Enter the jungle – a portrait of wet rainforest

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.


11 Responses

  1. Gail

    I’m really enjoying this series of posts Paula. Your personal narrative at the outset adds a wonderful backdrop to your painting. And the painting itself is beautiful. I love the scale and density you’ve given the rainforest, with the minimal skyscape to top it. It’s very effective because even though the painting’s perspective is from outside, the lack of sky and dense, dark foliage is what I feel when I’m in a rainforest.
    Tullawallal is a beautiful place to have a special memory of. It really is quite something – and I always feel very fortunate to sit amongst those antarctic beech trees and the boulders and reflect.
    Thanks for a wonderful read!

    • Paula Peeters

      Thank you Gail for taking the time to read and comment. I’m certainly enjoying introducing each painting and telling its story, and I’m thrilled you’re enjoying them too. I think Tullawallal is very special, and I have no doubt that many people who have sat amongst those beech trees and boulders would agree. Look out for next week’s post which will be about the southern beech (Nothofagus) forest.

  2. Mary

    Thank you for sharing this superb portrait ofa sub-tropical rain forest. Of all the different types of forest environments I love the rain forest most of all. It is a magical and mysterious place, filled with so much beauty and interest.

    We had many wonderful holidays at O’Reilly’s over the years. Our entire family enjoyed repeated tree top walks, browsing through the botanic gardens, enjoying the superb food and accommodation and taking an occasional spotlight night walk. Queensland is rich in environmental experiences of all kind, and all of them—easily accessible from Brisbane.

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Mary, it means a lot to me that someone who loves this type of rainforest and has spent a lot of time in it thinks that my picture is superb . Thankyou for reading and commenting.

  3. Thea Gavin

    Hi Paula! I’ve “been meaning to” comment every time you post another stunning forest portrait, but I always feel I need to wait to compose a proper reply that befits the beauty of your work. But I don’t have time . . . so . . . please know that your words (LOVE the “backstory of a naturalist” subplot) and images and insights are all so informative and compelling. Your connection to your “home ground” really shines, and it is inspiring. Thanks for transporting me 🙂

    • Paula Peeters

      Hey Thea good to hear from you. I don’t know if I can compose a ‘proper reply’ to your wonderful, encouraging comments. All I can say is thankyou for the lovely feedback.

  4. Jane

    Hi Paula,
    Lamington National Park is such a beautiful place. Parts of it make me feel like I’ve walked into a Tolkien novel. In my last post I was wondering which natural places make certain people feel more relaxed, more at home. Your post has answered my question about your feelings! I love visiting rainforests but my background means I feel more at home in open forest or plains. I probably feel as intensely about the red spinifex country out west as you do about the lush rainforests. 🙂
    Well, if you feel that tree identification in SE Queensland is very tricky, then I don’t feel so bad about my struggles! There are so many trees on my rainforest walks that are a puzzle to me. I go back home and try to identify them from books or online but many are very similar and of course usually I haven’t been able to take note of all the features that would differentiate them (eg fruit, flowers)
    Another beautiful piece of work that shows your observational skills and the passion you feel for nature. Thank you!

  5. Paula Peeters

    Hi Jane, no one should feel bad about the difficulty in identifying rainforest trees, even experts at the Herbarium routinely get confused! The best resource so far is the interactive USB ‘Rainforests plants of Australia’ recently published by Gwen Harden publishing. There are other books on her website that are easier to use in the field, but they mostly rely on leaf features, which can still be hard to verify for big trees.
    I actually feel happy in most types of vegetation – for me the important thing is whether they look healthy and weed-free. The problem with being an ecologist is that you are always aware of scars on the landscape. Going to anywhere with minimal or no scars is good! (Or good restoration, tended by caring and enlightened people, to heal up the scars). I’ve spent some time in deserts, and love them too. But many people feel more assured in open country, with scattered big trees. Some think this is a very instinctive feeling, born of our primeval need to see predators from a distance, and quickly climb a tree to escape them! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Jane

    And I can imagine that some would also explain an attraction to thick forests as a need to actually hide from predators. I think for some people (including me) ancestry, childhood memories and relationships that relate to certain landscapes provoke a stronger response…making us feel like we “fit” there. Indigenous Australians talk about “country” in a different way to many non-indigenous Australians. It’s more a spiritual, holistic approach to their relationship and history with a particular location of Australia. It is interesting how our cultural origins and professional work history can influence how we feel about or see the land. My partner was an entomologist and researcher and the way he viewed vegetation was different again. It’s fascinating how differently people can respond to nature. 🙂

  7. Jane

    Fantastic Paula! How I enjoyed this trip to a wet rainforest, and I’m thinking that our Dorrigo rainforest is pretty similar. I would love to go to Binna Burra one day. You have made this all so interesting and good to understand the different layers involved. Your paintings are wonderful, though I’m afraid I couldn’t spot Jessica even with my specs on!

    • Paula Peeters

      Hi Jane, it’s been a long time since I visited Dorrigo but I remember the rainforest was fabulous, and there was a treetop walk. Thank you for your appreciation and encouragement. Don’t worry, little Jessica is rather tiny and obscure at this resolution, especially in the gloom of the forest. Cheers, Paula