Part 3, project 1, exercise 1 and 2 – trees

Back down to earth with a bump. It’s a long tumble from a fantasy citadel to a conte sketch of a tree. This first pop is from my window which meant sitting on the windowsill over the radiator – not a position to be held for long, but also not to be swapped for standing outside, at least not just yet. It’s a massive evergreen Leylandii type with a massive bole at the base and squirrels in the branches. It’s going to need more attention than I’ve given it today to make any impression on its stature and gravitas. Still, it’s a start.

Conte crayon on A5 cartridge: The first chops the top off the tree, the second has a better shape but none of the solidity of the real thing, number three is a bit too round and looks more deciduous, and four is too stocky. I like the conte though.

I’m hoping I might be able to get access to the local vicar’s front garden because there’s a magnificent tree there. I spotted it at the garden party in the summer and spent quite a long time imagining it as all kinds of magical and mythical entities.

vicars tree


20th February. Cherry tree from the window. This is a very oddly pruned little beast (my doing entirely) so I’ve used a bit of artistic licence to smooth it out in the second image. I want it even lighter now.



Oddly, that massive haircut on the right looks better on screen than in the sketchbook while the close view of the cherry is the reverse.

Left is a massive root system at the base of a tree in the grounds of Bramber Castle. Right is the base of the vicar’s tree, also massive. Both are from photos I took last year.

21st February. Another day, another tree. This one is near the river and often seats ten or twenty cormorants drying their wings. Today there were two and even from a distance I’ve managed to mangle them!


Winter bark of whatever this tree is. It’s quite tall with long slender branches and one winter it was completely frosted so that when the sun emerged, it looked like fine bronze covered in white icing. I need to find the photo I took of that now.


Gnarly apple. This is in my garden. Again a from a photo taken today.


Inktense blocks, no gesso.

Looking at these, I think my best attempts are when I’m being less detailed and more representational. Is that a good thing? Are these sufficiently ‘tree’ to qualify as drawing?

That root again, this time in Inktense, white ink, and conte. Touch of the octopod about this in close up!



22nd February. I may not be on exercise one any more as our trees tend to come in clumps rather than as solitary individuals. Still, as long as I tackle them …


This is on A4 sketchbook cartridge and from a zoomed photo I took yesterday. I’d tried to wean myself off gesso by prepping with matte glaze medium to see what happened and of course it added texture but also effectively sealed the surface (who knew?) so when I used a wet brush on the Inktense lines, they not only ran but stayed wet for much longer, making it possible to add more texture by dabbing with paper towel. I think the foreground tree is over-done and the background trees a little ill-defined but it was a handy experiment. And I have another prepped page!





Shaped confers between houses in Bramber. Very dark canopy and deep brown/red bark but with some bright yellow shrubs at the base. Inktense and fineliner marks.


This is the view across the corner of the field that adjoins the river. The trees and buildings are on the far bank. I’ve used charcoal and I think I should have omitted the foreground. Still, we’re not doing pictures, are we, just sketches?




23rd February and I should quit while I’m ahead, although I have to say it looks way better on-screen than on-table! Inktense with fineliner embellishments. There’s a gesso/matte glaze mix on the paper which creates the structural horizontal lines and adds both grip [tooth? <– new word alert] and fluidity.


Amazingly, I can see actual progression here. The first trees are stiff and hesitant but it seems to me they’ve developed more life as I’ve gone on and the close studies have really helped in putting this last image together. Ok, maybe not a disaster after all!

24th February and I’ve remembered to read the notes on the notes I need to make. Species of tree? Mostly that’s about the bark at this time of year so some have cracks and ridges that are, on the whole, vertical, craggy and crackled, while others – like birch – have more horizontal markings. Those tend to be lighter but in this tunnel they’re covered in moss and lichen and ivy so distinguishing wasn’t easy.

It’s February so there’s no mass of foliage but there is an absolute chaos of twigs in between the trunks, crossing and crisscrossing in an almost random way and not at all easy to represent without drawing a massive nest.

I’ve handled light by adding colour and minimising marks. It’s not the easiest of subjects, given the almost random appearance of the array, but my eye simplified it out of necessity and resorted to representative lines to suggest content between the more defined objects.

One thing that became apparent (and that I learned drawing those birds in Part 1) is that my brain needs to rehearse movements in order to progress from laboured detail to economical and expressive gesture. To address that with these trees, I used the photo I’d taken, rendered it in monochrome, and then picked out twigs, ivy, bark, and other details with a fineliner. I need to do many more or these to get that process shifted from the conscious to the unconscious so that I can focus on the whole image – the gestalt of it – rather than the mechanics of its production.


What can I do better? Apart from all of it? I need to get the hang of simplification at source rather than at ‘post-production’, and I think that means developing a gestural repertoire that I can trigger when an object requires it. After that, layering detail, dealing with background noise, and representing depth without over-shading. Not much!

Moving on.



These are ‘found’ trees. I’d prepped a page in my A4 sketch book with inked gesso then, just as it was drying, spilled black ink onto it. I’ve used biro to pick out the serendipitous detail and white conte to highlight. I don’t think I would have been able to do this without the preceding exercises.


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