Tree painting

Maple tree, oil on canvas – Old Lyme, Connecticut  ©Abbie Rabinowitz

Last weekend marked the season’s first day painting outdoors with my pleinair painting group, the CALM.
We met early in the morning in Old Lyme, Connecticut, at a beautiful, private home situated along a flowing stream and old mill. The air was still cool, the light barely breaking through the morning mist, with early blossoms in the garden and a lovely, water view in the distance.

What attracted me most in this gorgeous place was a stately old maple tree with a massive trunk, gnarly bark and large, grasping branches. This tree had such history and presence. I thought if trees could speak, this one certainly would have great tales of wisdom.

It’s been over a year since I graduated my mfa program and after painting this tree I began to review some of the material that our art history professor gave us last year. One great handout was about trees in art and how the meaning of trees changed from artist to artist, how trees reflected various ideas within different time periods, how they were used as metaphors, and how modern artists employed trees as pictorial elements and symbols. It seems one can map the entire history of art seen through trees alone.

For me, this tree revealed itself as a thing of great beauty, boasting of age and stamina. I loved the wrinkles and folds in the bark, the way the light skirted along the craggly edges on its surface, and how the shadowed crevices guarded old memories.

As a lover of composition, I wanted to mimic the structure of this tree on my canvas, reflecting its movement and twists. I worked with a limited palette of warm and cool colors to represent light, shadow and form, while allowing for the paint medium and my brushwork to reflect the tree’s texture.

Only later I mused that in fact, painting this tree was not all that different than painting the portraits of my elderly parents. Perhaps I love painting old things… old things of grace and character that reveal a life well lived.