setting out in Bellthorpe

Setting out to draw a forest portrait, Bellthorpe State Forest.

When it comes to doing art I’m largely self taught, so I always hesitate to call myself an artist. But I do like a challenge. Trying to draw forest portraits would require me to brush up on everything I had ever learnt about colour and tone and whatever else goes into making a good picture. And I had very few examples of this type of picture – a forest ‘portrait’ – to go by. And perhaps most challenging of all, even though I wanted to make it as realistic as possible – with species that were recognisable to those who knew their plants – I would need to invent the picture.

flooded gum small

Wet sclerophyll forest – featuring a beautiful flooded gum – from the distorted, human perspective.

As I discussed in Part One, the human perspective of a forest is usually distorted because of our small size. To avoid this distortion, I couldn’t just draw the whole picture from real life, or from a photo – my forest portrait needed to be invented. I had to imagine I was viewing the forest without the distortion, as if I was sort of floating halfway up the trees and also looking at them from a distance, so I could capture their entire height. Of course, one can clearfell a forest to achieve that perspective, but needless to say, I wasn’t keen on such destruction. But I did make good use of road cuttings and elevation wherever I could, to increase my height with respect to the trees, so that I could try to reduce the distortion.

For some reason I started with the tallest forest type that exists in Australia – the wet sclerophyll forest, also known as tall open eucalypt forest. The mountain ash trees (Eucalyptus regnans) which dominate these forests in south-eastern Australia are the tallest flowering plants in the world. The tallest living specimen of a mountain ash is 99.6 m tall. In south-east Queensland (where I’m based) wet sclerophyll forest is dominated by other tree species – including the flooded or rose gum E. grandis, Sydney blue gum E. saligna and blackbutt E. pilularis. These species don’t grow as tall as the tallest mountain ash, but they can still grow up to 50 m in height. Here’s a simple profile sketch of wet sclerophyll forest that shows the type of forest I set out to draw:

Wet sclerophyll forest structure

Wet sclerophyll forest structure

The forest portrait would need to be a composite picture, made up of many separate impressions. So I went out to places in south-east Queensland, such as Bellthorpe State Forest, Brisbane Forest Park and Mount Mee, that still had patches of wet sclerophyll forest. Always with the lovely Ray, but once also as a volunteer with the Queensland Herbarium, assisting with their monitoring of the horse trails network (thankyou to Don Butler for helping to tee this up and to Michael Ngugi for having us along). It was helpful to go out with botanists who knew the plant species much better than I did, and to ask them about typical forest assemblages and growth forms. I decided to focus on wet sclerophyll forest dominated by flooded gums. I took lots of photos, tried to estimate the dimensions of the trees, and scribbled many small sketches and notes. Here’s a few of them:

flooded gum notes004 small

flooded gum notes003 small

flooded gum notes006 smallThen I took all of this back home and tried to transfer it to a large piece of pastel paper. I drew with soft pastels because they were the colour medium I’d worked with the most. They are forgiving if you make a mistake – usually you can just remove the pastel and start again. They also suited my work style – which was extremely slow, since I needed to do lots of thinking and imagining to invent my picture, and stop-start, since I also had a day job. But one of the drawbacks of pastels is that their resolution isn’t great – it’s hard to achieve fine detail.

It took about 9 days of working about 5 hours each day, spread over several weeks, to finish this first forest portrait. There was much trial-and-error, much contemplation, and many cups of tea. This is what I finally came up with:

Flooded gums medium

Flooded gum forest, a type of wet sclerophyll forest. Pastel on paper, by Paula Peeters. Original size: 52 cm x 72 cm.

Wet sclerophyll forests can be a bit gloomy, especially in south eastern Australia. But in Queensland they are often full of bright sunlight. I depicted mine with morning sun shining slantwise through the trees. These forests are usually in mountainous areas, so the picture has mountains in the background. The flooded gums are the tallest trees in the picture, but there are a number of other tree species in the understorey – I’ve labelled them in the figure below. I also made sure to put in important habitat features, like mistletoe, a dead standing tree with hollows, and woody debris on the forest floor. A human in the bottom left corner is included for scale, and is dwarfed by the towering trees.

flooded gum fig

Selected features of a wet sclerophyll forest dominated by flooded gums. Drawing by Paula Peeters.

Am I happy with the finished product? Yes and no.

No, because parts of it still look sketchy. Precise details are limited in places – which is a function of the pastels, the scale of the picture, and my limited technical skills. The picture looks naive, but this is ok because there is enough realism for the tree species to be recognisable.

But mostly yes. This picture makes me feel happy – I can’t say exactly why. Something about the tall majestic trees reaching up, the bright sunlight and vibrant colours, and the richness. It gives an impression, a glimpse, of a certain type of wet sclerophyll forest, in a certain type of light. And it’s a glimpse from a perspective that I’ve never had before.

But I was keenly aware that there were so many other types of forest, including more ‘flavours’ of wet sclerophyll forest. Now that I had done one portrait, I imagined how wonderful it would be to compare a series of them, side by side. I was itching to do more.

This is the second post in a series on forest portraits. Read more about how and why I started to paint forests, and check out my next forest portrait in Blackbutt beasties: forest portrait number two. The Flooded gum forest portrait is available for purchase as a greeting card from the Paperbark Writer shop.