SketchWalking among Beech Trees

Walking among beech trees cooled by the night’s rain, air moist fresh whipping and sifting through the leaves, dappled light and shadows casting dynamic mosaic patterns on a familiar dirt path, tree trunks painted in rain water drippings glistening in striped shades of umber while body shifting quietly to the rhythm of a poem, a chant, or imitation of a bird tweet while ruminating a problem seeking a solution. Then in an instant to pause when it strikes and capture a moment in watercolor or pen is quite instinctive to me, adding a whole other dimension to the cadence of walking invoking an incorporeal feeling, one that’s hard to attain whilst sketching in the studio. This is my personal space that I’ve carved out over years of sketchwalking as a means to thinking and seeing. Invoking curiosity and keeping that sense of wonder alive and fresh even in well acquainted places. Especially in well acquainted places. The familiarity of a place can be shattered at a stroke through the intimacy of ‘seeing’ again while sketching just at the immediate instant when body and mind are primed to receptivity through the rhythm of walking.

During this lock down, it’s been no different…or perhaps I’d say it’s been immensely relevant that walking and sketching done in tandem can still be a part of my life, a blessing I don’t take lightly. Our local county park has remained open during lockdown and it is but a stone’s throw away, facilitating an easy means for my quotidian sketchwalking. 

2020 March through May was a rather wet-Winter-into-wet-Spring transition. Inundated with relentless downpours, tempestuous thunderstorms and even a vagrant polar vortex that sprung in to play havoc in its wake. The terrain has been in a continuous state of water-log. And the wind, incessant remorseless wind at 20-25 mph incited its gusty role of terror and destruction as well. Watching trees sway like pliant bamboo, creak and groan like a violin out of tune, sing and susurrate in loud whispers then, just as sudden quieten to a gentle murmur, but not for long. Like an impetuous child unable to decide its mood of the day resumed with renewed fever, whipping and howling through night and day. Maple samaras that prevalently ripen to dry feather-vaned wings and propel down clogging gutters, sprouting wherever they land are now being snatched in their prime, fresh, heavy, pliant and red-green, still attached to sprigs, flung and scattered about like yesterday’s urban detritus. I gathered armfuls and stuck them in a vase so their life didn’t seem trifling. 

Despite this forewarning you might call it, my usual walk in the beechwood that day was brought to a instant halt by a tall majestic beech that lay toppled over on the path by what I can only presume was the recent storm. It was snapped at its base like a twig, inconceivable, yet even as I stood looking stupefied impossible to believe, staring down at the jagged edge still attached to the root the smell of fresh green sap wood wafted up my nostrils, the very scent and essence of life itself. This was one of the few tall mature trees I’d walked by often, on occasion stopping to run my hand along its bark, staring into its eyes wishing it to reveal the inner secrets of a long and fruitful life. Ive passed silently under ear refreshed to the flutelike melody of the wood thrush spreading into the forest air from its canopy, I’ve stood under it gazing up at a squirrel or two sampler up its branch, and sketched white-tailed deer graze in its understory. It has stood there for over two hundred years, this and a few other matriarchs of these woods, nurturing other beech saplings, sheltering wildlife, and offering up shade scented breeze on sultry summer afternoons.

How long has it lain here now I wondered as I circled around this giant looking down it length from the top end for the first time, it’s leaves still fresh and springy. Leaves that grew zig-zag on their thin twigs. It’s massive trunk weighted in it’s history, stored but now lost, bark smooth but for the scars of branches that fell and the large eyes that have kept watch in the woods. I picked up a piece of its bark about a foot wide and foot and a half long, that lay splintered beside it as though it had been cracked open from the trunk and flung apart like a walnut shell. It’s inner cambium layer in brilliant burnt orange like a broken terra-cotta tile lay curved and exposed while still attached to the phloem and greyblue outer bark. It took my breath away. What perfect symphony of form and function. I walked around in silent homage to this beauty, sketching it and it’s many branches and leaves, it’s eyes still vigilantly watching me as I did. And as I came around, to sight a young sapling sprouted at it’s root base, a quick gasp, a single consolation. Perhaps the old beech had been nurturing this spritely offspring prescient of its forthcoming fate. This thin spindly sapling, upright and eager will now have the light open up onto it and will flourish and grow in its matriarch’s place for another two hundred years or more. I leave with my little sketch and this thought to mull over proceeding down the path. 

