Vegetable Matters

Let's talk about trees!

There's a personality test that asks you to draw a tree, with the caveat that you're not a psychologist or an artist. Presumably if you're a psychologist you'll know what the different types of tree are symbols for. Maybe a small tree hugging the walls of the page indicates neurosis? A large endlessly branching tree might denote a manic nature? If you're an artist you'll have spent time studying trees, and have automated lines in your head and hands that override whatever your subconscious could tell your therapist. This is the story of how I've buried my own inner tree under practice and technique.

Here are some basic trees. Yes, very basic.

These are what I call my "sheep trees"- little fluffy blobs, like a kid's drawing of sheep. They sketch in the basic concept of "here be vegetation" when I'm drawing a cityscape. What do they tell you about the artist? Not much. They tell you that the artist is lazy, and can't be bothered researching trees other than to give a splash of green amongst the grey (or whatever other dominant colour scheme the city has). To be fair, they may also say that I have a story to tell, and the trees are just background elements. And that I have bothered with the occasional hangy vine and trunk to break things up.

I'd set a goal in 2013 to focus on my backgrounds. Like many comic artists, I'd started with the figures and faces of the foreground, and backgrounds would be the occasional boxy skyline or pieces of machinery. I was introduced to the wonderful perespective grid tool Carapace by a friend in early 2013, and this helped enormously with cityscapes, from the mushroom-like towers of New Mumbai on Mars to the boxier vistas of the Earth cities. But in the back of my head I knew I had a few scenes coming up which required lush jungle vegetation that wouldn't fit so easily on to a grid.

Venus Green (who you haven't met yet) will demand a better grasp of drawing plants than the sheep trees. By the time I draw issue 3 (pretty much now), I need to be have the lines to say "Here be lush, incredible jungle vegetation. Giant ultraviolet flowers that can disgorge full grown humanoids, exotic seed pods and ferns on an unnatural scale. Nature gone wild." On the right you can see some practice towards this goal in the promo image of Venus.
I started by making some sketches of the plants in my back garden. I've got Philodendron, some very 1970's Monsteria Deliciosa and some Geraniums growing out there, all of which made it into the final picture of Venus.
It was nice to sit outside and record the curves and shapes of these plants, and make some structural notes on how many parts they have, how they branch and repeat themselves like fractals, and so on.
Drawing plants is different from drawing people or animals. Proportion and number are less important, but you're looking for general rules instead. Humans have two arms, whereas a Monsteria plant can have many stalks and leaves. The important characteristics are the way the leaves hang under gravity and their own tensile strength to produce a convex shape from above, and the relative sizes of the notches and holes against the leaf body.

As the psychological test implies, trees are symbols. Drawing some local flora reminds me of what the palm tree symbolises for me. I grew up in Scotland, where the only palm trees you saw were on icons for travel agents. Now in South Australia, I have one in front of my house, and all the local car parks have them. Life is one big semi-tropical holiday if you look at it right.

The skylines of gum tree covered hills amazed me when I first came here, for their wonky Dr Suess-ish silhouettes. Gum trees can be spectacularly lopsided, evolved to grow limbs at unsustainable angles, and shed them and their oil-soaked leaves so that they can catch fire and promote new growth in the natural disaster of this part of the world, the bushfire.

I tried to work some of their character into the skylines of the image at the top of this blog.
This was a sketch of a scene in my head planned for much later, where Star Girl 3000 (who you'll meet in May this year) will find herself in a jungle environment. I did this piece for the OzComics weekly Draw Off, which specified any character in a jungle environment. I decided to do one of my own characters. I'd got all my sketches, and a few phone photographs I'd taken around town of palms and ferns, but for this one I took the easy road and Googled "jungle plants". As the "X-Ray Vision" shot from Photoshop on the left shows you, I cheated and just positioned a few stock images under my digital pencils.

The rest was hand-drawn, using the reference purely to see how the plants fitted together. The foreground elements of bike, Star Girl, and the insects are all hand-drawn.

I've now expanded my floral repertoire beyond the sheep trees, although I'm sure I'll still use them when I need to. The pink flowers, part orchid, part Sturt Desert pea come naturally. I reckon I could do Monsteria straight out of my head now, and have a bit more of an internal grasp of ferns.

2013 was the year of the background, and perspective and cityscapes. 2014 will be the year of tightening up my figures and faces - I've already attended one life-drawing class to this end. But its been nice to take a detour and have this mini-project of expanding my depiction of the vegetable kingdom. The trees have a lot to say if we stop and look at them.
See you in seven, xeno-botanical ones!

Dr Mike 2000, 28 Feb 2014