Trees, as a continuing subject of interest, have accompanied me through my life as an artist. I think it was Basil King, an older, experienced artist, and in the early 1970s, my informal mentor who suggested I go out into the street and find some trees to draw.
Never really comfortable drawing in the street, I went instead to the Student Lounge at NYU. Their windows overlooked Washington Square Park where many old, remarkably shaped trees could be observed. Day after day, before going to work as a nursery school teacher, I drew the park trees without the least idea of how to do so. I couldn’t even determine if I was learning anything or whether the drawings had merit.
However, I just kept working, “no matter what”— perhaps the phrase that best describes my struggle to learn to make art. My drawings were spontaneous and unplanned. I did not even realize that one should plan, at least in a general way, how the image would fill the space. Consequently, I did not know how to fit an entire tree onto a page. I concentrated instead on the trunk and the rhythmic lines formed by the interweaving of the branches. It took me years of work to understand the visual power that scale offers an artist.
I received encouragement when Mulch, a small press publication, published a number of my charcoal drawings in their Winter 1973 issue. This was the first magazine to publish my artwork.
Even though I kept drawing, I had no idea how an artist’s life developed. Having begun making art after graduating as a Sociology major from Brooklyn College, I thought one approached art as one does any subject, reading books about artists’ lives and their manner of working. I began studying how other artists painted trees. I soon landed squarely at the feet of Chaim Soutine, a Eastern European Jewish artist who lived most of his life in France. Soutine’s trees and landscapes, like his still lives and portraits, are empowered with a fierce, apocalyptic energy that radiates from all levels of the surface. The trees bend and strain as if caught in an otherworldly tempest. Small figures give the landscape its scale. Soutine’s world is certainly out of sorts.
My study of Soutine resulted in an essay published by Mulch in Fall 1974.
I stopped drawing in the NYU lounge when I moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, a block from Prospect Park and the Botanical Garden. My interest in trees began to wane. Now I was trying to paint whatever I thought was interesting, going from subject to subject, and unbeknownst to me, from one style to another (read my blog: “On Style”).
During the next years, I enjoyed drawing landscapes while on vacation. For many summers I did a large number of sketches and drawings on Monhegan Island, Maine where the ocean, cliffs and cathedral pines have inspired generations of artists. I worked on the problem of scale and rendering of textures.
Thirty-five years ago, after moving to Inwood, NYC, I realized my figures or images needed more context. I decided to resume landscape drawing to learn how to create a space around my images. Every weekend, I would walk-up the hill to Fort Tryon Park to draw in the garden using a ballpoint pen. I focussed on space and line. I wanted to define the textures and properties of the trees, bushes, rocks and flowers. I created a sense of space by layering, trees and bushes, one in front or behind the other. Never forgetting Soutine, I was also trying to find ways that brought the vitality and complexity that I experienced in nature into the sketch.
Again I took on the problem of scale. How do I make a large tree feel large on a small paper? I taught myself how to make a sketchy plan of the picture before beginning the actual drawing. I was then able to draw a tree in its entirety, and to give a sense of scale by juxtaposing a person or familiar object close by. The use of scale, I discovered, is a powerful weapon in an artist’s box of tricks. It can offer enormous emotional reverberations.
Fast forward to 2018. After a lifetime of experience drawing an enormous variety of subjects, and secure in my knowledge of my mediums, I decided to begin a new tree series. At this writing, I am still working on this series. A few images are posted on my website (Wax Crayons).
Let me know what you think.