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Searching for the Ideal Oak

One of the things I love about being an illustrator is that it gives me an opportunity to look at my everyday surroundings with new eyes. This past September, I was invited to work on a project for TreePeople, a wonderful non-profit urban forestry organization in Los Angeles. The central image of the illustration was an oak tree—not a specific tree, but a classic, iconic, Jungian ideal of an oak.

w_2010-11-19_tree-crudest

Let me tell you, between my bike ride to work and my lunch breaks on the arboretum site, I had such a good time scrutinizing the oaks that I saw every day and searching for the elements that would make a “classic” oak tree.

oak-collage



My first draft came out like this:

w_2010-11-19_tree-outlinew_2010-11-19_tree-firstcolo

While this does a good job of summing up the feel of the Oregon white oak trees (Quercus garryana) that dot the beautiful savannas in the Willamette Valley, the presentation was for a California audience! So I changed the structure of the tree to reflect the broad, sprawling branches more typical of a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia).

w_2010-11-19_tree-revised

You’ll notice the color change here as well. Since the presentation was focused on big concepts rather than niggling details, the archetypal tree needed leaves that were unequivocally green and a trunk that was classic Crayola brown. Done!

It left me thinking, though, about the color of a tree’s trunk. Bark is often a complex mish-mash of colors and textures, and I suspect you could keep the better part of a box of crayons busy if you looked closely at series of tree trunks (especially if there are lichens on the bark.)

tree-bark

Which brings to mind the following story: I was once helping set up a fireworks show on a super-fancy golf course in the Palm Springs area. A long driveway lined with splendidly tall palm trees lead up to the clubhouse, very striking. As we waited with the equipment truck in the parking lot, I noticed an odd detail about the palm trees: their trunks were a lovely shade of brown, except for a small, arch-shaped patch of gray at the very base. The gray patch was located just about where the sprinklers would most likely hit the tree… I puzzled over this for a while. When the staff member arrived to show us where I set up, I inquired, “Did you paint all of those tree trunks brown?” And indeed they had! Seeing my flabbergasted look, the gentleman explained, “Our clients have a very specific sense of how things should be.”

Do you remember Lewis Carroll’s scene of gardeners frantically painting the white roses red to prepare for the arrival of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland? Clearly, folks can be pretty strongly invested in the color of a plant.

Point being, there can be a tricky interplay in illustration work between what things really look like and what folks expect things to look like. As an illustrator, it’s important to know your audience for the specific project, and assess what balance of realistic and symbolic is going to best get the story across.