Monday, January 28, 2013

The Haunting of Eucalyptus

For forty years now one of the guiding lights of my life has been the five years I spent as a youth in Australia. Perhaps not quite so obvious to those who have never been there, the flora of the land is as unusual and different as the fauna is to most of us who spend our days in North America. Many Californians are, to me, blessed with eucalyptus trees in their midst, but sadly my Boston climate won't sustain them (as I'm reminded on snowy days such as this one).

These trees evolved in an arid world, frequently ravaged by fire. Consequently, the trees developed defense and survival mechanisms that make looking at a hillside of them very different than looking at a hillside of pines or maples. Because of the mortal threat from burning underbrush, they exude an inhospitable chemical that hinders competition "underfoot". Their nuts are rock-hard, sending their seeds to the ground only after the heat of fire threatens the parent tree. For these reasons and more, when you look at a eucalyptus forest, you truly can see the "trees for the forest". Individuals can mark a ridgeline like so many whiskers, can speckle a distant hill like so many sentinels. A forest in Australia is really a sometimes motly and loose collection of very large specimens that seem to have gathered for some sort of sporting event. They are beautiful trees that command attention in all their varieties.

Over the years I've done many paintings of them since their biology fascinates me, and their shapes are alluring all these years later. Here are a few, some from a time when I was a little less skilled than now:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fields of Winter

In many holiday seasons I drive my family back and forth between New England and the Midwest - nearly 1,000 miles each way, much of it on the New York State Thruway. Navigating through and around the potential for bad weather, especially in the lee of Lake Erie, can often be a challenge. This year's trip outbound gave us sleet in the Berkshires (which did indeed look "dreamlike on account of that frosting", as James Taylor would put it) and then a blustery but dry snowfall between Albany and Buffalo.

One of the prettiest parts of this journey in winter is around the towns of Herkimer and Mohawk, right where one would exit for Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Erie Canal runs parallel to the highway here and the valley opens up to rolling hills gridded with evergreen forest and farmland to the north. With snow on the ground, and one eye on the road I can let my other eye memorize the high-contrast features of the land, and recall the wonderful snowscapes of Russell Chatham - one of my favorite contemporary landscape painters.

This year I've put in a little more than a week's work to try and capture something of the allure of this scenery for me. I used hastily snapped phone photos of that drive for reference, adapting freely.

 I started with pencil value sketches, combining features and altering them to end up with this 7"x10" sketch:

I then tried to move up to a half-sheet (15"x22") to see if I could capture the same sort of thing. Very similar at first glance. Some parts worked as well, others less so:

 The second close-up detail shows (to me) how I almost always stiffen up when I move up in scale, and how my free and loose style doesn't benefit from operating in fits and starts...

Later I tried another scene back at 7"x10" again. There is still lots to learn about making flat light on snow work!