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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

August 22, 2020

[ The Heart of an Irishman is Nothing but his Imagination, 30×30″ Oil on Panel ]

One of the very first paintings I ever made en plein air was a portrait of a tree.

It was a pine, with orange-red bark. Probably it was the light on the trunk that grabbed me. I thought, Wow! – If I paint that, it’ll feel just like being here in the forest.

This was probably 30 years ago, and the painting was a terrible failure. I had no idea what I was doing at the time.

More importantly, I didn’t really understand what the landscape had to offer as a subject. The whole thing about tree paintings is a misunderstanding of why we paint landscape. The idea that I would paint a view – as I might do now – just – the view itself – just looking off towards the horizon and painting the sense of space and vastness.

At the time, that simply did not compute.

My brain was saying; There’s no focal point! What’s the subject of the painting? It can’t just be a picture of the hole in the air in front of you! (Which, of course – it can.)

What I was looking for, instinctively, was a portrait, or – a figurative subject.

Something to put smack in the center of the painting, like I had done with hundreds of figure drawings in classrooms.

(Aside: I also didn’t understand what post-modern critics were on about – the idea that academic figure painting objectified the model – but of course, this is exactly what they meant. The model (let’s be honest, the naked girl) was supposed to just sit there and look pretty. Like a vase full of flowers. As a younger man, it didn’t occur to me that this might be a shallow expectation for a work of art).

As a consequence of my early failed paintings of trees, I simply don’t do it very much any more. Paint a singular tree, trying to make a portrait of it.

But every so often we will go out walking in the woods and I will return to that idea of a painting that makes you feel like you’re in the forest.

I really do want to make one of these that works for me. This one is getting very close.

Do you remember those old photo wallpapers in the ’70s? You could make your room into a redwood forest? I have a strong memory of one of those rooms – I can’t imagine I really had that. My parents would never install such a thing, but maybe a school-chum had a room like that? It’s a very clear memory for me.

That’s what I want out of a good painting of trees.

It actually is about space.

Not the vista of a landscape – but something closer to a domestic interior.

You should feel that enclosed space, inside the forest, under the canopy, surrounded on all sides by tree trunks. Hopefully it conjures a lush, green quiet, that gives you the contemplative feeling of a walk in the woods.

That sense, on entering a sudden clearing, of discovering a magical place you’ll never find again.

That’s I think, the real purpose of a painting of trees.

[ Branches Hung With the Weight of Inspiration, 24×24″ Oil on Panel ]

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[ Winter’s Bones, These Dry Branches Carry a lot of Weight, 30×30″ Oil on Panel ]

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynn permalink
    August 22, 2020 10:48 PM

    Wonderful words and paintings

  2. Paul permalink
    August 22, 2020 10:53 PM

    I love being among the trees and these paintings!

  3. Rita Cleary permalink
    August 22, 2020 11:25 PM

    I like the last group the best. You get me thinking.

  4. Robert Coleman permalink
    August 23, 2020 12:48 AM

    Landscape paintings have always been my way of going back to a place I loved or did something fun, or just enjoyed the fact that I was alive at that moment. Flyfishing in a quiet stream as a mink ran along the bank, watching a sunset over a pond with my wife and kids, or a walk thru a forest when I was a kid: you have captured that stirring in the soul.

  5. Judy Sopher permalink
    August 23, 2020 1:41 AM

    I find much meaning in what you wrote, Your top painting is wonderful.

  6. August 23, 2020 6:24 AM

    I hear you!!! I cannot tell you how many times I stand looking at a beautiful landscape or in a city of fantastic buildings…..and just don’t know what image I want to create. your article gives me some food for thought. thx.

  7. August 23, 2020 6:57 AM

    brilliant work.

  8. Bernadette permalink
    August 23, 2020 7:29 AM

    Personally, I prefer the first luscious green depiction of trees. I love the rich color and variation seen in background trees half hidden. The sunlight emerging on the right and a deep shadowy foreground lead my eye up to a sunlit hill.
    The contrast colors of pinks and splashes of blue remind me of those tiny wildflowers on paths that I often overlook. This work invites me to come deeper inside where I can sit and stay a while.

    This is where I would like to rest awhile.

  9. schragervogel permalink
    August 23, 2020 8:59 AM

    Landscape paintings have always been my way of going back to a place I loved or did something fun, or just enjoyed the fact that I was alive at that moment. Flyfishing in a quiet stream as a mink ran along the bank, watching a sunset over a pond with my wife and kids, or a walk thru a forest when I was a kid: you have captured that stirring in the soul.

  10. Nancy Mosk permalink
    August 23, 2020 9:46 AM

    Thank you so much, Marc, for sharing your thoughts on why we feel the pull of nature to reach out with our pencils, ink, or paints to and remember that moment of wonder.

  11. Deanne Rader permalink
    August 24, 2020 1:50 AM

    Beautiful oil paintings with lots of passion! Now I’d like to see the same ones in watercolor by you!

  12. Maggie Marszewski permalink
    August 24, 2020 9:03 AM

    Beautiful work as always. Thank you for the thoughts. I love to paint landscapes but worry about the lack of a focal point…..now I get it….the landscape is the focal point.

  13. lynncrobinson permalink
    August 24, 2020 10:40 AM

    First of all, I so very much enjoy receiving your blog notifications. I’d argue that trees can be amazing subjects. Just think of the expressive later works of Emily Carr!!

  14. Maureen Vermilya permalink
    August 24, 2020 5:38 PM

    These are lovely. I, also, especially like the first one. I did see trees like that in Ireland. Joyce Kilmer had it right about trees in her simple poem. Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts.

  15. Marie-Hélène Brohan Delhaye permalink
    September 25, 2020 12:40 PM

    ” just looking off towards the horizon and painting the sense of space and vastness.” – thank you for your wise words! you’re really making me think! And those first trees, somewhere on the ring of Kerry, Parknasilla near Sneem maybe? Or Derreen Gardens on the Beara Peninsula? You’ll have to come back to Ireland some day!

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