How to draw a forest (Part 2) – my first forest portrait

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.

14 Responses

  1. Linda Lee

    Hi Paula. It was great to read the second installment of the story about how you came to be doing this work, and then to see the (an) end result – a picture. As soon as I saw it, it struck me that I have never seen forest depicted like that! I think you should be very happy with it, as I think you have definitley succeeded in communicating through the picture what you were trying to convey by doing this. There’s also a lot of depth in the picture, and it makes me want to go wandering around in that forest like that (very tiny, by scale) mystery person! Perhaps it is “the lovely Ray”? Well done, I say. It’s awesome, and I look forward to seeing more of them.

  2. Paula Peeters

    Hi Linda, thanks for your kind words once again – I’m glad you wanted to roam around in the picture. The mystery person was actually based on me, but it’s almost impossible to tell since the scale of the picture makes the figure so tiny. Or at least that’s my excuse. As I think you already know, the lovely Ray will be making an appearance in a future portrait or two.

  3. Dayna

    A fantastic result Paula!
    I guess the easiest way to see all levels of a forest is to walk across the side of a steep hill – which is fine if you can find an appropriate track. A few come to mind for me here in Victoria, but with steep hillsides also come ecosystem changes.
    Plenty to explore.
    I look forward to your next forest portrait!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Dayna, it’s great for me to be able to share this work with others like you who appreciate forests, and spend time exploring them. Cheers, Paula

  4. Gail Rehbein

    This painting is beautiful Paula. I really love it. You’ve captured the majesty and gentleness of the forest. And your treatment of the light is beautiful. A series? Yes you must!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Gail. Gentleness? Now that’s interesting, I must think about that some more. I love how our appreciation of any picture is a combination of the picture and what we bring to it. That’s why everyone has a different experience. Thanks for reading and commenting, Paula

  5. Mary Mageau

    Congratulations, Paula. You’ve done it – made a very fine drawing of a wet sclerophyll forest. The clarity of the drawing and its placement of trees of varying heights make the surface of your drawing easy to read. No one gets lost in the small details. I hope you frame this pastel and protect it with a glass cover. It will make a place for itself somewhere.

    Have you visited Mount Glorious recently? There are several different forest types here: prime rainforest, open hardwood forests, groves where the bell birds sing in all their glory. It’s a magical place , one that could keep an artist and botanist going for a long time.
    I’m looking forward to your next drawing.

  6. Paula Peeters

    Hi Mary, thanks for your positive feedback, I’m glad you like the drawing. It’s now framed behind glass, but not before being digitally copied so I can make prints from it if needed. Mount Glorious certainly lives up to its name, and has provided me with plenty of inspiration. And it’s less than an hour from where I live, and even closer to you. We live in a very special part of the world.

  7. carol donaldson

    I love the brightness and airiness of the painting. It feels like you’re flying through it

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Carol! It’s great for me to read all of these diverse responses to the picture.

  8. Jane

    Hi Paul,
    I am sorry this comment is late. I read your post much earlier but have been travelling and planned to return and comment on your beautiful artwork. Thank you for sharing this process with us. You are an excellent teacher. I love the shades you’ve used and your treatment of the light. I think pastels work so well with this subject. I would love to see you illustrate stories for young nature lovers. Beat wishes.

  9. Paula Peeters

    Hi Jane, thanks for your words of praise. I really appreciate the encouragement I receive from you and others through this blog. Cheers, Paula

  10. Bill

    The end result looks really good, and more importantly contains a lot of information. I’m not sure if it was your intent, but it looks like it was clear felled 50-100 years ago! The overstorey is even aged with foliage confined to the very top of the trees. It would be great to see a picture of very late stage succession – something a contemporary white fella may find hard to imagine but would definitely like to see.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey Bill, thanks for reading and commenting, and your kind praise about my picture. I did try to make it look ‘old growth’ but – as you say – it’s hard to imagine what a truly ancient forest may have looked like, based on the younger stands that I’m familiar with today. Did you notice that the tree on the right has had the top blown out of it, and it actually would have been taller than the others before this happened? And the dead stag on the left that died some time ago (since there are no fine branches present). Do you really think older trees would have branches further down the trunk? It seems to me that flooded gums tend to shed their lower limbs already when they are young (e.g. 50 – 100 years old) and I’m assuming they continue to do this. But very happy to hear more ideas about how to make the forest look older. Obviously, enormous trunks would be one way, but then that limits how many trees I can put in a picture. I may have to do a mural one day… 🙂 Cheers, Paula