16 March 2017
These two drawings, recently completed, depict St. Hugh of Lincoln and St. Adelaide. You may read more about them here and here. In both, I applied ink with sponges and scratched details into the dry ink with a knifepoint; this is how I drew the trees in the backgrounds.
Drawing trees is a problem that I has concerned me for years. Medieval artists, it must be admitted, tended to depict rather pathetic trees. In 13th century manuscripts and windows, these are little more than hieroglyphics; sticks with round bunches of leaves at the top. I certainly do not want to imitate anything so perfunctory in my own artwork.
But neither am I interested in depicting trees in a painterly manner, with the branches and leaves forming a sort of indiscriminate mass as they all cover up and obscure each other. I want, rather, the little details to be clear: branches whose beautiful twisting paths can be seen in their entirety, leaves that have individual character (at least when they appear in the foreground). This, I think, is more true to the way that men perceive trees with their eyes and minds before they have not been conditioned to look at the world like photographers.
How, though, is this possible without reducing a tree to an unstately diagram? There are artists who have succeded at it, whom I am keen to imitate. The Italian painter Benozzo Gozzoli depicted especially impressive trees, as did the great Safavid miniaturist Sultan Muhammad and the picture book illustrator Barbara Cooney (in Chanticleer and the Fox). Another picture book illustrator, Peter Parnall, has a wonderful way of showing the contours of a tree trunk with just a few simple lines.
Detail from the Procession of the Magi, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli
Deatil from the Feast of Sada, miniature by Sultan Muhammad
There is, however, one artist whom I consider the absolute master in this regard: the 20th-century American painter and printmaker Eyvind Earle. I do not think that anyone ever drew trees more grandly or more precisely than he did. Stylistically, they are agreeable to medieval art: they look like what trees ought to have looked like in medieval art, what trees would have looked like in medieval art if medieval artists had given more thought to them.
Earle’s artwork remains under copyright, but some fine examples of it can be seen here.