What color is an oak tree, anyway?

Remember in elementary school when your teacher challenged everyone to get out their paper and crayons and draw a tree?  You probably used just two colors for your tree: brown for the trunk and green for the leaves.  Done. 

When you got a little older and realized that branches and shadows give a little more dimension, you drew it with four colors: dark brown and light brown for the trunk and branches, and dark green and light green for the leaves.  Done.  Or maybe you used black instead of the darks, and couldn’t figure out why it didn’t look as good as you expected.  Your teacher didn’t offer any suggestion–he/she was just glad to have everyone busy.

Well this week, I finished “Tree of Stories”, and I used 20 colors just for the trunk, branches and leaves!  I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, but it gave me a new appreciation for how complex nature really is.  The real tree in its setting has far, far more interesting details and subtle colors than I could possibly convey on my 15″ x 20″ sheet of paper.  Even so, it took me 70-80 hours over a period of five weeks to finish. 

This wonderful old valley oak is in Rancho San Antonio County Park in Los Altos, California, next to a hiking trail.  Dozens of people pass this tree daily yet probably wouldn’t recognize it from my drawing, because I went off-trail to get this particular angle and lighting.  I could do five more drawings of this tree and they would look like five completely different trees!  It was hard to choose which of my reference photos to work from.  I wanted to convey something of the character of the tree, how the stories of its life are recorded in all its knots, whorls, bumps, cracks, mosses, limbs and leaves.  In sunlight and shadow, storms and drought, it has survived, thrived, and offered a canopy full of light to evening hikers who carry their own stories as they walk past on the trail.  Brown and green?  The more I looked, the more shades I saw.  What a challenge!

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Tree of Stories, 15″x20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Could I have gotten as good of results in less time by using fewer colors?  No.  I’d have still been trying to breathe life into the tree on my paper.  The beauty is in the details.  It’s not only the texture of the bark that makes this happen, it’s the color variations. 

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Tree of Stories detail, showing variations in both texture and color

So, what are all the colors I found to be just right for this wonderful ancient valley oak?  Here they are.  The four blues at the far right plus the grayish color in the center are the only ones that were not used on the tree itself.

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The 25 colors used to create Tree of Stories

As usual with colored pencils, I started by identifying the absolute darkest dark spots in the image–in this case the crack in the middle of the trunk and some of the far branches–and drawing them first.  Then I identified the absolute lightest light spots in the image–in this case the sky and the path–reserved them with very light colors, and worked my way down in value from there as I drew.  Light to dark.  Why light to dark?  Because you can always darken an area, but once it’s dark, you can’t lighten it by drawing a light color on top of it–it just doesn’t work.

This was my first time using Faber Castell Polychromos pencils.  They are oil-based colored pencils, which means they are somewhat powdery in texture, unlike the creamy, wax-based Prismacolors.  I liked them a lot, but don’t ask me which one is “better”!  They’re just different, and I ended up using both because occasionally I needed a darker, sharper line than I could get with the Polychromos.  In the photo, the ones with the gold band  are the Polychromos.  Some folks would say it was a little foolish of me to launch into a major new finished drawing with pencils I’d never used before, not even tried out first, but I figured: what better way to get completely acquainted with them?  No regrets here.

I hope when viewers look at “Tree of Stories”, they’ll take the time to see the details of color and texture and imagine the stories that brought those out in the real tree.  Then I hope they’ll go find the real tree and be amazed at how much more there is to it.  Nature is amazing.

4 thoughts on “What color is an oak tree, anyway?

  1. Good post. I like the way you breathe life into all your drawings. After reading this, I have gotten a better idea of how you achieve that particular attribute. I love your work.

    Only complaint is the ad for fracking…paid for by big oil to deceive folks into thinking it is safe. 😦

    • Ellen, thank you for the affirmation! I’m horrified to hear that an ad supporting fracking, of all things, appeared with my post. I’m violently opposed to fracking. I guess that’s the downside to having a free blog with WordPress–they control what ads appear, not the blogger. I hope subsequent views display ads that are less offensive. 😦

    • Ellen, I just upgraded my blog to a “no ads” account so there will be no more ads with my posts. It’s worth $30 a year to know nobody else will have a fracking ad in their face while reading anything I wrote!

  2. Great! Just one more thing to love about you. Not only your artistic ability, but your personal integrity, too. Thank you!

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