Sketching is the plan / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

Figure  1 : The tree, early spring.    Pretty sure the recycling bin should be cut from the final piece.

Figure 1: The tree, early spring.  Pretty sure the recycling bin should be cut from the final piece.

I grew up in New York City where a car is a liability not an asset.  I got my driver’s license when I was 21 years old but didn’t have a car.  When I moved to Seattle at 24, it was the first time I really drove. Two years later, I lived in a neighborhood called Greenlake.  The streets on the east side of the lake curve along it and there is at least one spot where a fork in the road creates a blind spot.  I drove this stretch almost every day.

One day, driving down that road, with my boyfriend in the car, going the legal speed limit, I got to the blind spot and I said out loud, “I’m always scared there is going to be someone trying to turn on this road when I get to it.”  And my boyfriend said kindly (and nervously) “Well, you could slow down.” I looked over and he was clutching the armrest for dear life. 

I actually laughed out loud, not because I was terrifying him, but because it was so obvious. Being an inexperienced driver I was focused on the goal “drive proper speed limit” without stopping to think through why there was a speed limit.   The goal isn’t “follow laws” it is “get there safely.” I think of this moment in the car, with my now husband, a lot.  It has become kind of a metaphor for me.  I tend to charge forward and over the years I have learned the importance of slowing down and looking for blind spots. 

With art, I charge ahead, I always have.   I paint what is interesting to me first without thinking through what the rest of the painting will look like.  This isn’t bad exactly, I have made lots of great paintings this way, but it can be limiting and in some mediums, make everything more challenging than it needs to be. 

The obvious process improvement (the slowing down and looking for blind spots part) would be to sketch.  I’ve never been very interested in sketching though. I used to think it ruined spontaneity.  Actually, I still think that, but I don’t have a problem with that now.  I can see that it sometimes is an important piece of the process.

Last year after creating a painting for my son’s school auction (more on that here), I began painting a series of trees.  The first tree was spontaneous and emerged entirely organically from the lines on the canvas.  No sketching required, full speed ahead.

Figure 2: Tree hollows

Figure 2: Tree hollows

I hadn’t set out to paint a tree, I liked trees but as I worked on the painting for the auction, I became obsessed with them.  I was constantly pulling over to the side of the road taking pictures of trees I liked or trying to capture how the light came through the leaves, or to document the differences in how leaves attached to branches, or how trees persevered and grew around obstacles and flourished despite a lamp post in its way or a power-line determined to cut it out.  

In the process of this research, there was a particular tree that I became infatuated with.  I love this tree.  It is spectacular.  I drive past it every day, several times a day.  And this spring, as it turned from dormant beauty into a burst of new possibilities, I became determined to make it mine, by painting a picture of it. 

I have taken so many photos of this tree that sometimes when I merely get to the stop sign at the end of the block it is on (which now I’m also obsessed with, more on that later too) my 2.5 year old, says, “What you doing mommy?  Taking picture of tree?”

I thought I knew just the view of the tree I wanted to represent.  But as I set out to get supplies for the painting, I began to imagine what the painting would look like instead of just what the tree looks like.  I began to think about the problem of trying to capture a three dimensional sculpture in a two dimensional format. Part of why I had taken so many pictures of the tree was that the photos were unsatisfying.  They flattened the tree, and part of what is so wonderful about it is how intertwined the branches are and how immense the tree feels when you approach it.

If I wanted to capture this tree in a painting, I was going to have to focus on elements that work in a two dimensional format and the scale that I was working in.  And if I was going to make a good painting, I was going to have to figure out what composition would make an interesting painting.  Those three things together were tougher than I thought they’d be.  It is a little like a mathematical equation.

I was desperate to charge forward and start painting but I had to slow down, and plan, and be deliberate.  I had to figure out where the blind spots were and work them out.  I had to sketch.

Figure  3 : Sketch.    Pre-tree hollow.

Figure 3: Sketch.  Pre-tree hollow.

I printed out several versions of the photos of the tree.  I liked the picture from early spring best because it really shows off the complex beauty of the tree’s branches.  I used tracing paper and began to trace out the tree’s structure.  Very quickly I ran into an issue.  If I drew every single branch, the painting was going to be very busy.  I don’t really know why this is true.  In the photo the tree doesn’t look busy but with even 1/10 of the branches drawn in, the drawing was starting to look overwhelmed.  I needed to edit.  The tree also has tree hollows, you know the ones, the ones that are in every cartoon illustration of a tree ever.  I added the hollow to my sketch and it immediately made the tree less believable.  “Sure, sure,…riiiight…the tree just happened to have the world’s most perfect hollow, do the birds that live in it also bring you your sweater when you are getting ready to leave the house?” Do I leave in the hollow? Or not? I don’t know.

Figure  4 : I consider a wood panel for the painting instead of a canvas. Is that perverse?    Or a tribute?    I can’t decide.

Figure 4: I consider a wood panel for the painting instead of a canvas. Is that perverse?  Or a tribute?  I can’t decide.

As I sketched, I continued to bump into questions. What do I include in the surroundings?  Do I include the houses, the street, and cars?  The tree is huge, over twice the height of the two story houses that it’s next to.  I’d love to capture that scale but the houses don’t really do anything visually for the composition.  I thought about liberating the tree and putting it in a field where it isn’t confined.  But part of what I love about this tree is that it’s like, “I will thrive here in spite of you.”  It’s determined to be its big bad self.  It reaches over half way across the street as if it will take over the world one day.  “Tree for president!”  I’d vote for it.

I’m discovering that my idea for the painting is cloudier than I thought.  As I work through all the different aspects of what to include and how much, I realize that I need to explore my options.  I’m grateful I didn’t plow ahead with my original idea for the painting, it would have been a lot more difficult to figure out what to do once I had a wet canvas on my hands.

And to my surprise, I’m having fun sketching and trying on different possibilities.  I’m left wondering what my problem has been all these years as I resisted sketching.  Maybe I was intimidated and self-conscious about my abilities?  Another place where I let preconceived ideas about how I was supposed to be distort how I felt about how I actually was and worse, impact what I did?

I’ve always thought of drawing as one of the most technical and impressive types of art.  It is hard to hide in a drawing.  I’ve always been a little embarrassed of my sketchbooks.  No genius drawings in there. Maybe there are a couple of good ones, but there are FAR more bad ones.  Half faces or the start of an awkward body.  Have I thought all this time that a bad sketch reveals something terrible about me as an artist?  I probably have. 

It’s time to let that one go.  And put things in perspective, sketching does not have to be about the finished drawing.  Sketching is practice, sketching is planning, sketching is brainstorming.  And what is the first rule about brainstorming?  No idea is a bad idea because any idea can lead you to a great idea.  No sketch is a bad sketch because it can help you figure out what a good sketch is. 

Figure  5 : Trying out a new possibility for the painting

Figure 5: Trying out a new possibility for the painting

With that in mind, I’m still trying to figure out this visual ode to my favorite tree.  I’m exploring and experimenting.  I am looking through all the pictures I have taken this spring.  Maybe the painting is more abstract than I had been thinking?  Maybe the painting should actually be a block print? Maybe this has to be a series of pieces for me to feel I captured everything that I love about it.  Maybe all the things I love— the scale, the winding branches, the neighborhood take over—they don’t all belong in the same piece.   I don’t know yet but I’m going to make as many bad sketches as it takes to figure it out.