“I spread out my map under a tree and made up my mind to go through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia to Florida, thence to Cuba, thence to some part of South America; but it will be only a hasty walk…
I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through endless, inspiring Godful beauty.John Muir — The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913),
Like John Muir, I had a childhood dream, but mine was to live in Argentina’s pastoral Pampas region, painted so lovely in my fifth-grade geography book. I wanted to raise quarter horses and ride the pampas like those gaucho cowboys!
Those Mississippi-childhood dreams faded, though every so often I was wistful to live in the Neotropics, home to exotic botanical specimens I thirsted to see in person, where locals conveniently used large tropical leaves for impromptu umbrellas and where heliconias soared to the moon.
The road less traveled eventually delivered me to Central America and then Ecuador, places where the temperatures never dipped below freezing – unless I desired to visit the peaks of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi or other high-altitude landmarks that dot South America’s Andean spine.
There are times when I enjoy an eye-to-eye inspection of those exotic plants, and by capturing their likeness with pencil or water media, I discover minute details that otherwise might be missed. I always walk away with deeper respect for the plant and its support cast of companions.
There are times when I toss the scientific seriousness aside and allow the personality of the subject to emerge. These always bring great mischievous joy, as if freeing a personality that was trapped by a long-ago wicked spell. Most people can easily spot the human spirit in Ecuador’s Ceibo trees Ceiba trichistandra.
Presently I’m in the tropical dry forest, where for half a year the climate is humid with bi-polar rainfall, depending on moods of the nearby Pacific waters. The rainy season weans into the dry season, and many trees go into a dormant stage.
It is in this section of Ecuador’s coast where the gigantic Ceibo trees join forces with the much-smaller Palo Santo. These two trees leave lasting imprints on those who bond with the flora and fauna of the area.
‘What is that unique sweet smell?’ people might ask. Many times it’s the subtle aroma of a just-bruised branch of Palo Santo. The dried ‘holy’ wood is burned to repel mosquitoes as well as to clean a room of heavy energies or bad spirits.
Recently my friend Luchi and I began work on a painting of a Palo Santo tree, which grows along Ecuador’s Pacific coast. He presented some photos he hoped to work with, and we inspected two trees growing in the hostal gardens. I began the painting as he watched, and then he joined the painting session! After a few hours of starts and stops, of inspecting the trees and returning, we reached a stopping point. The painting remains in limbo, as Luchi * was unsure about working on this study without my help, and I realized that I knew little about the trees, aside from the scent that imprints on any one who experiences it.
- * No photo of Luchi painting; the computer is not reading the camera chip at this moment!
A few days later I retrieved a scrap of canvas, set up near one of the trees, and began a serious study. The colors of the bark changed with the ever-changing light. When wet it was much darker. At times it appeared green and other times gray or even reddish.
I have learned so much – including there are few insects on this tree! So far I’ve only witnessed tiny black ants being granted entrance to the Palo Santo’s sacred space! Many birds perch in its branches, though this study you’re about to see below – so far doesn’t invite a co-star. Perhaps the house wren’s petite presence might find its way into the scene? Pondering the various birds sparked my interest in featuring a Motmot that recently stopped by to say hello! The Motmot deserves a large canvas of its own!
With the canvas taped to a flat surface, I sat very still and studied the tree for five or so minutes, mixed basic pigments, and without any pencil guidelines, took a small roller about three inches wide and rolled clear water along the basic areas for the trunk and primary limbs.
Luchi’s nephew Jesus quietly watched as the form of the tree magically took shape. After the water, I brushed in a medium wash of white house paint – yes, I use house paint, much superior to hobby tempera-like paints sold in the tiendas! While the white paint was still very wet, I washed in light brownish-yellow colors, then followed with the darker ones. True to watercolor’s personality, the pigments swirled and swam, but never jumped out of bounds into dry areas. Poking and pushing the colors, and clarifying the outer lines of the limbs, I did ‘just enough’ to keep the colors from being overworked and then took a break. I was surprised to see a much-larger audience! Luchi, his brother Fernando and nephew Jesus were all quietly watching and at times taking photos!
The slideshow illustrates that day’s work via the first image, and the rest as painted over the next few days. At night, I took samples of leaves inside, and I also worked from photos.
Palo Santo – Bursera graveolens – From Wilkipedia: ” The tree belongs to the same family (Burseraceae) as frankincense and myrrh. It is widely used in folk medicine for stomach ache, as sudorific, and as liniment for rheumatism. Aged heartwood is rich in terpenes such as limonene and α-terpineol.
There will be a few tweaks to foliage, and we’re still trying to discover if an insect would even land on this tree! Does anyone have first-hand information?
This week has found ‘The Muir Tree’ and me having a battle of the wills; it’s evolving as it asserts its own powerful voice. It will not be a scientific study, yet it will be unique!
As always, thanks for tuning in to Thursday’s Timeout for Art.