Yet, I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead. Walking on, my mind still in a haze of unrest I came upon four other beeches that too had succumbed to the storm. These trees had been uprooted soil and all and lay strewn blocking the rest of the path. One of them whilst on it way down took its neighbor with it and the two lay in an entanglement of branches, two silent sentinels now at rest together.

I had never witnessed rootballs this large. As I stood beside one it towered over me three times taller and at its base a concave impression to the converse of its rootball, a pit where once it’s root had filled now filled in its place with rain water that had yet to drain, reflecting in perfect color harmony the sky that had opened up from the drop of the canopy. This isn’t right I thought, it shouldn’t be sky here but effervescent leaf green. And yet in the puddle water seemed already to be sustaining new life, a small wood frog had claimed it as its new home while a butterfly was basking in the nutrients at the puddle’s edge. Perhaps other facultative species might take advantage of this new resource too. And what about the life that was existence in and around the root ball, more questions to speculate.  

These American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) were over two hundred years or more in age with had many more years left in them. As I stood in awe fighting back tears I thought of all the life that depended on them. Like this wood thrush freshly returned from his wintering grounds on an adjacent tree singing his heart out calling for a mate. And the distant call of the red bellied woodpecker, had he drummed on these tree trunks I pondered. What birds and creatures had made their home in these canopy now lost, butterflies and caterpillars that once feasted on their leaves and eaten their nuts, what understory had thrived in their shade and provided nourishment to the white tailed deer that frequent these woods. So many questions….

What is it about trees that capture our minds so and stay with us long after we no longer are in their presence I wonder. Is it because they’ve preceded us and will still be standing, keeping watch even after we’re gone. I leave you here with this percipient poem by W.S.Merwin

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

— W.S. Merwin, from ‘The Rain in the Trees’

Fall On Campus Way

Fall was in the air when last I went sketchwalking on Campus Way. There were quite a few runners, some skateboarders and some dog walkers. The air was crisp, the grass was still green but the trees on the distant hillside were turning and the colors of fall were peeking through. I managed to capture a few quick sketches on a somewhat sunny day, but got drizzled out by the end.

The first two sketches are of an extended clump or should I say stand of some really tall trees. I’ve yet to determine what species they are, but their presence is unmistakeable as most of the area around them is open grassy farmland, and they stand sentinel at the end of the stretch. I was fascinated by their intertwined branches outstretched high above and over the pathway,

I tried to convey a sense of their height and the atmospheric mood – the first sketch was the reflection of the bright sunshine atop their crown done on my way out, whereas the second one done on my way back was when the rain clouds had set in and turned everything to an almost grey scale. How quickly the weather does change around here!

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From here you get a clear view of Mary’s Peak, granted there aren’t any clouds of Course! Once again the sketches were intended to capture a specific mood and not a photographic representation. It was a clear day but had turned cold and windy by the time I caught the sunset over Marys Peak, and of course the rained out sketch with the rain’s contribution is obvious!



This last sketch here is the distant hillside, and yes the light drizzle by then had turned to rain!

 

Giant Pots!

End of my Walk  – Day 24/31 – #WorldWatercolorMonth 

Here’s just one of a multitude of these giant pots lining the walkway to the garden path at Longwood. The lovely bluish-green cupric oxide patina like color is just one aspect of its beauty. The size, the vibrant color hues and shadows on them in sun and shade, and the ever changing contents of the pots keep me coming back for more sketching. While sketchwalking, as I walk toward these they also signal the end of my walk!

 

Swallowtails on the Meadows 

Day22/31 – #WorldWatercolrMonth

Watching Tiger Swallowtails is exhilarating, following them is exhausting and sketching them live is simply a feat in itself. Saturday afternoon I got a chance to find out. The Monardas are in bloom everywhere on the Meadows and the Swallowtails skirted from bloom to bloom, crossing paths and disappearing into the bushes then re emerging completely elsewhere. It took patience and perseverance and a Saturday afternoon in the sun, but here they are captured in quick brush strokes, my very own Swallowtails!

Oh and have you ever seen the dance of the Swallowtail, it’s quite a sight to watch. When two of them meet at the same bloom they start dancing. What looks like a dance is just two butterflies competing for the nectar on that choice flower and are battling it out till the winner returns and the loser flutters off in search of sweeter grounds.

