yellow robin Apr 14

An eastern yellow robin looks on while I am sketching. I wonder how it would draw a rainforest, if it could?

I explored my first rainforests when I was 14 years old and the experience probably changed my life. On a cold autumn morning at Binna Burra, I awaited the dawn bird walk, an enormous pair of very unsophisticated binoculars slung around my neck. Dingoes were howling from beneath the blanket of clouds that covered the Numinbah Valley. That day I heard whipbirds and caught a glimpse of a regent bowerbird. I was shown wait-a-while vines and stinging trees. Spider trapdoors cunningly hidden in the red-earth banks along the path. The largest moss in the world. And we ended up cooking billy tea and damper at Tullawallal among the southern beech trees (imagine that – fire in the rainforest! It’s prohibited today, since fires and rainforests don’t happily mix.).

It was the start of a 3-month holiday, mostly spent in the Wet Tropics of north Queensland. I’m not sure if it was the days spent wandering through the rainforests and other wild places of the north, or reading Silent Spring (the only science homework set by an enlightened teacher). It was probably both. But somewhere along the way, an environmentalist was born. During that Queensland trip I was still repeating the conservative values of my parents. A year or so later I had begun arguing with my father about the green issues of the day.

wet subtropical rainforest

Subtropical rainforest, Lamington National Park

So spending time in the rainforests of Lamington National Park to draw a forest portrait is like coming home. Now my binoculars are much smaller and we pack a thermos instead of a billy on our walks. But it’s not easy to try to untangle these enormous trees, interlooped vines, and overlapping layers of green, even to discern the entire shape of one tree. Let alone draw a forest.

treetop walk

The treetop walk at O’Reilly’s, Lamington National Park.

But the tree-top walk at O’Reilly’s is very helpful. I had wanted to include the black booyong in my picture as it’s a common canopy tree of these forests, and often has striking buttress roots. Fortunately, there is a magnificent specimen growing along the treetop walk. I can draw it from the ground level, and also the walk level.

The other star of the picture was to be a strangler fig, and while it’s easy to spot them in the forest, and view them from below, it’s much harder to imagine what their canopies look like from the side. One way is to take photos of strangler figs on one side of a steep valley from the walking track on the other side.

Strangler fig limbs

Strangler fig canopy viewed from the other side of the valley. Above: detail of limbs and epiphytes; Below: whole canopy.

strangler fig canopy

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – plant identification in south east Queensland is HARD. The number of species is bewildering, and this is especially so for rainforest plants. My Queensland plant ID skills are gradually improving since I moved here 9 years ago, but they are still very limited. It’s a good thing that I can ask people much more knowledgeable than me to ID the rainforest plants, and it’s even better when they come along and help in the field.

helpful botanists

Helpful botanists in the field.

I found it a real challenge to absorb all of the complicated visual information before me, and then parse it into a single coherent picture. But gradually one started to emerge.

wet rf prelim sketch002 small

Preliminary wet rainforest sketch. Note how the branches of the large trees and even the tree trunks are made of similar, repeated shapes? This is what the brain seems to default to when drawing trees from memory, or imagination, unless a real effort is made to create more authentically irregular, differing shapes.

wet rf prelim sketch001 small

Colour rainforest sketch.

And finally, the finished product:

Wet rainforest - subtropical (pastel)

Wet rainforest, south east Queensland. Pastel on paper, original size 52 x 72 cm. Large tree on the left is the black booyong (Argyrodendron actinophyllum); large tree on the right is Watkin’s fig (Ficus watkinsiana). At the base of the black booyong are some giant stinging trees (Dendrocnide excelsa) which have germinated in a light gap. The tree with the pale trunk in the centre-right is the prickly ash (Orites excelsus).

Perhaps you can just make out my friend Caroline in the bottom centre-ish of the picture, but her daughter Jessica is harder to spot – she’s hiding behind a buttress root of the tree on the left. The picture is dark, perhaps too dark. But one of the characteristics of wet rainforest that I was trying to capture is the deep shade which is created by a closed tree canopy. In this way these forests are very different from most Australian forests and woodlands, which tend to be lighter, brighter, and often a bit too hot and sunny on a summer’s day.

Here are a few more features of wet rainforest that are included in the picture:

wet rainforest key

Features of the wet rainforest: 1. Closed canopy, with numerous tree species; 2.Trees are closely-spaced; 3. Up to three or more tree layers; 4. Buttress roots and strangler life-forms; 5. Large vines (lianas); 6. Epiphytes; 7. Tree-ferns; 8. Grasses and annual herbs are rare or absent.

If you would have asked me to draw a rainforest when I was 14, I would have thought it impossible. A few decades later, and I am crazy enough to have a go. Some special places that we visit in our lives just keep on calling us back – this is what Lamington National Park feels like to me. I hope to return many more times over the the next few decades, and keep trying to draw the forest. And hopefully I’ll get a bit better at it each time.


This post is one of a series on forest portraits. The next post in this series is Nothofagus: a portrait of the Antarctic beech forest. You can also read how and why I started to paint forests with the first post How to draw a forest (Part 1).

Continue your rainforest journey by reading why the strangler fig is everyone’s favorite killer, and about the Swiss scientist who explored the hidden world of the black booyong.