The Poetry of Sharp Branches

Landscape painting has been with us in the western art tradition since the Baroque era. Around then painters started having more fun with the backgrounds. Previously the landscape had been relegated to only  a supporting role to prop up flattering paintings of the local nobleman or pious saints. These new landscape painters urged us to delight in the natural world. And they help us answer some big, pesky questions- Where did we come from? Where are we now? The best of their paintings are a forceful reminder that we are part of nature, and that it is in us, right at our very core. 

Above is the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich's Abby in the Snow, a painting that still gives me a little chill ever time  I see it. It's a masterpiece of gradating colors to create an almost supernatural glow to the sky. One of Friedrich's tricks is to push the darkness so forcefully into both his upper sky and into the low hanging mists on the horizon. It would look heavy handed except for his deft touch blending the edges of his clouds. He uses I suspect quite a bit of layering his pigments, and is careful to play off the overall raw umber brown hues against lighter pale yellows and touches of silvery grey off whites. 

The real kicker though has to be how he contrasts all his diaphanous clouds against some of the most craggy and sharp-pointed trees ever painted. Coaxing this kind of sharpness and that extremely delicate softness to cooperate as he does is a terrific achievement.

Those thorn-like branches get a very different handling in the American painter Charles Burchfield's watercolor from 1917- 20, The Insect Chorus. Where Friedrich wrapped his tree trunks up in a blanket of brooding dark along his misty horizon, Burchfield goes just the other way. His trunks and branches all stand out sharp and clear from their snowy field and the light cream sky. This could have left him with just a randomly assorted mess. But look at how he carefully masses some of the branches together into tight clumps (the top of the highest tree looks like it might have had two squirrel nests in it). And he deliberately pushes some branches into a decided red while leaving others in the more expected dark greys. 

Burchfield knows the expressive power of herding a multitude of individual forms into groups and keeping them there. In a way there's a wild abandon to the painting. But it also shows a firm hand orchestrating the clustering together of his colors and tones. My guess is Burchfield even consciously thought of himself as a conductor (it is titled The Insect Chorus after all).

And here is one of my pieces, a 9 x 12" vine charcoal drawing titled Land's End Inn. We were staying in a B&B in Provincetown of that name. Its gardens in back of the Inn were a little overgrown and felt a touch menacing. Perhaps these trees were descendants of the forests that so inspired our friends Friedrich and Burchfield.

In my composition I've chosen to put the emphasis on just some of the many branches. Completely eliminated are all details from the house except for its looming silhouette. A painting or a drawing can't be about everything- the artist has to choose just the best few notes that will sound together as the most resonant chord. I kept wiping out architectural details from the building as they felt intrusive on the simpler duet between my thicket of trees and the darks of the house.

Someone asked me if I was thinking about Norman Bates from Alfred Hithcock's film Psycho when I was working on this drawing. Well...yes. Cue the creepy music.


  1. You're talking about my favorites Friedrich and Burchfield - I can never see too much of their work.

    Land's End Inn is a beautiful charcoal drawing. To me the building seems to menace as much as the trees!

  2. Katherine, thanks so much for your kind words. And yes, Friedrich and Burchfield hold up so well over the years. I got into Friedrich in grad school and have loved him since. Curiously it took me a couple of years of looking at Burchfield before I fell head over heels for him. Now I'm a gonner.


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