How to draw a forest (Part 1) – or seeing the wood for the trees

When forests are drawn from the usual human perspective we often end up with a portrait of decapitated trees (mostly stems and not much canopy). I did this quick pastel sketch at the Blackdown Tablelands, central Queensland.

Look for depictions of forests in art and you won’t find many. Sure, there are plenty of landscapes with trees. But look closer and you’ll notice there are only a few trees, probably to one side of the picture, and the rest is open country. Or it is a parkland, some type of woodland, with scattered trees, not a forest. And in many pictures, the trees are just scenery, just background to the main subject of the painting – be that people, or a building, mountain or water feature. In many paintings the trees are decapitated – you might see the base of the tree, but the canopy is cut off. We would never depict a person like this, if we wanted to paint their portrait. Why is it that trees, and especially forests, get treated this way?

A few years ago I was engaged to write management guidelines for a range of Queensland forests and woodlands (e.g. rainforests, eucalypt woodlands, mulga and brigalow). The guidelines would describe the ecology of each vegetation type and outline how to restore these systems for carbon farming and wildlife conservation. This was part of the CATER project (Carbon Accumulation Through Ecosystem Recovery), back in a more enlightened time when the Federal and State governments took climate change a bit more seriously, and were willing to invest in innovative projects to tackle it.

You may have gathered from this blog that I’m a pretty visual person – I like to express concepts in pictures as well as words. So as I was reviewing the literature, and drafting the guidelines, I also set about looking for images of the forests and woodlands I was writing about. I found very few decent photographs and almost no drawings or paintings of these types of Australian vegetation. And I found this rather curious.

Of course, when we humans, at our pitiful height of 1.5 – 2 m, take pictures of forests, they are almost certainly distorted, with the bases of the trees huge and the canopies either shrunken or simply cut out of the photo. Usually the bases of one or a few trees block most of the picture. And that’s fine if we want a human-perspective view of the forest. But what if we want to capture the forest in its entirety? Or at least a range of trees, not distorted, from base to canopy?

To illustrate the ecology of each forest type I wanted to produce a state-and-transition diagram for each one. This shows the main ‘condition states’ of a forest – different successional stages if you like. Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, including pre-European vegetation mapping, so for any given site we can determine what native vegetation used to grow there. My task was to describe how you could bring it back to the maximum-carbon and/or maximum biodiversity state (which are almost always the same thing). So I was looking for ways to illustrate these states visually, as well as in words. Co-writing these guides with me was my now good friend and ecologist extraordinare, Don Butler. Which was just as well, because even though I had a thorough grounding in plant ecology and wildlife conservation, I was relatively new to Queensland. Don on the other hand, had spent many years exploring and mapping the vegetation we were writing about, so I would often ask him about a certain fact or theory I found in the literature, for a reality check. Don also understood the carbon-farming side of things a lot better than I did.

I ended up sketching some very simple profile diagrams of the forests and woodlands in felt-tip pen. Here’s one of the diagrams below – probably the simplest and sketchiest of them all – for eucalypt woodlands.

Euc woodland
Simple profile drawing of a mature eucalypt grassy woodland – complete with old trees, good grass cover and woody debris.

These pictures were intended to be a guide for the ‘professional artist’ we were going to employ to do the final illustrations. But since the CATER project was axed only halfway through its intended life (when the LNP government came to power in Queensland) this ‘professional artist’ was never employed. My sketchy pictures became the final product, and I am still a bit embarrassed by their simplicity and roughness. But although they could be far more polished, I still think they do a good job at conveying the information, and giving an impression of each forest or woodland type.

mature mulga structure
The structure of mature mulga (Acacia aneura) open-forest / woodland
Mature eucalypt open-forest
Mature eucalypt open-forest
Mature brigalow
Mature brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) forest
Wet sclerophyll forest structure
The structure of mature wet sclerophyll forest
mature callitris
Mature cypress-pine (Callitris) woodland

