Mother Nature Decoded

Mother Nature can look very chaotic. When we take a walk around a garden, every flowering bush can seem like a confusing explosion of blossoms and leaves, every tree like an impossibly complicated tangle of branches and foliage. How can we possibly draw these verdantly overflowing subjects without going blind, or crazy?

Well, the truth is that drawing or painting the actual complexity of a bouquet of flowers or a patch of forest with precision is a high-level observational and aesthetic task that, for the moment, we will leave to artists like Henri Fantin-Latour or Gustav Klimt. We can, however, take a single stem from that bouquet and choose single trees from that forest to look at and find a way to draw.

Henri Fantin-Latour, left; Gustav Klimt, right “Roses,” left. “The Birch Wood,” right.

Many people learning to draw have an understandable anxiety about getting the proportions right. The skill of drawing proportionally comes from doing a lot of drawing, but also from combining the search for correct proportion with the all the other ways that we think about our subject as we draw. In the following analysis of a flower I think you will see that responding to fundamental issues in looking at the flower help us to draw the proportions of the plant much more easily than concentrating on each part of the plant as we come to it.

A good place to start is to acknowledge that this lily is a growing plant moving upwards to get nourishment from the sun and rain, and that its central stalk is a strong column that supports the out-springing stems, leaves and flowers.

In the first stage of the drawing I establish the direction of the stems and leaves and the centers of the petals as they bend away from their core. Two things strike me as I make these lines — one, that the curves of the stems and leaves have a rhythmic relationship with one another and two, that the petals form an almost symmetrical “fountain” as they burst from their center.

In choosing to start my drawing in this way I have decided on a priority — that establishing the basic growing direction of each of the elements gives me a more coherent foundation on which to build my drawing than starting with any particular detail. This is an enormously important insight in drawing — if you start each observation of a subject by deciding what is most important to its character, you will know where to begin your drawing and how to proceed. In the case of the pot you drew, its series of ellipses stacked on a central core was the key to its structure. In this lily you are considering something much more organic and subtle, but still with a logical structure.

In stage two of the drawing, using the first lines as a guide as to where the centers are, I choose to finish the two petals on the far side of the flower because they are the easiest to understand and give me more reference points to complete the other petals. Again, using the first lines as a guide to where the center of the leaves are, I draw the twisting forms of the leaves, registering what is the underside or the top side of the leaf.

In stage three of the drawing I have established enough of the architecture of the plant to draw the details — the thicknesses of the various parts of the stalk and stems, the stamens inside the flower and the unopened buds. At this point I could keep working on all the other aspects of shadow and atmosphere, but you could do that without me. I’ve walked you through the important part of the initial thinking where you might have been led astray by details.

Photo A
Photo B

Trees, with their hundreds of thousands of leaves and branches reaching every which way, are daunting subjects to draw. But just as we thought about the growing pattern of the lily to help us organize the details in our drawing, we can observe in each individual tree clues as to what makes them look like they do.

One of the most useful clues is the leaf of the tree itself, because examining it gives us a sense of the large shape of the tree and the kind of texture that the limbs and groups of leaves create. I have chosen two trees from the yard around my house to consider and to draw. They are both Japanese maples, one an unusual coral bark maple (Photo A), the second a more common split leaf red maple (Photo B). In the close-up photos of the leaves, you will see that the leaves of the coral bark are slightly pointier and thrust outwards more than the leaves of the red maple, which are softer-looking and curl downwards.

The different character of the leaves helps us to understand the overall shape and texture of each tree. The coral bark’s silhouette is spiky, with large indentations in its mass, echoing the vigorous pushing-outward energy of the leaves and the deep spaces between each of the leaves’ five segments. The feeling of the whole red maple is softer and rounder with fewer big gaps in its perimeter, just like the broader, downward-curling leaf.

Start your drawings by sketching out the large shapes, quickly giving the tree the general character of spikiness (in the case of the coral bark) or roundness and softness (in the case of the red maple). As you proceed to map out the big masses of leaves, keep using the appropriate kind of line, jagged and up-thrusting for the coral bark, and round and downward-arcing for the red maple. The coral bark’s leaves feel like they are arranged along the outer branches to form long, spear-like protrusions, whereas the red maple’s leaves feel like soft, rounded clumps.

Rather than trying to draw individual leaves, use the characteristic spiky or rounded line to evoke the whole texture of the tree. You are drawing the overall character of the tree, not a rendering for a horticultural textbook. Even when you use groups of lines to quickly develop large shadow areas, keep thinking of the kind of edges and shapes that you see in that particular tree. The red maple, for instance, has a kind of fussiness that you could reflect by using lines that jig and jag around and that have a sense of downward-pointedness. The coral bark’s shadow areas can be developed with patches of angular lines that move upward and outward.

Drawing the lily was a more precise observational exercise because we could look at a relatively simple subject up close. The tree drawings were a way to generalize the central character of a more complex and larger subject that we were observing from more of a distance.

However, with enough patience, and finding a tree you love to observe, it is quite possible to do a “portrait” of a particular tree, and I encourage you to find that special tree and to have the experience of drawing it with concentration and particularity. Mother nature may often seem impossibly chaotic, but sometimes she can be pinned down. I include here a drawing of a tree that attracted me in its wintry starkness.

In the next column, we will draw two manufactured objects that require a somewhat different approach.

James McMullan, New York Times


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