On portraying a birch tree

Category : Trees
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Date : 04/03/2018

In spring, seven years ago I was visiting the pictoresque Baskemölla on Swedish southeast coast. On a meadow very close to the sea, I met this stunning old birch tree on a carpet of snow white wood anemones and fresh spring green grass. Now I found a photo and started to do a portrait of it. Here I share some observations and reflexions while working. Further down I explain the more technical part. The photos are not very good… The finished work shall get scanned later, but here we go – I hope you enjoy!

So – what defines the birch?

Everyone recognizes the birch by the smooth silvery bark, but also, unlike most trees, this tree follows no rules for dividing and branching out – I can’t think of any more irregular tree crowns than those. Just bursting out branches here and there! But somehow it still creates a harmonious shape around the edge. The leaves are very small and it is necessary with soft and very finely divided twigs, that easily dance in the breeze, to make the light reach and be able to kiss all those chlorophyll cells…

A birch portrait. Graphite drawing and plant pigment watercolour on Bockingford paper, 56x38 cm (22,4x15,2") 2018. 470€
A birch portrait. Detail. Graphite drawing and plant pigment watercolour.
Birch leaf study. Pure plant pigment. 14x19 cm (5,6x7,6") Birchleaves arranged as a birch leaf. Pure plant pigment. 19x19 cm (7,6x7,6") on Bockingford 300gsm 2017.
Dry birch leaves, in the shape of a birch leaf. Pure plant pigment watercolour. 15x15 cm (6x6") on Bockingford paper 2017.

The magic with nature I find, is the awesome combination of uniqueness and conformity. We easily recognize a birch tree from others and a birch leaf from others, but still, every tree and leaf is unique and individual. I remember once reading a scientific rapport that measured birch leaves – no single one is the same as another!

In summer the birch looks so light, bright and airy, but in winter the crown is rather dense and it casts quite a shadow, because of all the fine twigs. The opposite in this respect could be the maple.

The wood is bright and has lots of energy stored, making it an excellent fuel. The bright silvery bark shoots up like rays of light in dark coniferous forests and at forest edges. It is very hardy and thrives well also where winters are severe.

This particular birch is exposed to strong winds from the Baltic sea in the east, but is very sheltered from the west. This is why the branches on the left side are so short. But still, look at the top! In it’s unique birch manner, it defies the forces from the winds. Normally that is where this ‘wind pruning’ normally is the strongest.

Observations like these, resonate inside of me when while I work. I find that the birch is showing the way into the future for us humans – be individual, be unique, be resilient, be soft and receptive but strong inside. Strong inner flame…

I don’t get too serious when I do artwork though… I also fell curious and have fun and get amazed when the picture emerges. Here I felt like a little bird, skipping around on the branches and twigs.

The process

I wanted to do a precise detailed tree portrait with graphite and then paint on some watercolour. So I chose watercolour paper and Bockingford, since it has such a crispness and a surface that is not so vulnerable for erasing. I chose a half sheet, meaning 56×38 cm (22,4×15,2″). I did the drawing directly on this paper. I had printed the photo as A4 size, reversed into black and white. I made no lines, just marked out squares around the edges of both photo and paper. On the working sheet they were approximately 8 cm (3,5″) wide. I layed out strips of transfer paper on both photo and paper to separate the square I should work on. This way every square became for me a piece of artwork by itself and was interesting to work on and it was amazing to see the tree emerge on the paper, square by square.

I started on top with paper upside down, to get a good working position. When all that was done, I went back to add more detail and also more graphite until it felt like enough. I mainly used a 2B pencil, by the end also some 6B and even 8B.

Time for some colour! I chose my homemade watercolour paints. The black pigment is simply finely crushed charcoal. The brown pigment is from the bark of a Southamerican tree called quebracho, a warm reddish brown. The paint was layered on carefully and slowly with dry brush technique and a thin chinese brush. I left the low right parts unfinished and unpainted.

I have never before used so many hours painting such small amounts of watercolour paint …

A birch portrait, work in progress, the finished graphite drawing, before starting to add paint.
A birch portrait, work in progress, the finished graphite drawing, detail.
A birch portrait, work in progress, starting to paint watercolour on drawing.

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