You can find the finished guidelines through these links:

Eucalypt woodlands, Eucalypt open-forests, Wet sclerophyll forest, Rainforest, Mulga, Brigalow

But I was still left with the question – why don’t people paint forests? And I felt sad that our wonderful forests and woodlands – although many have been beautifully photographed over the years – still mostly end up depicted from the human, distorted perspective. I wanted to see them in their entirety, I wanted to look upon their different structures and textures, and colours and tree types. To compare the way the light passed through them, the way the trees were shaped, the differences in understorey: grassy, shrubby or a mixture of both. Although I could imagine this in my mind from the forests I had walked through, I couldn’t easily compare these differences by looking at the images I had found so far. And if a person had never visited these forests, how could they understand and appreciate their different forms, beauty and variety? So I decided that I would try to paint some forest portraits myself.

This story is continued in How to draw a forest (Part 2) – my first forest portrait.

18 Responses

  1. I look forward to seeing your work – assuming you’ll share it with us on your blog, Paula.
    I would surmise the problem is as you described above – we’re small and a forest is big. When we walk among guants we see their feet, or the underside of the canopy. Viewed from the outside it’s a collection of trunks with a wavy top (not always, depending on the location), and from above its a sea of green (generally).
    I guess it depends what aspect of a forest people are trying to capture. There are many layers of detail to focus on. Perhaps we mainly draw what we can see?

  2. Paula Peeters

    Hi Dayna I think you are right – we mainly draw what we see (which is an essential starting point if you want a good likeness) and also what interests us. I also have a theory that much well-known art has been produced in northern hemisphere countries where the forests are very dark, which perhaps makes the subject less interesting, less colourful and just plain difficult to draw. I have found a few good exceptions – some of the Hudson River school artists in the US and some Russian painters. In contrast, most Australian forests are full of light – especially Queensland ones – which is one of the reasons I find them fascinating subjects for painting. And so too did Tom Roberts, McCubbin and Arthur Streeton – who were very good at capturing the Australian bush and its light. But they weren’t drawn to paint forests per se. But then they weren’t ecologists either, and maybe that’s partly why. Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers, Paula

  3. You have touched on something I have struggled with in the past.
    I look at the bush see the pattern of trunk, branches, leaves on one particular tree and I want to capture that. A photo won’t do it for me because there is all the other information clutter.
    I will have to spend some time with the Condition states and regrowth management pages.
    Thank you again for helping me see the forest for the trees.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Michael, ‘Information clutter’ is a great way to describe it. That’s one of the great things about painting which sets it apart from photography – you can choose what ends up in the picture and what gets left out. I’d be interested to hear what a practical bushcarer like yourself thinks about the management guidelines, and whether they are useful for your activities at Mt Gravatt.
      Cheers, Paula

  4. Hi Paula,
    Once again another thoughtful piece which is a good discussion starter and also very informative. Thank you! I think that side -view simple sketches are a great way to show the changing landscapes. Often when I am walking I wish I could convey that in a better way than my photographs can sometimes show. I see the variety and change lines with my eyes but sometimes as Michael says, the clutter that can appear in a photograph can make it difficult to convey this to others. Your sketches encourages me to take along a pencil and notebook again to have a go. Often when I take photographs I vary it between the canopy against a blue sky, the bark textures and the interesting base of the tree but rarely can I give the full size of the tree. Thanks for this excellent lesson in how to see and draw the profiles of a forest. By the way, I finally checked out Mt Gravatt and Toohey’s Forest this week and saw some lovely flowers and birds. 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Jane, Your photos are always terrific, but I think it would be great if you would also have a go at sketching. It can be fun and informative to do a series of quick ‘tree profiles’ for different stages of a walk to note the different types of veg that you pass through. Thanks for reading, commenting and also retweeting! Cheers Paula

  5. Linda Lee

    Hey Paula, it was great to read a bit more about what inspired you to start on your current journey. Looking forward to Part 2!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thanks Linda, the more I think about it, I suspect the pre-conceived ideas that I have from being a plant ecologist is what shapes my quest for painting different forest types. Because if you don’t have the concept of a certain forest type in your mind, you won’t set out to go looking for it. Cheers, Paula

  6. I very much enjoy the visual simplicity of your “sketchy pictures”. They convey a clear message for the purpose.
    Thanks for a thoughtful post. I’m intrigued to know where you get to with that question… why don’t people paint forests?

