Pt 3, Pr 1, Ex 1,2,3 – Trees and the great outdoors. Case study with Dina Brodskytt

Summer is round the corner, and just in time for my first outdoor project. I quickly became familiar with the system of recording and drawing trees. Being complex forms, by looking too hard at all the shapes and lines quickly became confusing. However, the more trees I looked at, the more I realised that, although appearing random and chaotic, each type of tree had underlining patterns of repetition. Natural fractals give each tree it’s own characteristics which are only distorted by it’s direct environment.

With this in mind I was able to simplify the forms down into basic shapes of light and dark tones and highlights as seen in my drawings from my sketch book. Simplifying it helped pick out the overall characteristics of the tree and by roughly drawing in the tones while giving more of a gesture of the leaves as opposed to drawing them individually seemed to give an overall hint at what the drawing was, ultimately being interpenetrated as a tree.

I found this technique invaluable by merely hinting at the characteristics, the viewer then recognises the shapes and identifies it as a tree.

Drawing outdoor is great, but certainly without it’s disadvantages such as change in weather, light, wind, and forgetting an important tool once miles away from the studio!

I managed to put together a field kit consisting of a clip board to hold my sketchbook or paper, pot of water to clean brushes or use for water colours, a customised travel bag with pen/brush holders. I found that carrying my kit easily and economically was half the battle, and made life much easier to pack and unpack, especially when the weather turned. I found being organised and having a system in place for working outdoors helped make me comfortable and extended my productivity.

I also made sure I took my camera with me so I could record what I was drawing in case I had to abandon the drawing because of the weather.

Sketches of a single tree.


The first tree I looked at was a large oak at the end of my road. Drawn to it’s freedom of growth it had an almost perfect triangular canopy of leaves and an interesting twist to it’s trunk. I practised drawing the basic shapes and lines, breaking the image into simpler forms to get a better idea of of the trees natural patterns. From there I could start to add the areas of tone and shade to give the impression of leaves and foliage.
Once broken down into simple shapes, the complex twists of the branches and leaves were easier to comprehend.

At first I had trouble trying to render the leaves in a quick but convincing way so I decided to concentrate on trying out different techniques to describe different types if leaf formations. Using a variety of mediums such as pencil, charcoal, biro, pen and ink, fine liner all had their own characteristics that had to be dealt with differently, but worked well in describing different trees.


Using different mediums gave drastically different results, something that lent itself well to describing different trees. Ball point was good for conifers and sharp detailed trees, whereas charcoal was good for dense, bushy foliage.


Drawing outside was fun, but definitely had its disadvantages.  A comfortable seated posture for so long was not always an option, so pins and needles and the momentary loss of feeling in the legs required much standing up and dancing around when no one was looking

. Some of the sketches I did were placed looking up from the base of the tree which proved a rather uncompromising position, however the weather proved to be the biggest obstacle.

Despite the set backs, they lent themselves to adaption, and I found myself taking more notice of detail and shade as blocks of area, recording it down with a quicker, yet accurate expression of tone. As opposed to trying to note down each individual detail, I developed a technique to create the illusion of foliage by mimicking the overall movement and nature of the tree and adding in detail where needed.

However, I didn’t grasp this technique fully until drawing a large A3 study looking up to a tree with charcole and biro.

Detailed drawing of a single tree.


I split this drawing up into a few sittings as the tree was nearby where I lived. Using only charcoal and ball point, I wanted to spend a bit of time on it so I broke it up into outline and rough tone, bark detail and then foliage. I then took pictures and finished off the final details indoors so that I could zoom into the higher parts of the tree and record all the detail as best I could.


It actually wasn’t until I had spent a good few hours finishing the detail that I really started to understand how to render the foliage in a more generalised, but convincing way. For the first time I was able to represent the leaves in more than a scribbled mess of a way, and by doing it with a little more care and detail, I was able to convert that understanding of a more flexible, freestyle technique. This I was happy with as I was really tearing my hair out trying to get the leaves to look convincing.

Another technique that I developed was making almost random blots, (inspired by Alexandra Cozens), with water colour pencil and covering them in tissue paper to give raised textures. I then washed coloured ink over them and began to bring out details following the textures with coloured pencil, charcoal, conte stick and biro to give a natural movement to the piece. I especially liked the roots in this ‘imagined’ tree.


Study of a group of Trees.


I instantly knew which scene I was going to use for this exercise. I passed a strip of forest a little while back, and, unable to identify the trees, I was struck by the soft bright green glow that illuminated the backdrop, casting the trees in shadow setting a sharp contrast, and an almost eerie radiation of matted moss greens from the trees themselves. This muted palette drew me in, I could feel the ambience radiating from it, the illuminated sky and fields in the background gleamed in the sun, opposed to the shadowed trunks shaded by the canopy of their own leaves.


To get a real feeling for the area I wandered/stumbled down the gully deciding it was a good idea to sit in the mud among the brambles and copious amounts of flies. This is where organisation and material prep really came into its own! I have modified an old WW2 army sactual  by riveting a brush/pen travel holder inside it which can fold out to create a flat surface to draw on.  I sat back and looked up to get a good worms eye view of the canopy of the leaves and the mottled effect of the sun poking through. This reminded me of the pointillism piece I did earlier, so I used some soft chalks  to give a similar effect of stippling.

Feeling that it was almost like two worlds, outside and in, I decided to render the sense of the surroundings in multimedia utilising layers to describe the depth of the picture. For this I turned to rice paper in an attempt to recreate the hazy glow of the background, and try to emphasise the placement of the trees, while accentuating the green horizontal plane of the forest floor against the dark spindles of the tree trunks.

