern California. White alder likes abundant water and forms copses in canyon bottoms. The multiple trunks—tall and straight, with a smooth, sometimes peeling, creamy white bark—often seem to be in conversation with each other. A pattern of dark “eyes” marks where branches have dropped from the trunk. Leaves are a refreshing bright green with a distinct straight venation. Foliage turns tawny gold with cool weather, when leaves drop from the trees and carpet the forest floor.
Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius): Painted from trees in my garden (South Pasadena, CA). This species has a narrow range and is endemic to the Channel Islands, although it is used in gardens with a Mediterranean climate. The trees often have multiple trunks and can grow closely spaced in communities. The bark is visually striking, with long shreds of burgundy, deep brown, and silver bark. Bright, dark green leaves form interesting patterns, their narrow crenulated leaflets giving a lacy appearance. Leaf litter is especially beautiful—rich chestnut brown with gold and maroon tints form a crunchy carpet—and inspired the warm background tint of these paintings.