Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex Photo of Bluebell Woods in Sussex

How Sketching Taught Me to Capture the Spirit of a Tree

A guest blog by Kerry Cooper

Resolution day – 1st January 2019. I set myself the goal of sketching every single day for a whole year. I hoped the regular drawing practice might improve my painting. Little did I know it would lead me through a forest of modern and ancient wisdom in search of the spirit of a tree.  

Over 1,500 days later sketching has become an unwavering daily ritual. Twenty completed sketchbooks show rearing trunks, leaning branches, blazing foliage. I should have realised trees were working their way quietly, but insistently, into my heart.

Perching on a rock with a sketchbook, while walkers peer over your shoulder, is a revealing pastime. In my self-conscious dash to capture a scene, I was drawing what I imagined I saw rather than what was really there in front of me. After drawing and painting outdoors for a couple of years I learned to slow down, to study the nuance of form and colour, to enjoy chatting with tourists.

By painting outdoors I was following in the footsteps of many artists before me, most famously, the Impressionist movement. Firstly, I drew what I thought – in other words, my intellectual conception of what a tree looked like.  Spruce were flattened to dark, sharp, triangles; oaks imitated lolly pops.

But once I spent more time working outdoors my sketches began to change. I started to draw what I saw, teaching myself how to capture a twisted branch, a lightening shattered trunk, the myriad colours of autumn.

Then I began to try and reach beyond a likeness. I set out to draw what I felt – a unique interpretation of each individual tree. I wanted to capture something of the essence, the spirit, of the tree.

But this just kept eluding me. It was time to seek some wisdom.

I turned to both modern and ancient learning. I discovered Tristan’s work and the ancient tree lore of the Druids. The word ‘Druid’ is thought to derive from the Celtic word for oak – dru – and the Indo-European word for wisdom – wid. This seemed like a promising place to start.

Druids frame the world and our experience of it using four ancient definitions of the elements – earth, air, water and fire, plus the elusive spirit, known to them as “nwyfre.”

Could I unlock the mysterious nwyfre if I applied both modern and ancient knowledge to my sketching? It was time to return to the woods.

Searching for Nwyfre

The Orrest Oak

Air, the shape changer. I hold my pencil at arm’s length. Almost forty-five degrees – the angle I must draw for the trunk of the oak tree on the shoulder of Orrest Head. Diving away from the unrelenting south westerly, compressed by exposure, its crown is peaked, pointing sharply away from the scudding clouds. No straight trunks and smooth crowns here.

Water, the movement maker. I sweep a brush loaded with sepia across the base of the crumbling trunk. A tree surrounded by water, succumbing over time to drowned roots. The destructive force of Storm Desmond had remodelled the River Kent, pushing back the bank by metres, challenging my assumptions about where trees might be found.

The Drowned Tree, Kentmere

Earth, the growth dictator. Sketchbook braced against the drystone wall bounding the old green way from Hird Wood stone circle. I have just enough time for a double page sketch before the mist turns to rain. Soil depletion and overgrazing command I paint a bare fell top. Commercial forestry delineates a sharp-edged mass of jadeite green on the north west facing slopes. A splatter of serpentine green hint at recent planting edging hopefully upwards from the shelter of the valley.

Hird Wood

Fire, the shade influencer.  Mixing puddles of watercolour, soft green for slender mouse tail moss, silvery grey for stag lichen. Accents of burnt umber, raw sienna, ochre. Shaded by tall mature trees the elephant skin bark of an ancient oak spurns the earth tones and tints itself mostly green.

Capturing Nwyfre

What has sketching taught me? I’ve learned to slow down and observe deeply. Through tree lore I have opened my eyes – looking beyond the form and substance in front of me, back into decades, sometimes centuries, of tree life. I seek clues to elemental forces of nature. I question the landscape to understand the story each tree has to tell.

I always carry a sketchbook. It’s surprising what you can learn while waiting for school to get out, for an appointment to begin, for a train to arrive. I know I will never fully appreciate each tree I sketch but by giving my time to the trees they gift me an alluring glimpse of their spirit in return.

Thank you Kerry.

Kerry’s Instagram.

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Kerry Cooper’s Website

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