This took a bit of experimentation with different mediums, water colour pencil, ballpoint, fine liner, charcoal, oil and chalk pastel all worked well over the rice paper so I decided to use them all in conjunction depending on their strengths. I used the darker fine liners for the background trees so that they shone through the layers, whilst for the detail in the foreground I used oil pastel dissolved in turps, coloured pencil and biro to create a bit more detail while still trying to maintain that hazy, almost dream like quality that I felt while in the forest.

I found that water colour pencils were the most adequate for the hazy glow I was after, being transparent in nature the colours really shone through the layers. Other mediums like oil pastel tended to dull in colour as the light got trapped between the layers.


However after all the experimenting, I still wasn’t getting satisfactory results…until I had a spark of inspiration from the leaf canopy drawing I did earlier. I decided to do the whole thing in the pointillism style I used earlier with the monochrome exercise. This would lend well as the pens were translucent, bright and sharp, and I could mimic the mottled effect of the leaves and forest floor perfectly. I also had a diverse range of subtle colours to work with to match the right hues and would also be easier and simpler to work outside with this setup.


The only way I could make sense of, and split the individual layers up, was to make rough traces of where I perceived the levels to be using a photo and my laptop so I could use them as a guide when coming to draw them. This encouraged me to look even closer at  scene and be able to identify and simplify the structure of the forest so that when I went out to draw it I was better prepared and more familiar with it.

Some of my experiments with dots included layering the sheets together with transparent lacquer which resulted in the ink bleeding. Not the effect I was looking for, but noted down as interesting all the same! I also layered a coat of resin onto of one in an attempt to flatten and compress the sheets of tracing paper which gave a nice glazed effect. I also tried shining different lights through the back of the layers to see what effects I could gain.

My final attempt started out as an educated guess and I didn’t fully know how it was going to turn out. I completed the three layers that I had separated in the photos and began dotting in the foliage.

From here I layer the paper and set it in a hollow frame to be mounted on a window with natural light shining through it. The results preceded my expectations of creating depth and that hazy green glow set in contrast with the vertical trunks of the trees.


In addition to the affect, a misty haze was created in patches where the layers were not touching, adding the hazy atmosphere and casing an almost magical feel to the picture.

The only thing i would have done differently is to use sturdier Chinese rice paper as opposed to tracing paper. Very happy with the results.

Case Study – Dina Brodsky/ The Secret Life Of Trees.

I came across Brodsky a few months ago and was enchanted by her on ging project of documenting  trees in the most skilled and detailed way – ‘The Secret Life of Trees’.As a contemporary miniaturist painter from New York, I couldn’t find much info about her background, but it was her documents on trees that I was most intrigued with.

(1) – ‘Tree sketch #111’ D. Brodsky

It wasn’t so much the insanely detailed pen drawings that she did of trees on her travels, but the way that she perceived, spoke about, and understood the characteristics of the the tree. I think this is one reason why I kept an ear mark on her, and why her work stood out to me.

(4) – exert out of sketch book. D. Brodsky

(5) “Nature has got it all figured out. Though there is struggle and competition, there is also a beneficial synergy in which all living things exist in a system of checks and balances, ultimately reliant on each other for survival.” – (statement in artists own words)

Seeing a tree as the living organism it is, unchanged through millions and millions of years in practically unchanged evolution is just one hint that they are doing something right. There ethos to survival is something us humans should take into consideration, form a strong base, grow slowly but surely and just go with the flow. I guess if we didn’t complicate our lives with useless activities and took a ‘leaf’ out of a trees book, we would probably be more successful at surviving.

(6) “Standing firm, as the steadfast icon of this basic truth is the tree.” –    (statement in artists own words)

The perfect analogy of how life unravels is described with brute honesty in the growth of a tree, hence the importance and countless historical references to the ‘Tree of Life’ in many ancient civilisations from the Celtic, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic faiths among many others represent the tree as a strong religious and sacred symbol. Just as the actual physical growth of a tree represents life, I feel the metaphor of an idea that grows into an action can be likened to the seed that grows into a tree. A bit of food for thought that I’d like to investigate further.

(10) Fibonacci sequence

The imagery and metaphor of the growth of a tree can even be linked in with the Fibonacci Sequence which is not only the equation that plants and trees adhere to when growing, but can also be attributed to the growth and multiplication of animals, the splitting of cells, the dividing of rivers or the formation of galaxies.


1)        ‘Tree Sketch #111’ Brodsky D. 08/07/16, 6×8″, ballpoint pen on paper. Web:                                     dina-brodsky/

2)       ‘Tree Sketch #1’ Brodsky. D. 20/06/15, 5.5×3.5″, ballpoint pen on paper. Web:                

3)       ‘Tree Sketch #18’ Brodsky. D. 26/08/15, 3.5×5.5″, ballpoint pen on paper. Web:              

4)       ‘Exert out of sketchbook. Brodsky. D. Water colour, ballpoint, paper. Web:                                            brodsky/

5/6)    Quotes – “Nature has got it all figured out”                                                                                                        “Standing firm” Brodsky. D. Web:                                   trees/

7)        Icelandic tree image. Web: /entry/File:                                Yggdrasil.jpg

8)        Celtic Tree Of Life image. Web:

9)       Islamic tree image. Web:                                interpretations-meaning-tree-life/

10)     Fibonacci Sequence diagram. Web:                            sequence-on-spiralling


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