Trees are a ubiquitous element in plein air painting. They represent a major part of most works whether they are the focal points or a part of the general landscape. As an element in nature they also represent the most prolific group of growth out there. It is therefore worth while studying them and their growth and characteristics so that we can portray them convincingly in our artwork.
When it comes to studying tree one of the best sources is an Eastern art that is focused on trees: Bonsai. Bonsai is the art of growing trees in pots. These are normally small to medium sized dwarfed trees – kept small but constant pruning of leaves, branches and roots. The art form is highly stylized, but offers a very helpful categorization of tree forms and types. Each style of growth in Bonsai is derived from careful study of the tree types, how they grow and what characters they develop from youth to old age. Trunks and branches are carefully pruned and shaped to comply to natural growth patters in normal trees so that these small trees echo their older larger cousins in every way, and form a stylized, but true representation of them.
There are many aspects to pruning and branch placement and development that if studies carefully would be very helpful for the artist interested in depicting trees, but we will focus on the general styles or shapes of bonsai and try to relate them to our art-form of painting nature for now.
In Bonsai there are several formal types that represent the classical characters that trees take in nature. Each type tells a story of growth and life. I have taken each of these types and matched them with a painting of a tree so you can see how these Bonsai stylized forms actually work with our art form:
Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine
Vincent van Gogh Mulberry Tree
Claude Monet The Esterel Mountains
Tom Thomson, The Pine Tree
Fred Varley, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay
Arthur Lismer, Pine Tree and Rocks
Claude Monet, A Meadow at Giverny
Charles Warren Eaton, The Last Gleam
Claude Monet, The Olive Tree Wood in the Moreno Garden
Tom Thomson, Autumn Birches
Arthur Lismer, Old Pine, McGregor Bay
Frank Carmichael, October Gold
Each of these styles would be worth a lot more study and understanding both from Bonsai and from nature itself. There are key elements in these styles that work to achieve believability and representation of a living natural trees. They come from centuries of careful observation and minimization of the forms. By studying these Bonsai tree styles and keeping them in mind, you can ask yourself the next time you are faced with a tree to paint: What Bonsai style is this tree? What is its form? How does it grow? What story does it tell?
For more on Bonsai styles look here: