Old Oak Tree: #1

My goal tonight was to try a composition I haven’t tried before. I have been looking through paintings by Eyvind Earle, and saw several compositions of his that struck me as interesting. I realized that they all were very much singular in their scope. Even his most complex compositions are still all about one thing. So I decided to paint a gnarly old Oak Tree, with the goal of making it the only thing in the painting.

Normally I would shy away from a painting with the subject dead smack in the middle of the painting, but in this case the subject is the only thing in the painting, and there isn’t that much negative space around it. I also wanted to convey the feeling of a child looking up at a tree, and in my memories, I always looked up into the tree branches while standing directly under it. So, I choose to place the subject right in the middle of the painting.

But with the subject right in the middle, I needed to find a way to make it more interesting. So, I decided to have the branches on the left sweep downward, and the branches on the right sweeping upward. I like the way this accepts the fact that the tree cuts the painting in half, and does something with it. It still feels like a single painting, but the direction of the lines on each side conveys a story to me of the life of the tree, the branches on the left drew downward probably in a heavy snow, and the branches on the right grew upward reaching for light on that side. I didn’t want this to be too obvious, so I added several branches in more horizontal arrangements as well, thinking this would tie the two sides together, that worked out quite well.

First I sketched out the tree. I had already made those decisions about the composition, so the challenge here was making this look like a single object, while still keeping the branches pointing down on the left and up on the right. The horizontal branches seemed to take care of that for me. I also added some lines to suggest bark. These weren’t lines that I was going to follow rigidly when it came time to paint, I just wanted to remind myself of the direction the tree would have grown, so I could follow that with some shadows.

I then laid in the background wash. I wanted this to be a very flat wash, because the subject took up so much of the composition, I didn’t want too much going on in the background.

I also wanted this to be blue at the top, facing to green, and then neutral/dark at the bottom. So I started by painting a line of Quin Gold in the middle, making sure to have a substantial bead of water at the bottom, so I wouldn’t get a hard line there. Then, I painted UM Blue into the top, and used the bead of water to pull the blue down into the yellow, where they mixed to green. I then mixed the two colors on my palette, and used that to pull the stripe off quin gold down the page. Finally, I added some red to the green to neutralize it, and painted a few strips at the bottom.

This is what it looked like when I was finished with the wash. In order to maintain a very even, flat wash, I used the largest brush I had, and tried to paint without lifting my brush – this is where those squirrel brushes come in handy – they hold so much water that I could paint the whole sky with one dip into pigment. Also, I stopped the blue right as it touched the yellow, because I work at an angle, and I knew the blue would flow down into the yellow.

Once the wash dried, I painted some leaves. I was probably a little more meticulous than I needed to be here – I wanted to spray it all to get some soft edges, but I was worried the leaves would encroach in the branches too much, so I left it alone for the most part.

I continued painting leaves and this branches all the way down in the negative space between the branches. In an attempt to aid in the perspective, the leaves at the bottom are large, and clearly defined, while the leaves at the top are less distinguishable, and much smaller.

Once that was totally dry, I painted the tree trunk. I wanted to do this in two applications, a mid tone, and shadow tones. This application was supposed to be the midtown, but I got too dark.

I then added some lines to suggest cracks in the bark. I worry that I over did it here, and I wanted to play with lifting color, so I went back and lifted to reinforce the gesture of the limbs.

I really liked the way this turned out in the branches, so I went a bit nuts towards the base of the tree. I thoughts adding a lot of cracks would make it feel more accurate near the bottom – but then I realized two things: 1) the cracks closest to the viewer should be larger just as a rule of perspective, just like waves in water. 2) The base of the tree looks like Freddie Kruger… so I lifted most of those lines completely away.

With the lines near the bottom cleaned off, I realized I still needed some shadows at the bottom in order to bring it forward. So I mixed some more purpley shadow colors, and used them at the base.

I also wanted a shadow to come across the trunk near the top. I saw the branch on the left as an opportunity to get such a shadow, and there was a neat little hump in the trunk there that I thought would help in giving shapes to the tree.

And – well, that’s it.

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