Magnificent Trees

At this time of year, with no cloak of greenery, I’m drawn to old trees, grown in the open with limbs spreading out fully in the sun; magnificent giants that stand out from the crowd. I bet you know a few. I love seeing the bare bone structure of massive limbs and trunks, of cavities and broken branches. This sycamore is among my favorites. It grows in a park near the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers in New York and has witnessed the growth and passing of woods and farms and factories. Sometimes an eagle perches high in its branches—a magnificent throne, fit for a king.

Tips and Techniques– Big trees are typically so large and complex that you might want to tackle a section rather than attempt the whole tree. Especially when working in a smaller sketchbook, trying to get the entire tree on the page can end up making it seem small and less impactful. Use the negative spaces between branches to your advantage when figuring out the structure. Those shapes are a significant part of the composition as well, so look for a vantage point that presents interesting shapes at the outset.

Coming up: The final session of my Drawn to Nature series on 12/8 will focus on capturing a sense of place with a grid format; details and registration here. Registration is also open for Sketching through the Winter: Watercolor Series which begins in January. Watch for free online programs in December at Winslow Art Center. I’ll be offering Back to the Drawing Board on 12/17. Details to come.

23 Comments on “Magnificent Trees

  1. Thanks for the tips! I love the beauty and structure of winter trees, too. We have many majestic cottonwoods and I get lost in the many branches. My other struggle is the tiny twigs, that from the distance seem to provide an overall shape of the tree crown, lighter and bits of sky poking through. .
    I love the way you handled a few twigs and picking the most interesting large branch shapes.

    • I have a small rigger brush that I like for the small twig branches. I didn’t include them all, but enough to suggest without overdoing it. We have some huge cottonwoods nearby, but they’ve mostly grown up with woods around them so they are straight and tall, with few spreading until high up.

  2. That sycamore GLOWS! Such a magnificent job, Jean. The bark is so realistic, and perfectly reflects the sun on an almost winter day. But green leaves still hanging!? The color and blue sky really brings energy to the entire composition. Excellent tips on how not to tackle the entire elephant on one sheet of paper. Admiring this post brought a welcome break from my nest drawing. Thanks!
    Did you paint the sky first or add the color to all that wonderful negative space?

    • Thanks Barb- I was fortunate to have a good sunny day and strong shadows for this. And yes, those green leaves were still hanging on at the base, which was a nice pop of color for November. I painting the negative spaces of the sky first, then the bark, then the shadows. I’m on to a goldfinch nest painting now– a nice find in our neighbors field. Good luck with your nest!

      • Thanks for sharing your approach to the sycamore painting! Oh wow, and now you have a goldfinch nest to draw! I can’t wait! I’ve completed my cactus wren football nest …… whew! It’s on my blog now, and I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. Thanks for the encouragement, Jean!

  3. This is a great tip — to just focus on a section! I love the view you’ve shown, looking up the trunk. There is a large, old tree with a bumpy trunk that I really love at my son’s university, and I am now inspired to paint it on a card for my son when he graduates next year – with the quote “Be like a tree. Stay grounded. Connect with your roots. Turn over a new leaf. Bend before your break. Enjoy your unique natural beauty. Keep growing.” Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. This is an interesting sketch, Jean, with great perspective and color. I like the handful of leaves still hanging on. The watery blue sky is handled so well. Sycamores were always a big draw for me in the city (NY). How cool that you’ve seen an eagle perched up there!

  5. I love this, Jean! At first glance I thought it was a photograph. I really zoomed in to see the processes in this creation. Thanks for your conversation with Barb M — great hints and tricks! Very inspiring. I love trees.

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