The most widespread and abundant forest type in Australia is probably dry sclerophyll forest – the tallest trees are eucalypts and their relatives (Corymbia, Angophora, Lophostemon), and below them are sparse shrubs, heath and/or grasses and herbs. This forest type is common because it’s fire-tolerant, somewhat drought tolerant, and often grows on the crappy soils that no-one wants for anything else. Dry sclerophyll forest appears in some classic Australian paintings: think of Frederick McCubbin’s ‘Lost Child’ (1886) and Tom Robert’s ‘Bailed Up’ (1895-1927). Another depiction of dry sclerophyll forest – Hans Heysen’s ‘Sunshine and shadow’ (1904-5) – inspired the title of this post.
Unlike many northern hemisphere forests, these forests are full of light. Queensland, according to a well-known tourism campaign, is ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next’. The forests up here are often bathed in bright white-gold light, bleaching sunlit objects and casting deep shadows. They are hard to photograph, and hard to paint. I’m told not to take photos in ‘contrasty’ light – it’s much better to photograph in even light. For painting, it’s probably the same, although being self-taught, maybe I missed that lesson. But here are these ubiquitous, Australian, sunlit forests – I want to paint them full of sunshine and shadows, because that’s an important part of what they are.
Although there are a range of different dry sclerophyll forest types around Brisbane, I decided to focus on one of the most common: spotted gum / ironbark forest. To make preliminary sketches for my forest portrait, I went to Mt Coot-tha Forest, Bunyaville Forest Reserve and Ironbark Gully (off Samford Road). One of the great things about looking at forests in detail is that you tend to go slowly and quietly, and see lots of wildlife. So the photo at the top of this post was a lace monitor I disturbed on my travels, and it was keen to show me its favorite (or perhaps just the nearest) glossy, spotted gum trunk. This could be Corymbia citriodora or C. henryii, both common trees in these forests. Further south, C. citriodora is known as the lemon-scented gum, but it doesn’t smell lemony up here. At Bunyaville there were lots of pea-flowered shrubs, flowering profusely.
Another tree that made an appearance was the tallowwood, Eucalyptus microcorys.
This tree is a favourite food for koalas. Although I didn’t see any while preparing for this portrait, here’s a picture of one we saw at Mt Mee, some weeks earlier:
There was a pacific baza foraging high up in the trees while I was sketching. These raptors glean stick-insects and frogs off the foliage of trees.
So once again I went home and spent many hours re-imagining the forest from a point of view sort of half-way up the trees.
And this is what I came up with:
Most of the large trees in the picture are spotted gums, but the brown-trunked tree on the left is a tallowwood, while the darker-stemmed trees are ironbarks (Eucalyptus crebra). In the understorey you might recognize young Eucalyptus and Corymbia saplings, wattles, sheoaks, grasses, tufts of Dianella and Lomandra, young brush box saplings and soap trees (Alphitonia). The flowering peas can be seen as a dark golden haze. There are also 3 creatures in the picture: a koala, the pacific baza (difficult to spot at this resolution), and the third? The lovely Ray: he’s admiring the trees, and giving a sense of scale to the picture.
This is the fourth post in a series on forest portraits. Read more about how and why I started to paint forests; my first forest portrait, and Blackbutt beasties: forest portrait number two. The next post in this series is Portrait of an endangered scribbly gum woodland. If these portraits speak to you, please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.