Longwood Fountainscape

Day1/31 #WorldWatercolorMonth – yes it’s #WorldWatercolorMonth 2017! It kind of snuck up on me though  Charlie O’Shields over at Doodlewash has been reminding us for almost a month now! 

The gorgeous flowerpots at the base of Longwood fountain terrace were just begging to be sketched. These exotic blooms had such a tropical air to them, I just wanted to capture the essence, but I’ll have to do the flowers over again.

Snow on the Meadows

I love to go for long walks whenever I can and I always bring my sketchbook along for that quick capture of a scene or a mood that strikes without warning. Walking in the meadows at Longwood Gardens after a snowfall takes on a whole new meaning. The blue and purple hues of the distant wintry horizon, the soft fluffs of snow clinging to the seed heads, the dry grass that once stood upright now bent over weighed down by the icy snow clumps, the melting snow frozen in dripping icicles on the twigs and shrubs that catch the sunlight and scatter it into flashes of rainbow colors, the crunch of the frozen snow beneath you feet, and that smell of the frigid air that surrounds you, all make for an atmospheric experience that words fail to describe in full. Here’s my pictorial description in purples…

and here’s another one in moody blues…

Playing with Purples 

Everywhere you look out side, everything is covered in white. Three days of snow and ice storms, three days of painting snowy wintery scenes, and I needed color in my life! My  blue orchids are blooming indoors, and on this cold winter day they bring such brightness and color to the indoors. At present these orchid and the winter jasmine outside my window are all that’s blooming around here. So I’ve been playing around with purples and blues. Here are some different version of blue orchids and my play with purples…

And then without the oranges…

And now that I’ve got my color fix and used up a lot of my purples, I can go back to painting snow again! I’ll post my winter scenes in my next post.

Happy Year of the Fire Rooster!

Happy New Year to you all. Based on the Chinese calendar, 2017 is the year of the Fire Rooster. “The Chinese people say that this year people will be more polite and less stubborn, but they will have the tendency to complicate things.” Hmmmm, I wonder if this was written with anyone particular in mind!

“As they see it, the year 2017 is a year dominated by the orientation towards progress, honor and maximum integrity, people learning to temper their ardor.” Again, I’m wondering if would apply to the leaders of certain countries I have in mind…just saying!

Nevertheless, not to get too political here, I thought I’d honor the rooster today, the first day of 2017. Now, I love painting birds, but for reasons unclear to me, I’ve never really had an interest in roosters. I’ve seen them on farms and often enough while at a pumpkin or fall festival I’ve had a chance to see some quite gorgeous plumage on these birds, and yet I’ve never really sketched one. So today I got started on one, and it turned out alright…for a first try!

I did give it a second try, aiming for more texture…

Having stuck with the same color scheme the second time, although not intentional, I thought I’d go a bit quieter for the third try.

Sketchwalking in the Meadows

My favorite place to sketchwalk is in the meadows at Longwood gardens. Since the meadows expansion project, the trails and pathways now meander through the meadows and the views from each vantage point are spectacular any time of the year. My favorite view is from this one spot where I can see the Webb Farmhouse across the undulating landscape. I tend to be biased and sketch from this vantage point more often. Although there are other views that I’ve sketched, this one always gets my attention. In my last post I’d shown you its summer glory. Today’s post has the fall colors of the meadows.

There is so much color in the fall with all the greens now darker and the seedheads and pods taking on various shades of browns and purples and grays. The skies in the fall have their own stories to tell in color too, but I kept the sky muted in this sketch, as I thought it would be too much and detract from the main theme. What do you think? Comments welcome.

Still working on creating texture

I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but trying to create texture in watercolor has been a journey for me thus far… I’ve built up quite a stack of experimental washes, not always with a subject in mind, just allowing the paint to flow and seeing where it leads me, but always keeping in mine my aim to develop textures of all sorts in the making! Sometimes subjects emerge and I follow through and sometimes they’re just an abstract outcome. Below are just two of my stacks that will end up as bound sketchbooks. img_5068

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It has been such a satisfying experience that I’m still continuing with this process, but I thought I’d post a few of the final results too.

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This is a view of the farm on the meadows at Longwood Gardens in summer. I used a quick 5 minute sketch I did while sketchwalking there in summmer as my reference for the above painting. Below is the 5 minute reference sketch I did while walking…quite a difference in textures between the two …don’t you think.

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