It sounds idyllic – “I’m going out to the woods to draw today” and the truth is that it really is, it’s a very special thing to do. If I didn’t have those days alone with the trees there would be no art, since the place, the atmosphere, the wildlife, the weather all contribute to the eventual response I make on paper. The sound of the buzzards above, a deer looking startled as it almost bumps into me, a crow flying out of a hole in an old oak at eye level, a strong breeze making the dead wood creak over my head, the intermittent rustle of a toad hopping through the grass – all these form part of the experience for me.
However, drawing outdoors can have its little excitements and challenges too. There are the predictable things like rain and wind, cold and midges. And the bugs that insist on walking on my drawing and sometimes refuse to leave, sadly getting squashed as I roll it up. Nettles can make summer drawing unpleasant. High winds mean dangerous conditions underneath old trees and I’m cautious on those kind of days.
On my last outdoor drawing trip I encountered some very inquisitive cattle which threatened my carefully selected drawing spot. It seems quite funny to think of a grown woman escaping from cows, but they can do you some serious damage, especially if they have their calves to protect.
I’d set out to do a full 360 drawing of one of the hugely impressive Dalkeith oaks, which will be on show at ‘Time around trees’ at the Meffan Gallery soon. I’d come prepared with little tent peg flags to mark my eight viewpoints, a tarp to sit on, my board, and a three and a half metre scroll of my favourite Canson paper. This was going to take most of the day so I took my time deciding on views, thinking about the movement of the sun through the day and doing the initial sketches. Four drawings in and I was happy with my progress until I noticed the herd moving towards me. The calves were at the ‘bolshy teenager’ stage of their lives and clearly up for some mischief, so I rolled up the drawing carefully, packed my bag and climbed over the fence.
They had a good look round the tree and over at me, then settled in for some leisurely grazing, so I went for a walk and eventually tagged along with a group being given a tour by the woodland manager. After a pleasant break I returned to my now deserted tree and resumed the big drawing.
An hour or so later they were back to play, but this time moved much faster and more determinedly so I only had time to get the drawing and pencils to safety and had to leave the tarp and board.
You’re supposed to put your arms out wide and shout to keep them away but they weren’t having any of that – no amount of arm waving was going to put them off their fun. The youngsters had a great time tossing the tarp around and slobbering all over my board, while their mothers rubbed themselves against the tree and had a good sniff around. I realised from the other side of the fence that I was witnessing an age old scene of traditional wood pasture, and wondered how many woodsmen had been held up from their work by marauding cattle in the past!
I ended up hiding behind a holly until they got bored and moved on. Ok, I know it's hardly Olly Suzi and wild dogs, but my tent peg flags were soggy and trampled and my board and tarp unpleasantly slimy. Still, I was happy that my drawing remained intact and I managed to finish all eight views with the occasional glance over my shoulder to check I was alone. I took my longest ever drawing back to the studio, cleaned off the bug bodies and trimmed it ready for the Meffan show next month. I'm hoping to be able to hang it so it kind of envelops you as you view it - so I hope you can come and see it for yourself now you know its story.
So what’s so special about trees? And why is it always the old and gnarly ones I go on about?
It’s fairly obvious to anyone looking at my work that I have a deep and enduring interest in trees – the origins of which I’ve talked about in other posts. Over the last five years or so, my drawings have developed in parallel to my knowledge of and appreciation for trees, their history, ecology and our cultural links with them.
The more I read and understand about them as a subject, the better I feel that creative connection which is essential for me to make good work. There are some key books which have influenced me, but even better than reading is meeting real people sharing their expertise and passion.
So last week I went along to the Ancient Tree Forum's Highland Gathering in Perthshire to meet some proper tree people and hear talks and discussions on things ancient and arboreal. The morning session in Perth included talks on themes around wood pasture, parkland, tree recording and preservation, Atlantic hazel woods, along with perspectives from England and Scotland.
Our afternoon was spent literally in the field, meeting some of Scone Palace’s historic and impressive trees.
Donald Rodger (in the green coat), author of ‘Heritage Trees of Scotland’ introduced us to a massive sitka spruce.
Ted Green, ATF founder and president, speaking beside the James VI/I sycamore.
My favourite tree from the field visit was a huge copper beech. The strange contortions in its trunk are due to the copper beech tree being grafted onto common beech rootstock at an unusually high graft point.
So what did I learn? Loads more than I can write but here’s a start...
- Here in the UK we have ancient trees and landscapes of European and even global significance.
- They are really rare, very rich habitats which are only just beginning to be understood.
- Our ancient trees and treescapes have very little protection from destruction or damage – even relatively recent important buildings have much more protection.
- They are irreplaceable – planting new trees is not enough. They are complex ecosystems that have evolved over hundreds, quite possibly thousands of years.
- They are a living link to our past, representing a depth of history which can be hard for us short-lived humans to comprehend – for example the oaks I draw in Dalkeith Country Park are known to be at least 500 years old.
- Death and decay is a very important part of this ecosystem. An old tree with bracket fungus growing from it is not necessarily a sick or fragile tree – the fungus is recycling material that the tree no longer needs, making the nutrients available to the tree roots again.
- Hollow trees are especially important for the habitats they provide for all kinds of creatures, plants, fungi and lichens.
