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.
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.
You can find the finished guidelines through these links:
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.