I’m often asked why I’ve chosen to draw trees and the honest answer is that I really don’t know, I just found myself doing it and now I can’t stop.
It’s a subject that has so many layers of historic, cultural and symbolic meaning and such visual variety that I know I’ll never get bored. In a way, having that constraint on my choice of subject has made me feel more free to experiment with materials and forms of expression.
However, it’s also true to say that there are many things that have influenced my artistic journey to this point and, since it’s Father’s Day, I’ll give the credit to my dad.
Introducing Tony Lee – Woodturner, who died in 2007 but still keeps an eye on me in my studio. He’s pictured here in his own workshop, surrounded by the tools of his trade and looking justifiably pleased with himself, having created his own business in the dark times of the mid eighties. His first workshop was the garden shed where he taught me to turn on the lathe, cut a mortise and sand to a silky finish. I also learned about the quirks and qualities of wood as a material – how it continues to move long after it’s been cut.
I have some of his calipers in my studio now (you can see them to the left of him in the picture).
So you could say that trees have been a theme in family life as I grew up and going back a further generation this was also the case.
My grandparents lived in Worksop Nottinghamshire, close to Sherwood Forest and the Welbeck, Rufford and Clumber estates, otherwise known as ‘The Dukeries’. We spent many a happy Sunday travelling the countryside in their Hillman Imp and the highlight of a trip would be a visit to this monster:
Here’s a picture of us in authentic 1970s garb to give you a sense of scale – I’m quite glad that this old picture is grainy, so you can’t see my haircut!
The Major Oak is the most famous tree in Sherwood and possibly one of the most famous in the UK. When I was a child you could clamber all over it and my sister and I used to hide right inside its belly. These are much more recent photos I took when visiting early this year:
Of course it’s now surrounded by a fence and is extensively supported by large props. It brings to mind a zoo animal, somewhat constrained but conserved and protected at least.
How could you fail to be impressed by this ancient tree?
I don't really know where my inspiration comes from, I just hope it never stops.
I've been developing my charcoal drawing techniques for around four years now - it's such a versatile material there's still much more to discover. Many of my favourite drawings from my early days at art school are charcoal ones. I have fond memories of the first time I was encouraged to tape a piece to a stick and draw BIG!! I thought my tutor was mad at first but it turns out to have been a valuable lesson and I often draw with a stick now. People I teach now think I'm mad I suppose.
My discovery of charcoal powder was quite a revelation - I'd tried to make my own, having some success with homemade bonfire remains, but I now use Cretacolor powder which has an even particle size and consistent tone. It's perfect for large drawings, behaves almost like paint in that it can be moved around on the paper, can be combined with binders and water for liquid effects and best of all, I can apply it with my hands, thus getting messy which makes me happy.
I also use regular willow charcoal of various sizes. I've tried hard to like compressed charcoal since it allows a really deep black to be achieved, but I cannot get on with it, it's somehow far too waxy and stubborn. I'm currently experimenting with charcoal soaked in or mixed with linseed oil - it seems to give a lovely blackness which adheres to the paper quite well. Because of this I've been able to use it out in the field without the usual worries about smudging. Here's one I made earlier:
I think there's something poetic about depicting wood with its carbonised self.
The countryside is full of trees, so are the cities for that matter. So how do I decide which ones to draw? It's a question I'm often asked when talking to people about my work, so here's an insight into my decision making.
I think there are a number factors which have influenced my selection process:
- I love looking at maps - OS maps, historical maps, schematic maps, any kind. I've always enjoyed this as an activity not just a means to an end. I love the challenge of interpreting this 2 dimensional information to create an understanding of the 3 dimensional landscape. My Geography A level hasn't gone to waste!
- Google earth and other online aerial imaging has made it possible to do extensive research of potential sites without using any petrol or getting cold and wet.
- The joy of discovery is important to my emotional connection with the tree - if it's taken some effort to find it, access it and draw it, it's somehow more intense as an image. If it's signposted from the road, with a path beside it and toilets nearby it's just no fun. It's probably no coincidence that I love hunting for edible fungi and am very loathe to give up until I've found some on every trip.
- I'm really happy being outside, in the woods, in the wind, on my own
- When studying at art college, life drawing was the most challenging and rewarding task for me and I seem to be fascinated by trees that echo human forms.
- Youth, perfection and prettiness doesn't appeal - I find character, age and damage much more interesting. I think it tells us far more about ourselves.
I'm currently in a 'research and exploration' phase in my artwork so have up to date examples of this part of the process which I'll put in a second post, but it usually follows a similar path:
- I'll begin my poring over the maps, zooming around on Google earth and searching for areas of deciduous woodland, parkland or hedgerow.
- The Ancient Tree Hunt's interactive map is an invaluable resource which brings together many layers of information in one easily browseable form. What a fantastic example of passionate volunteers making a real difference.
- The National Library of Scotland's georeferenced maps are another way to check back through time to see how the land use has changed and identify potentially old trees.
- Gathering local knowledge is very important and I've met some lovely people this way - I always have maps around at my exhibitions and open studios events and ask people if they have any recommendations for me. So many people love trees and are happy to share their knowledge.
- Then comes the driving and walking bit - ideally I get to sit in the passenger seat and scout for sites, occasionally yelling "oooh stop!" then jumping out with my camera while my husband waits patiently. Walking is much more relaxing and reaches the parts that other transport can't.
- Once a good site has been identified, I'll plan a proper field trip and spend a good deal of time exploring the area and getting to know its trees. Then the real work begins...
I was so pleased with myself when I worked out how to do this!
I have a map of the old fashioned paper variety on my studio wall but I wanted to find a way to make digital version to share so, thanks to Google Maps and various generous online forum contributors, here it is for you to browse.