I speak for the trees

I know, I know! This is supposed to be an Urban Sketching blog, and yet here I am talking about drawing nature. The thing is – here is the thing – I am going off at a bit of a tangent in this one. Sorry.

So trees. As a budding Urban Sketcher you are going to discover – as I have – that you are good at drawing some things and not nearly so good at drawing others. It used to be people, but I seem to have gotten over that through my surreptitious sketching of bored commuters twice a day. After people, then for me it is cars and trees. Cars I am going to leave for another day. Trees though, oh Lord.

Trees are difficult. No doubt about it. In summer my tree sketches look like fluffy green clouds on sticks. And in winter, when they are all sticky and naked, what a nightmare! I have in the past walked a long way to avoid having a tree get in the way of a good sketch. So many good views ruined by them. And then this happened.

As a new resident in the Washington area, I have been taking sorties around and about with the family, checking out parks and hikes and museums and such. Last week I took a drive by the Triadelphia Reservoir in Maryland, partly out of local interest, but also to get the kids out of the house for a bit.

The parks department had just opened the gates for the season, but there was apparently no huge surge of nature lovers. We wandered around the park and didn’t see a soul. The kids raced along the trails like greyhounds through last year’s fallen leaves. By the time we had done a good-sized circuit, my son was sporting a bleeding knee, and my daughter’s pockets were full to bursting with rocks, pine cones, feathers and a half a Starling’s egg. I had to stop her from dragging back a deer skull as well. She is a lot like her dad.

On our final quarter mile back to the car, the gray drab trees opened up to a grassy picnic area. A few Canada geese reprimanded the kids as they attempted to corral them. And there it was right in the middle of the greensward. This tree: the biggest, broadest, most imposing ‘melon-farmin’ beast of a tree. I actually stood and stared at it for, well, at least a minute. The kids were less than impressed with my “look at that tree”.

So over two mornings this week I spent a total of three hours sitting on my stool attempting to wrestle this tree onto some extra-large paper brought out specially. The tiny picnic bench should give you a good idea of scale. Even with my oversize paper I couldn’t get it all in.

What did I learn? Trees are difficult. I no doubt exorcized a few demons during this sketch, but I came away feeling bruised and beaten. In the end. I’d call this fight a tie. It was way beyond anything I would normally tackle. Keeping everything in place was a constant neck ache of looking, up down, up down. The branches coming straight at me were peculiarly tough. And there was a tendency to mistake one branch for another. You of course will not be able to tell where I went wrong.

I had originally hoped to get it in the morning light with some tonality, but in the end I had to settle for just the line work. I just don’t have that kind of time. Maybe in my dotage I’ll come back with my watercolor set and Tilley hat and fight this one again. I am sure it will be here waiting.

What else? Well, when I left Toronto all of six months ago my father-in-law asked me if I wanted my snow tires out of his shed? “In D.C.”, I said. “Pnah”. Good grief was I wrong.

These “snow days” have been playing havoc with my regular commuter drawing. First sign of white flakes and the whole city stays home for the day. I have never seen anything like it. Empty trains. Stores closed. Amazing. In three years of my kids schooling in Toronto, we had exactly zero snow closures. Here in Montgomery County, I believe we are into double figures this winter alone. My kids love it. But they won’t shovel it.

Aside from the empty-train-snow-day problems, my commuter drawing continues as usual.

Now I am posting these on The Washington Post Web site, I guess there is a fair chance that someone might even recognize themselves in a sketch.I have been trying to wean myself from my dependence on the easier profile shots. But this has led to me getting spotted by a subject once in a while. As distracted as people are by their devices, or newspapers, or the social no-no of making eye contact, their peripheral vision is still an amazing thing. All that time spent evolving and not getting eaten I guess. So if I keep turning my head in their direction a few of the less numb are going to twig to what is going on once in a while. I have had a few of those in the last week. Hopefully I can avoid a beating or getting arrested.

So I have received dozens of sketches from all around the world. My plan is to post these in an attached gallery. So far though the development guys who help with the blog are reticent to put in the number of hours required to actually set me up with the ability to make a gallery. They want to be sure there is a need first – classic chicken and egg situation. So I wanted to thank every one of the couple of dozen people who provided some eggs and sent me their Urban Sketch work, but for now I am only going to be posting one a week. So here is this week’s.

This beauty is by Amber Sausen. Amber is a perfect example of a dedicated urban sketcher. This watercolor sketch is of the National Cathedral. Created one cold day earlier this month in a tiny sketchpad while wearing gloves. She perfectly captures the location and the temperature in one illustration. Amber, you have the Sketch of the Week.

So please take a lesson from Amber. Get outdoors and start drawing. The next “Sketch of the Week” could be you.

And remember the rules. We draw live only and we share what we have drawn. This flickr group is a great place to do that and to get feedback (Urban Sketch Group) and don’t hesitate to use urbansketchers.org as your baseline for inspiration and brilliance.

Got a question? Ask me. richard.johnson@washpost.com
Want to see more of my work www.newsillustrator.com

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.
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