Lessons: How to Draw Trees

Not long ago, I was a “Visiting Artist” at a fancy, private school in Connecticut. After a show and tell of my work, I welcomed students to ask questions. The first question was, “How do you draw trees?”

The question knocked me on my heels.  I’m not sure I’ve recovered yet.

After a short pause, I told the student, “I draw trees the same way I draw everything else. I look at my subject, and then I make marks on the paper that represent what I’m looking at. I translate that which is before me to the page.” The girl looked somewhat disappointed by my answer.

Since that time, I’ve reconsidered my answer. Not because of the student’s reaction, and not because my reply was wrong, necessarily. I mean, what I said was true. That is how I draw trees. Kind of. But, maybe I didn’t give the best answer. There’s more to it.

I certainly understand the disappointment of the questioning student. Non-artists think of drawing as an illusionary skill – a set of tricks – things that artists know and non-artists don’t know. If I would simply share with the student the trade secrets, then they too, could draw trees well, like I do. However, unfortunately, my answer didn’t reveal a secret. My answer continued to make drawing sound like a sort of mystery. Not purposefully. Actually, my intent was to do the opposite – to reveal an important fact about drawing – that there is no trick to it. There is only looking, and making marks (and making meaning, but more about that later).

We’ve all seen drawing books which have chapters such as “How to Draw Trees.” For years they made me bristle at the thought that they were selling a formula for drawing trees (and everything else). When you study drawing in art school, as I did, you aren’t taught a formula for drawing. Rather, you are taught to see. You draw and draw and draw and look and look and look again, critically. A good drawing looks right and a bad drawing looks wrong. There are endless variations of drawing approaches (from cartoony to abstracted), but they all end up looking right or wrong. In the end, the drawings prove that the artist has translated a well-seen truth. I must admit, however, that suplimenting those hours and hours of guided looking and mark-making was the sharing of the real inside stuff – the timeless principles of drawing success: composition, perspective, gesture, value, proportion…etc. Those aren’t tricks or formulas, but just looking and drawing wasn’t enough for me to succeed. Good teachers sharing good lessons were essential to my future success. Recently, I’ve come to realize that some of those “How To” books are actually intending to teach people to see trees better, not to draw them a certain way. That I can support.

Perhaps the biggest problem with my answer is that I didn’t even mention that drawing is a form of expression. When I draw a tree, that’s not all that I’m drawing. I’m also drawing thoughts, feelings and reactions. It’s an expression that I’m sharing. How I draw a tree has everything to do with that expression. A drawing of “I love that tree” is different than a drawing of “I hate that tree.” I’m not just making marks, I’m trying to make a point. I’m making meaning.

Finally, and most importantly, we should face the fact that the question itself, “How do you draw trees?” is the problem.

At its best, drawing is not about how.

How I’m drawing trees, has everthing to do with why I’m drawing trees.

I draw trees, or anything else, the way I do, as an expression of what I’m enthusiastic about. That’s the “why” part. Why I draw is to capture moments of time and place, and light and textures, and shapes, and memories, and more. If I were a natural science illustrator, or an abstract expressionist, I’m sure my drawings would be very different. I’d draw them for different reasons, and with different enthusiasms. Actually, if I were any other artist, my work should be different. Drawing is personal. The fact that my drawings end up looking similar is not a reflection of how, but rather, a reflection of my enthusiasms and intentions, in other words, whys. I start fresh every time, and aim to always make something new. But in the end, I’m a singular person and my work reflects that.

So, if I’m ever asked, “How do you draw trees?” again. Here’s what I’ll say next time:

“I draw trees the same way I draw everything. I look at my subject, and try to be conscious of why I want to draw it, and what I want to say. Then I make marks on the paper to represent what I’m looking at, and to reflect what I’m thinking and feeling about it. Through drawing, I try to translate everything to the page as if for the first time, and to share it with others.”

Somehow, I can’t help thinking that that same student would be no more satisfied with my new answer than the old one. But, at least I’ll feel better with it. It’s closer to the truth.