Monday Morning Art School: Carol comes a cropper

She asked me to draw a simple tree. How hard could that be?
Velvet-flocked deer with double rainbow, by Carol L. Douglas. Behind the birch tree are marcescent leaves of a young red oak.
Marcescence is the retention of dead leaves in trees over the winter. It’s natural in oaks, beeches and hornbeams, especially in young trees. Leaves drop as Spring approaches. Susurrationis a very quiet whispering sound, such as made by those same oak leaves on a winter’s day. It’s a beautiful wintertime experience.
The oak outside my student’s office window.
One of my summer workshop participants spends her lunch hour drawing (hooray). Last week she asked me to help her figure out how to draw the oak tree outside her window. “Send me a photo,” I answered.
Leaves are generally drawn in masses, but the problem with midwinter oaks is that, like me, they are slowly losing their hair. There aren’t thick masses of dark leaves, but individual leaves etched against the winter sky. At least there are when you’re up close, but she isn’t. Short of getting her employer to move the tree, she was stuck drawing it from a middle distance, where it was a neat, plump form. Plus, Rochester has been very snowy, so there was no enlivening light.
Still, I tell my students they can make a drawing out of anything. I set to with a technical demonstration:
  • Figure out the branch structure.
  • Sketch the leaves as loose masses
Leaves and branches as loose masses.
  • Using your eraser, define and highlight various sections to make the drawing more interesting.
Sometimes I think I erase more than I draw.
The white space redefined with an eraser.
  • Add outlines that suggest the leaf shape.
A little top-drawing to define the leaf shape, and I removed that ungainly lower branch, which was really the most interesting thing about the tree.
That’s how I normally draw, but this time I hated the result. It was flat and uninteresting.
My former house with the neighbor’s oak tree. Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz. 
I used to have an oak at the end of my driveway, so I asked my dear friend Mary to take a photo for me. I know it’s an elegant tree, because I’ve painted those branches many times. Alas, it was another overcast day, and that oak was equally drab.
So, I set to with my imagination. I know what oak leaves look like, more or less. I know what snow looks like. I drew an oak branch and put snow on it. And then I built a branch-cluttered backdrop. It was stillboring. I finally added a small Santa, because I could.
Oak leaves with Santa. 
“Boy, is that cluttered,” said Sandy Quang, who’d stopped by the house to get her mail.
Of course, there were two different objectives here. My student just wanted to know how to do it. The answer is outlined above, even if the demonstration is poor. Sorry, Diane. I wanted to make a drawing that amused and interested me. The lesson, I guess, is that even experienced draftsmen occasionally come a cropper. Don’t let it get inside your head when it happens, and you’ll be fine.