- There’s a growing movement of people – campaigners, scientists, ecologists, academics, arborists, historians and artists of course, who are raising awareness and appreciation of this amazing heritage that we have.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone...Tags:
Words probably won't add much here, but just to give a little context, this is an oak on the Dalkeith Country Park Estate, in a large area of ancient wood pasture which was once a deer hunting forest. The wood continues to be used for cattle grazing but is managed for conservation - this tree has broken in half very dramatically, but the dead wood will not be cleared away or otherwise tidied. Instead it will be allowed to slowly decompose and provide habitat for countless millions of other organisms as it does so. Not to mention also providing both shocking and endlessly beautiful subject matter for freezing artists in the winter months.Tags:
Back in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey today drawing this fallen beech:
It's unusual for me to have the opportunity to get close to the upper parts of a tree as big as this, since I'm not any kind of climber. It came down in the January storms of 2012 and the photo below was taken shortly after, while the torn trunk was still very fresh and smelling of sap.
I've been collecting as much visual information as I can while it's still in situ - it's possible that next time I visit it could be removed for safety reasons, though I'm hopeful that it will be left to sustain life as it rots.
Here's the very beginnings of a drawing made from photos taken of the tree when it was still standing, it's almost ready to leave the board now but I'm not quite ready to say "finished" yet.
Newbattle Abbey College has a long and interesting history and some of my very favourite trees.
It’s been a regular haunt for me since I moved to Scotland in 1994 and I returned today in search of some tree graffiti to get the ideas flowing around ‘Tree Stories’, a project in the pipeline which I hope to be involved in later this year. It’s being developed by Professor Ian D Rotherham at Sheffield Hallam University and aims to get the public engaged in a national hunt for marked and worked trees, recording them in photographs and trying to find out a bit more about their history.
This idea was immediately appealing to me, as I’ve been collecting images of carved and marked trees and incorporating these into my recent work.
Newbattle graffiti beech, charcoal on paper (plus detail)
It raises some interesting questions for me about where the line is drawn between vandalism and culture, damage and heritage. I’d like to find out more about how carving a living tree affects it – does it lead to stress, disease or weakness, or is the tree able to repair or isolate the damage? How much of the bark’s surface can be carved before it starts to cause serious problems for the tree?
This particular beech seems to have taken on a local significance as the place to ‘make your mark’. The oldest carving I could identify was dated 1955, but most were from the 1970s and 80s, with some much more recent.
It’s both shocking and impressive to see the whole surface of the tree marked like this – as if a large crowd had gathered by the river and started yelling their names.
I've never noticed this on my previous visits, but there are coins pressed into wounds in the bark like some sort of spontaneous offering. I've read about 'money trees' before but never seen one up close.
There are more 'Tree Stories' to come from this one I think!Tags:
It won't be long till the leaves are out and the nettles are up, so I'm taking every opportunity to get out drawing at the moment.
Here's some images from last week's trip to Dalkeith Country Park:
A few warm up sketches and some hot coffee to get started.
Settling on a spot to draw is hard when there are so many amazing trees to choose from, but I try to be strict with myself and just get drawing - they're all good subjects.
I make my drawings on a scroll of paper so that I can work on a decent sized piece but still transport it easily. It does mean that I can't see the whole drawing at once while I'm working, so there's a kind of 'consequences' type of reveal when I've finished drawing from each angle.
The finished drawing about to come off the board - I blow away any bugs so they don't get rolled into it too.
Going through them in the studio, reviewing old and new, noting what to work on next.Tags:
In my previous post 'How do I find my trees?' I set out the process by which I find my drawing locations. Of course I'm not that methodical really and it can be a combination of things that lead me to a new spot, or sometimes just pure chance.
My newest discovery came about as a result of a suggestion from Roger at Troutquest, Evanton in Easter Ross. We were holidaying in the cottage he rents for his fishing holiday business and he suggested that the Old Evanton Road to Dingwall had some good old trees. Out came the maps and after a wee drive came the discovery of this wonderful old road, strangely green and lined with trees of great character - beeches, oaks, hawthorn and others I couldn't identify without their leaves.
Since I only had an hour or so here, I recorded all I could in preparation for returning later in the year. I use my Samsung Galaxy Note for this - it's a bit big for a phone but the up side is that it has a large screen, a stylus and nifty apps like SMemo which are ideal for combining photos, hand written notes etc. I can also draw on it; Sketchbook Pro is a great app which I use in the studio, but I far prefer the feel of the friction between pen and paper when drawing.
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...
It's five years since I first found this tree and I've drawn and photographed it every year since. Its fascinating twisted form was so interesting to draw, though so complex I struggled to make sense of it. It's on an old bank in a designed landscape laid out in the late 18th century, the area currently being used as a deer park - you can see how the roots on the right have had their bark removed by hungry grazers.
This year it has moved into it's final phase of life - the winds have brought it down, the owners are removing most of its bulk and the stump that remains is rotting rapidly. However, if allowed to remain it will continue to support life, including lichens, fungi, invertebrates and birds. It's always a shock to see a large tree shattered and prone; like finding a dead animal there's something very sad about the sight, but at the same time fascinating. It's also a natural process which I don't believe we should sentimentalise - I prefer to use it as an opportunity to make art which reflects on life and death as simple fact.
Oaks at Dalkeith Country Park
I'm always hunting for new locations with special old trees.
They don't have to be recognised as ancient to be interesting to me, but areas which are known to have ancient or semi-ancient woodland or boundariy trees are often where I find the most variety and history.
Organisations such as the Ancient Tree Forum and the Woodland Trust are doing a fantastic job recording British woodland and campaigning to ensure it's protection. The National Library of Scotland has all its old maps available online so it's possible to see how long particular locations have been wooded for.
Find my locations on a map here.