Thursday, March 19, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Seeing Trees

During this week's lecture in History of Art & Design, I emphasized the use of chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow, in Baroque painting--especially in the works of Caravaggio, Artemesia, and other Italian masters of the moment.

While reviewing my slides for the lecture, even though most of the discussion would focus on figures, I started thinking about John Ruskin, and, in particular, the chapter in Modern Painters, "Of Truth of Chiaroscuro," and his description of how to see the configuration of branches on trees:

Go out some bright sunny day in winter, and look for a tree with a broad trunk, having rather delicate boughs hanging down on the sunny side, near the trunk. Stand four or five yards from it, with your back to the sun. You will find that the boughs between you and the trunk of the tree are very indistinct, that you confound them in places with the trunk itself, and cannot possibly trace one of them from its insertion to its extremity. But the shadows which they cast upon the trunk, you will find clear, dar, and distinct, perfectly traceable through their whole course, except when they are interrupted by the crossing boughs. And if you retire backwards, you will come to a point where you cannot see the intervening boughs at all, or only a fragment of them here and there, but can still see their shadows perfectly plain. Now, this may serve to show you the immense prominence and importance of shadows where there is anything like bright light. They are, in fact, commonly far more conspicuous than the thing which casts them . . .(Volume I Part II Section II, Chapter III--the guy was very organized in his thinking).

This must have been in the back of my mind all winter, because for otherwise inexplicable reasons, I've been taking a large number of pictures of bare tree branches against the sky.

I may also have been inspired by a dim recollection of one of Ruskin's drawing exercises, included in his The Elements of Drawing, a Dover paperback copy of which I picked up at Half Price Books a few years ago and once planned to go through systematically to test out Ruskin's teaching expertise (I've been a cocky broad all my life; why stop now?). In Exercise VI from the first chapter ("On First Practice") he suggests the following:

Choose any tree that you think pretty, which is nearly bare of leaves, and which you can see against the sky, or against a pale wall, or other light ground: it must not be against strong light, or you will find the looking at it hurt your eyes; nor must it be in sunshine, or you wll be puzzled by the lights on the boughs. But the tree must be in shade; and the sky blue, or grey, or dull white. A wholly grey or rainy day is the best for this practice (pp. 39-40).

He then suggests following the lines of the branches and their interstices "as if they were little estates which you had to survey, and draw maps of" (p. 40). Now this appeals to two of my interests: maps and trees, so it may well be behind this weird winter avocation.

Nevertheless, the results appear here, as this week's Skywatch Friday offerings.

A pecan tree in the foreground, with a vapor trail interfering.

A sycamore tree next door, with its little seed balls hanging down like ornaments, against a gloomy sky.

Pecan trees after an ice storm. The little bit of orange in the top center is fungus:

And finally, a sunset shot toward the west, with an admixture of our trees and neighbors':

There are many more; but I'm inspired now to go do some mapping. Ruskin's well worth a read, even if you're not much for Victorian prose. He's affected us more than we usually realize, and I'm happy to have a chance to bring him up.

Have a great Skywatch Friday.


Linda Jacobs said...

These pictures make me want to grab my camera and go ousdie to "Play"! Wonderful!

Guy D said...

Great posting, and I love all the photos, especially the last one. Well done.

Have a great weekend!
Regina In Pictures

Louise said...

Beautiful photos. I have to say I like the first best. Both the golden light and the shadow are perfect. Two of my favorite things in photos.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative post! I'm going to try and hunt down that drawing book of Ruskin's - it must have been slightly strange to be following instructions written so long ago. My favourite picture in this post is the first one; the colours are fantastic and go so well together - a room would look good painted/decorated with them.

Sylvia K said...

What a fabulous post to go with fantastic photos! I love the bare trees against the sky and have done some myself over the winter, not as good as these, but you've given me some great info to play with next time. Vapor trails seem to be everywhere these days, I have several on my post for Skywatch today. Happy SWF!

Martha Z said...

Wonderful pics, I love the contrast and the perspective of the sky through the trees.

nature ramblings said...

Great post. I really enjoy taking pictures of trees in winter. I enjoyed your writing and it has inspired me. I take lots of photos of oak trees as their is an infinate variety of shapes and gnarled trunks and branches. Thanks for sharing. Very interesting!

Arija said...

I love seeing the bare bones of the trees with or without chiarascuro!

SoapGecko said...

Just lovely! The sky thru trees is such an interesting scene to photograph and I love the colors in your last photo! Happy SWF!

Judy said...

This morning, I was looking at the golden light of early morning playing over the trees!! And here I find you have been doing the same thing! My favourite photo is the first one, all golden! But the prose is so interesting, too! I am going to have to try some of those exercises, now that it is warm enough to stand still outside.