  7. Paula Peeters

    Thanks Gail, yes I think sometimes simpler is better. And it was a confidence boost for me that others thought they were good enough to go in the final documents, as my artistic endeavours are largely self-taught

  8. What a giant task you have undertaken, Paula, with this work of depicting forests. Yes, it is true that very few paintings or photographs of a complete forest are available. Possibly this is because a picture includes all the details and our sense of focus may become scattered or lost. It is very difficult to see the forest as a whole. We seem to isolate single or small group objects in order to study the details of each item or to view them in relationship to other objects . Perhaps the Japanese mode of ‘Less is More,’ may explain this phenomenon better.

    Your pastel sketch of the forest in the Blackdown Tablelands is exquisite. Without a doubt you have successfully combined art and science in your work.

    • Paula Peeters

      Ah Mary, thankyou for saying my sketch is ‘exquisite’. You are very kind 🙂
      I like your ideas about the excessive detail in a forest, and how our focus becomes scattered. I think that’s very true. Depicting forests is a challenge . But what a great excuse for further immersion in nature!

  9. Robyn

    Paula, It’s interesting to consider views of the world other than our own limited ones. Thank you for helping me see the forest and the trees.

    • Paula Peeters

      No worries Robyn. I think someone once said that being able to truly imagine the perspective of another human being was good – or maybe essential – for our health. I think being able to imagine non-human perspectives is also essential for our health – or at least the health of the planet! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. Melanie Venz

    I think the problem with us trying to visualise a cross-sectional slice of forest is that we rarely get the opportunity to actually view a forest in that way. We need to view this cross section from a distance that allows us to see all the layers – without a messy ecotone getting in the way and changing the nature of the scene. One of the few times that we do actually see it is when part of a forest is newly cleared… But this, in itself provides so many other unwelcome distractions. But I think some of my best “habitat” or “example-of-a-Regional-Ecosystem” photos have been of fairly-recently created (i.e. partly cleared) patches, that were taken from at least 50-100 m away. It’s a perspective that we rarely find in nature, so no wonder it’s hard for artists to find examples to work from!

  11. Paula Peeters

    Hi Mel, yes I think your right. And if you can’t easily see the subject, then you need a concept in your head of what you’re trying to express. And I think only people familiar with the ecological concept of a ‘forest type’ or Regional Ecosystem, or similar, will have that, in any detail. Cheers, Paula

  12. Hi Paula, I am very interested in what you’re up to. Seems you have dropped a ‘picture plane’ or imaginary glass pane vertically into your chosen forest type hence removing extraneous foliage. Scale and form of each species can now be observed both botanically and artistically. I’ve often thought that to appreciate this country we must learn the meaning of “subtle”. Your painting technique assists seeing the subtle difference between species which for most people (including many artists) is hidden. Natural science artwork at a forest scale, beaut stuff I think. Thanks for following my site/artwork, and looking forward to seeing more from your site. Cheers.

  13. Paula Peeters

    Hi Peter thanks for your interesting and encouraging comments. I really like getting different perspectives on these forest portraits as I am sort of feeling my way. It’s very rewarding when other people get something out of a picture. I’d also be very pleased if others started painting forest portraits, using whatever techniques and media they think are appropriate. Your site is great! I loved the water rat. They’re called Kurilpa up here, and there’s even a sculpture of one outside the gallery of modern art. Cheers, Paula