Observation 6: The anatomy of nature

“Nature does nothing uselessly.” Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Have you painted the figure? If you have, you know how difficult it is. Our brains are “wired” to recognize the slight differences between people, so even the slightest error in drawing the figure can make the difference in getting an accurate likeness.

What if one ocean wave could see another?  Like us, it could easily recognize the slight differences between waves.  Can you? Waves, trees, clouds–they all have an anatomy of their own, a structure that has repeatable and somewhat predictable, but each with slight variations that make them appear unique.

As artists, just as we need to study anatomy to paint the figure convincingly, we should study the structure of the elements of nature we paint and figure out their own rules. There are few shortcuts. You can get a field guide (eg, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees) and I found one online site field guide that was very detailed (The Virtual Field Herbarium)

Leguminosae-mim Acacia caffra
| | © Rosemary Wise

You can see in this illustration above by Rosemary Wise how the basic anatomy of one type of plant is shown. The drawing communictes clearly the components of this plant, their relative size and position.  I’ve drawn similar illustrations of ocean waves, Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees. Draw enough of them and you’ll discover the basic elements.
The next step is to abstract them out to just a few gestural lines.  I recall a video made on the life of Pablo Picasso (and later found this site, which a great series of images of his that show this process–check it out!).  He drew a life-like bull, lots of deetail.  His subsequent drawings contained fewer and fewer lines and detail, until the end he could communicate a bull with just a few gesterual lines.  I followed this approach with Monterey Cypress trees.  I recognized that their tree limbs have a fairly predictable pattern. They grow downard two lengths, then up one length and repeat–and then I had it, a gesture for this tree.  This comes in handy when you’re painting outside with limited time available.  You’re not going to study each branch and paint it as is, you need stored in your memory a gestural stroke that represents that branch, that you can repeat with slight variation in your painting.
In addition to linear structure, it’s also a good idea to draw or paint value studies of common natural elements. I’ve done this with ocean waves quite a bit, learning the value of the shadow side of the wave and how it relates to flat water, and the crest. You’ll aways run across exceptions to the “rules” you’ll discover, but I can say discovering them makes life a lot easier when you’re painting plein air and have 30-90 minutes to capture a scene as it shifts in light from one painting to another.

Virtual Art Academy (my sponsor), is of the same mind, and has a course dedicated to this subject in their “Observation” section. Here’s how the course is described:

“For many types of objects such as trees, fruits, flowers, or rocks, there are certain characteristics that collectively define the ‘itness’ of that object and that differentiate it from all other objects of that type. For example, pines and cypress trees are both evergreens. Every pine tree is a different shape and every cypress tree is a different shape, yet someone who knows their trees can immediately tell which is which. This means that before you start painting a subject you need to spend a lot of time studying it (that is if you want to truly capture the essence of your subject).” Click to learn more, see the “Observation” section in the left side bar navigation.

This is installment 6 of what I plan to be my top 10 painting observations. Click here to see the others.

PS. While researching this post I came across the site”The Field Guide for North American Males“, by Marjorie Ingall. Hillarious. Here’s an exerpt:

Q. Why do males travel in packs?
A. “Grouping” is a way to avoid predators. Some guys watch for danger while others feed. You never know when a guy with a big knife is going to jump out at the Burger Barn! Also, their sheer mass may confuse the enemy. When males are together, the odds of any one male getting attacked are lessened. Also, when in a group, they can turn on a potential attacker. However, for some reason they do enjoy going to public bathrooms alone. Any female knows this is absurd.

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