Flowering Trees

One of the things that I love about living in the Williamsburg area is that the seasons are so distinct from one another. Whereas the shifts between seasons in Roswell were subtle, a blush of green on the ground or in the trees after a rain, or, more often than not, a blast of wind and dust, here each season announces its presence with a complete change in wardrobe and temperature. And within each season, there are multiple changes as well. The early spring of late February and March looks completely different from later in the season. The soft, effervescent pinks and yellows of tree blossoms give way to the vibrant, almost neon kelly greens of unfurling leaves, which in turn deepen in hue as the leaves grow and mature. The small pink magnolia flowers that appear in February and March will have long vanished by the time the giant flowers appear in May and June. Crocus and lenten roses give way to tulips, irises, and peonies. Later this spring, pink and yellow lady’s slippers will briefly appear, decorating their forest floors with their distinct, bulbous blooms.

All this is to say that a lot transpires between February and May on the seasonal front, and since moving here it’s been one of the joys and challenges of my creative practice. One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that my art is inextricably linked to the seasons. One consequence of this seasonality is that I don’t complete a lot of my ideas because the season changes before I can get around to completing them. If I don’t finish painting or printing those flowers when they’re in bloom, I’m not likely going to finish it before next season because I’ve moved on to the next thing. Maybe I’ll eventually get to the point where I have multiple canvases or impressions that I work on briefly throughout the years, returning to them when their subject matter is in season again. For now though, it mostly means that whatever I decide to paint or sketch I try to finish before its respective season ends.

All of this is to say that I finally worked up the courage to put some of my seasonal abstractions to canvas. In this instance, the cherry blossoms and other early flowering trees that bloom during late February and March.

For years, I’ve been observing the cherry trees in this area with the intention of doing something with them. There’s something about the effect of light filtering through the petals, whether it’s the bright rays of a sunny day or the filtered glow of an overcast one, that’s long held my attention. Back in 2020, shortly before the pandemic shut down everything (including my desire to sketch anything), I worked up some studies of the flowers with the intention of making a linocut. That never happened, but my interest in them remained, fugitive as it is, given their overall brevity as flowers.

Concurrent with this interest in flowers has been my ongoing desire to render some of my landscape abstractions into larger paintings. While I’ve used my abstractions in larger pieces before, they’ve always served as a background for figurative work. Taking the leap from relegating my colorblocks to background scenery to making them the prime focus of my composition has taken a while, as so much of my self-perception as someone who likes to create is linked to my ability to draw things naturalistically and with significant detail. After years of thinking about the possibilities, I finally began scaling up my sketches this past winter when I painted the pocket and cabinet doors in our bathrooms. Since the doors were either not on full view most of the time or existed below eye level, it felt like a safe place to begin working up my abstractions on a larger scale, giving me the benefit of more space without the visual commitment of a wall.

Then, during the last weekend in March, I combined both goals of rendering the tree blossoms and creating a larger-scale abstraction on canvas when I painted a pair of them.

In the weeks leading up to this project, I had been making new abstractions of the based on the trees I’d seen both around town and in Richmond, when Brandon and I took a visiting friend of his to see the Poe Museum and the John Marshall House. I’d painted different tree varieties, with some blossoms appearing more pink, others an opalescent white, and some with a slight yellow or greenish tinge. I’d also made a point of sketching them on different days. Some abstractions were painted on bright, sunny days, while others represented more muted, overcast ones. After completing six different sketches, I decided to render one or two of them onto a larger canvas. After noticing a sale on canvases at Michaels, I was able to pick up three 12″ x 24″ canvases, as these measurements approximated the proportions of the sketchbook I’d used to create the original sketches.

Throughout the painting process, there was a sense of urgency. Normally when I paint I like to work on it a little bit every day, but for these last few projects involving my abstractions, I’ve been completing them in one sitting. I decided to do the same for this latest project. The blossoms were already starting to fall off the trees by the time I picked up my canvases, so I knew they’d be completely gone within a week. Additionally, Brandon was going to be preoccupied most the weekend beta-testing a new video game with his friends, so I knew I’d be able to dedicate the weekend to painting, which is exactly what I did.

I decided to paint the first two sketches in my series, as they complemented each other in terms of color, with one leaning more purple and pink, and the other yellow and green. I started each canvas by doing a background treatment in their primary color, layering on strokes of gray, pink, yellow, or green over one another with the intention of having them glow through subsequent layers of paint. With this background in place, I then painted circles of moe concentrated color to suggest the appearance of sunshine radiating through particularly concentrated blossoms. Next, I added black, sinuous lines evoking the forms of tree branches, using a palette knife to add patches of color suggesting lichen. Then, I added three layers of dots in different sizes: one white, one pale pink or yellow, and another white. For these, I experimented with impasto, making swirling motions to give the dots a sense of movement.

On Saturday, after four hours of painting, I finished the first piece:

On Sunday, after another three to four hours of painting, I had the second piece:

Compared to the original sketches, the colors in these are definitely more saturated, so they have a different mood. It’s in keeping with what I was seeing however, because by the time I painted the flowers were already changing. The ratio of flower blossoms to tree leaves had shifted, for example, and the really pale, almost white blossoms distinguishing the first part of spring were giving way to more saturated pink flowers. So for me, these two paintings represent a synthesis of different flowering trees rather than any singular one. Ideally, I would have painted the pair on different weekends, as painting for several hours can get rather tiring. Compared to Saturday’s painting, I definitely found Sunday’s piece harder to complete, as I couldn’t maintain the same level of energy or concentration. But if I had waited, I doubt I would have painted the second one, as the flowers would have already fallen off by then.

Overall though, I’m happy with this experiment. I learned a lot about my painting process, and see the potential for doing more of these in the future. If I ever got to the point where I could convince a gallery to show these, or even if I just wanted to take up an entire wall in my house, I could see myself doing a show full of these paintings, with me painting several canvases throughout the entire cherry blossom season so I can convey all their subtleties in terms of light, color, and texture. Now that I know I can do it, I can preemptively get my supplies before the season starts so that I’ll be ready to go.

But that’s for another spring. For now, I’m happy knowing that I’ve finally started following through on my commitment to begin putting my abstractions to canvas. Plus, we finally have something to put over the bed.

Categorized as Art

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