by Malgosia Halliop
This study of a cottonwood branch in graphite, watercolour, and coloured pencil came out of two visits to a fallen cottonwood tree in Wilket Creek ravine. The first time I saw this tree on a walk through the ravine, it looked like it might have fallen within the past few days. The leaves were still vibrant green and red, some looking like they were still opening. I broke off a leafy branch at the crown of the tree, excited to spend some time with a section that I wouldn't normally have had access to when the cottonwood was upright. That week was busy for me, however, as my family was about to leave for a holiday, and I only had two short sessions to sit down with the branch, sketch it, and begin to paint it in watercolour. I painted it without much detail, and put the branch outside before we left.
On my second visit to the tree, almost a month later, I noticed how much it had changed. The leaves were now partly dried out, and at first glance, one might think they wouldn't be an attractive subject to draw. But as I spent some time looking at them, the laciness of the dried sections of the leaves seemed quite beautiful to me. I broke off another branch, and this time had more time to work with it at home.
I first sketched out the branch on copy paper, to get the proportions and relationships between sections right, and then transferred the line drawing to a piece of illustration board. I decided to let this piece be primarily a detailed drawing, with colour added over top. I filled in details on the illustration board with HB, 2B, and a bit of 4B pencil. I liked the look of the graphite, and wanted it to remain visible, especially for the lacy sections of the leaves. I added a few light layers of watercolour to the various sections of the branch and leaves, and then a bit more detail in coloured pencil.
I was struck by how quickly the leaves changed colour once they were off the tree, even though I had placed the branch in a jar of water. It made me realize how many nutrients must still be pumping through a fallen tree in the forest. Finding this dead tree and then revisiting it was an interesting echo to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Mark Dion: Life of a Dead Tree exhibit I had visited in late May. I was reminded how much life a fallen tree continues to feed and shelter, and the enormous bounty it contributes to the ecosystem. Watching the leaves on this branch dry out in front of my eyes as I tried to capture their form also made me think about how much any kind of representational art is one small way of creating order out of the entropy of the universe. It brought to mind the traditional still life painting, which in some periods often included a skull or maybe some broken flower stems among vibrant ones as a comment on mortality. The contrast of the green sections and the brown sections of these leaves felt like part of a similar conversation to me.
If you’re fascinated by trees, Toronto Botanical Garden is hosting an Urban Tree Workshop on Friday October 11, 2019.
Please follow this link to learn more: