Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Angel Oak...continued

     After stumbling upon the Angel Oak tree this summer, and doing some initial charcoal drawings, I decided that I needed to do a few paintings of it. There's obviously something very magnetic about this tree, and being that I periodically have done paintings and drawings of trees in the past, it seemed like a logical next step. There doesn't seem anything less quintessentially Southern than an old Live Oak tree at the end of a dirt road, surrounded by Spanish moss and dappled with sunlight. I'm trying to investigate ways to embrace this dramatic shift in my location, to seek out scenes and spaces that contain a specificity of place. It would seem like complete denial of my circumstances to try and recreate what I had painted in Brooklyn...urban street scenes, old warehouses, or port scenes. Not that those kind of things aren't down here...I guess I want to break free of being "the industrial landscape guy". I was talking to a local artist the other day, and he was saying that I might have a certain advantage depicting the landscape here. He was relating how, having lived here his whole life, the typical Low-country scene is burned in his mind...visions of herons and pelicans silhouetted by sunsets, Spanish Moss covered trees, and marshes with rickety old boats bobbing around. For him, it's hard to 'see' how it actually is anymore; imagery becomes clouded over by cliches. I found that an interesting observation, and also a challenge.
   The Angel Oak is this massive, hulking, beast of a tree. Legend has it that it might be up to 1500 years old, and as you drive down that dirt road, you feel as if you're entering another time and place. There's usually a pack of albino squirrels scampering across the road as I approach, to further heighten the sense of other-worldliness. It's quite a far drive from my house, usually about 30 minutes, which I do after the kids are dropped off at school. The tourists have slowly tapered off as we get later into the season here, and there are sometimes long stretches of time when it's just me and the tree. I actually have gotten used to the people who visit, mostly enjoying the sense of wonder and awe that they display when seeing it for the first time.  The usual pictures are taken, with similar poses, and the people are so polite here that they actually ask to look at my painting.  Of course I don't mind, and sometimes chat it up for a little bit with people...I usually say jokingly, that I'm participating in the Angel Oak Artist in Residency Program.

charcoal on paper, 22" x 30"

   This first one I based off a drawing I did over the summer. I decided to keep the trunk of the tree right around the center point of the painting; dead on and symmetrical. I scaled the size of the painting off the drawing and transferred it at home with black paint on an earth-toned canvas. This was the progress after about 3 sessions, each for about 2.5-3 hours:

21" x 28"

     This is the state it's in now, tightened up a bit, but with the light changing quickly as we approach the winter solstice:

     This one is the clear day picture, which is really tricky to paint because of the shifting light. Dappled light is always so hard to paint from life, so I have to work in different zones of the painting at different times. I can anticipate when the light will shift from branch to branch, so I end up working in a specific order around the canvas. I usually have only a few hours before fatigue or light conditions force me to stop.  The position of the earth has shifted so much over the few months I've been working on it, it's almost a different painting. Today while I was painting, I noticed a crop of ferns had sprouted all over a large part of the tree since my last painting session. It's amazing that something so seemly static, upon further inspection, contains so much flux.

   I decided to start this one for working on overcast days, which in theory should be a little easier, because the light and shadows aren't constantly shifting. This one was done from about 20 feet to the left of the first one, because I liked how it showed the tree's canopy shifted to one side. Most of the branches splay out toward the road and are reaching in the same direction. With this overcast one, I'm thinking that I might add some other panels to the top and sides of the canvas to incorporate the full extent of the branches and the overhead canopy. As I start this one, I feel as if I'm stepping into a long commitment with the painting and the tree...it feels crazy and stupid and complex and beautiful all at the same time. After each painting session, there is always something lacking, something that keeps evading me, which brings me back. When I look from the canvas to the tree and compare the two, there is this massive gap which I'm trying to close. It's impossible and maddening, yet each time I work, it seems to just barely slip away, so that the next time, I'm sure I can pin it down. I want these paintings to have a very specific, over-all clarity; a way to describe each individual branch as it extends into space and how the light fills the gaps in between.
     Fortunately, the Live Oak doesn't drop it's leaves in winter, so it's overall appearance won't change too much. I might be forced to stop painting for awhile due to the cold, in which case I'll have to resume the work next spring.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Francis sills,
    enjoyed your pictures and story. I visited the angel oak for two days a month ago, and am working on pictures of it from the drawings I did. Wonderful place to work.
    take care
    Michiel Schepers (from the Netherlands) I posted my first effort on my facebook. If you want to see it, go there!