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Notes on a Fig Tree
More than any other tree I’ve seen, the fig tree calls forth associations with human limbs, skin, sinews, tendons, belly buttons, scars, flesh, and bones. I visit this particular tree’s home in a small field near the sea in early spring, just as the glossy chartreuse leaves unfold. The branches of the tree are still fully visible and the buds help sort out the eye-boggling tangled structure.
I recently read about a workshop titled “Slow-Lab” aimed at teaching how to “slow look” at something in order to bask in its beauty. Drawing and painting from life is a way of slow looking. I stood in front of the tree and forced my gaze to travel along the branches, following their lines as long as I could stand it. Many just terminate where my eye couldn’t find their end point amidst layers and layers of intertwining branches.
After the paper was mostly covered with pencil marks, I treated myself to making the first “wash” – a transparent layer of watercolor that closely replicates the colors of that moment. This layer is free, blurry, and soft. All the colors run into one another.
Details are too small to paint at a wobbly easel—outside—with all the challenges and distractions, so during the following year I occasionally added some detail while working in the studio. My goal was to show the luminous strangeness of the tree without creating a photographic replica.
I “negative” painted around the leaves and branches to add color to the background. I used some of my favorite Daniel Smith Primatek paints that deposit layers of tiny speckles in the branches. I liberally applied gouache to define the branches and make them pop.
I wanted more luminosity, so tested out some theories I learned in Walter Sargent’s book The Enjoyment and use of Color. All through the book, he emphasizes the science behind placing colors side by side in order to create a luminous visual effect. To accomplish this over a painting that was already covered in color, I tried a treatment of opaque dry-brushing over the transparent layers. As I compared the areas that were completed, the effect was indeed brighter.
On view at the Gandee Gallery's 10th anniversary show May 25 through September 1, 2019 in Fabius, NY.
Detail: Blue dry-brushed over background