Great Garden Sketchabout #22: Sketching Trees

April 2, 2011


2 April, 8.20am. 5×8″. Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Derwent graphite pencils; Staedtler watercolour pencils. My pre-Sketching Workshop effort, the Chorisia insignis I’ve sketched a few times already – this has some way to go and I’ll incorporate aspects of previous sketches. As a location sketch, this went straight into Pages 3 and 4 of my Garden sketchbook: I wanted the predominant greens to contrast with the previous and following spreads which are red dominant. I also want this Floss Silk tree to contrast with my planned Eucalyptus grandis further on. The tree is bigger than I intended, but it is supposed to be a portrait of the species, after all, and the main purpose of the sketch was the brilliant colour work in the Venezuelan undergrowth, which still astonishes every time I come upon it.

10am, 5×8″. Intermittent sunlight. Derwent graphite pencils; Staedtler watercolour pencils. This is one of three Aloe-type trees in the Succulents Garden. I was aiming for both tonal contrast and colour. The discussion among the students today turned to botanical illustration, which I will have to take more closer note of in future. The linocut exhibition featured some done in fine watercolour, but I’m now intrigued to see some done in coloured pencil.

1pm, 10×12″, Derwent graphite pencils.  A post-workshop afternoon capturing of a tree trunk by Farm Cove. We discussed tonal contrast in today’s workshop and I wanted to incorporate it with my current work on contour and developing a ‘slower’ line. I knew my scanner would not pick up many of the whispier lines, so the rework over the foundation is in 6B pencil. I’ve decided today not to pander to the new technology regarding this sketch and alter my way of working to fit it: I really like the subtlety of my graphite pencil work and see no reason why I should destroy it by “upgrading” it to pen-and-ink, markers and pens, just so I can put it up on the Net. Shuan Tan made a seminal point this week: find out who you are, and stick to it, differentiating yourself and your ‘story’ from others’. The re-work line starts at the trunk and goes all the way to the final twig – following the biological imperative. I find I’m achieving a balance between intense solo sketching and social interaction with other sketchers, which is helping me view art-making as more a social activity than I’ve been used to. These days, the approach and concept of a solo artist working in isolation is futile and useless; it’s all about a social context, a strong sense of community and teamwork. Of course, people coming together – virtually or in person – these days is a pretext for commercial deals (I’m selling my brand and you’re selling yours), but it has always been thus for artists. In the old days, artists as servants sold their wares to patrons; these days, the artists are walking salesman for the world.


This past week has been all about contemplating the sketching of trees, widening my range of greens (in all media) and future plans for sketching.

Seven out of the eight paintings hanging in my bedroom feature trees. My primary school teacher used to draw an elaborate eucalypt tree at the side of the blackboard before each day’s lessons: he came from timber-logging country and I think this was his daily meditation. I consulted my drawing textbooks on trees and discovered that no-one is giving away any studio secrets in a hurry. Making the line follow the natural growth of the tree is plain, as is maintaining both their special geometry and simplicity. I was surprised to see that most drawing textbooks concentrate on tree trunks rather than trees, but if one has the structure correct, I guess everything else follows naturally. My next step is to consider the work of Hans Heysen, Australia’s greatest painter of trees and given the pre-eminence of palm trees in Sydney, someone like Brett Whiteley. Palm trees seem a natural introduction to drawing trees.

Adrian Hill: Further steps in Drawing and Sketching. Strong tonal treatments; dark vegetation against light trunks (pp.6, 47, 71, 80, 95 – drawn with a brush) – these are all worth copying!

Doreen Roberts: Drawing Workshop, learn to draw with confidence. I’ve long been enamoured of the pen-and-wash palm leaves on p.71; pp.98-99 shows trees in four different media.

Ernest W. Watsopn: The Art of Pencil Drawing. Chapter 9. The main focus is on the trunk and foliage in the focal point; the rest of the foliage is knocked back in a busy ‘scribble’ in in a much lighter pencil. Everything is kept simple! Worth copying.

Albany Wiseman: The Artist’s Sketchbook. Page 90 is useful because it shows the foundation watercolour wash as well as the additional, finer brush treatment. Worth copying.

As for greens, warm and cool, I realise I have to do some more work on colour mixing in watercolour. I have bought a set of Prismacolor 48 pencils, so have ten ‘instant’ greens in that medium. That said, wandering around the Royal Botanic Gardens today in bursts of sunlight, I kept seeing the warm/cool green dichotomy of my two humble Staedtler watercolour pencils, reflecting both old growth and new as much as anything else. My Garden sketchbook, which is rapidly becoming less of a sketchbook and more of an artist’s book, will feature at least one or two drawings in Prismacolor pencils, because it has to represent my “blossoming” into colour away from my signature black-and-white.

More than twenty years ago I was working as a studio potter and living in poverty in the country; I subsequently moved to the city, earned money, bought a house. As one does. Before the move, I read the Painter’s Progress of Ian Simpson, the twelve chapters, one per art medium, for private study over a year. I was very taken with the method but had to set it aside. Years later, the book was sold off with my father’s effects and art books after he died. Ironically this week, Ian Simpson’s Practical Art School came once again into my possession and so, twenty-five years later, I’m again ready to undertake the private study course, perhaps a prelim to some formal study. I enjoyed my time at St George TAFE learning calligraphy over three years with Olivia Roberts and I have looked this week at the Sydney Gallery School, classes at the Art on King studios, Sydney Community College, as formal approaches to visual art practice. At the very least, I will gather up the scraps of the past and start developing a proper portfolio just so I know where my practice is up to in terms of its high points. Where there are gaps, either in content or in media, I can fill them.


2 Responses to “Great Garden Sketchabout #22: Sketching Trees”

  1. john Says:

    Trees can be so difficult to sketch if you are trying to make botanical references. I love the Aloe, Such an imperious character. And the sketch of the tree trunk by FArm Cove shows an amazing grasp of the intertwining branches.

    I often feel that a few strokes of a brush or pencil to catch the character of the tree are all that is needed in a landscape painting. It is the way I like to paint.

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