Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Out with the Old

We certainly had a white Christmas this year.....the Portland area had record snowfalls and Cloudrest ended up with about 2 feet of snow, the most we've seen in over 35 years! The best part was that we didn't lose our electricity, which usually happens at least a few times during the Winter months. Our dead end private road wasn't cleared until a few neighbors hitched up plows to their tractors, but the hilly terrain and frozen surfaces still kept the mail and paper from being delivered for a few days. We enjoyed the quiet and solitude that the storm brought. Especially interesting was being able to see the various tracks of the animals as they foraged for food. Our family of deer (numbering 6-7) weren't shy, often coming right up to our doors and windows in search of greenery that had escaped the blanket of snow.

My garden was transformed into glistening mounds and snow-covered branches arching from the weight of the never-ending snow fall. Our trees held up quite well, with only a few branches broken off. Many of the smaller shrubs were protected from the record cold by being entirely covered up with snow. Others are slowly springing back to their original shapes after being flattened. Some of the more tender plants may need to be cut back to the ground later in the season, but for now I will leave them.

I'm sure this Spring there will be a surge of activity as Portland gardeners revive and reinvent their gardens. It may prove to be an opportunity to explore new ideas and plants. Perhaps having all those exotics and tropicals wasn't such a great idea!

There are still large patches of snow on our back slope. It's interesting how snow can accent the contours of the land and create wonderful patterns, making a simple slope appear as an intricate tapestry. The snow takes away all the clutter in the landscape. The landscape architect A.E.Bye knew this when he created his wonderful gardens in New England. Nature is indeed our best inspiration. Look to it for new ideas.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Winter Structure

December always comes too early for me. Suddenly holiday events clutter the calendar and life speeds up. My vision of sitting by a warm fire , reading my favorite book over a cup of warm coffee never actually materializes into reality. That will have to wait for January. Now most of the leaves have been cleaned up and at least some of the garden and vineyard chores have been done. Our weather this Fall has been surprisingly mild, so much to the dismay of my ski-loving husband, there isn't enough snow up on Mt. Hood for skiing yet. Living at 1000 feet elevation, we often even manage some decent snow here, at least enough for some snow-shoeing or snowman-making! It never lasts very long, but is like a gift when it does arrive. I rush out with my camera and see my garden and the surrounding landscape in a whole new light.

We have planted a lot of trees on our property over the past 35 time, creating virtual forests. Winter is the perfect time to go out and sketch trees. With their leaves stripped away, trees expose their true character. They become wonderful exercises in understanding positive and negative space, an essential skill for a landscape designer. It is not just the line, form and texture of the tree itself, but the shape of the spaces left between the branches. One of my favorite tree sketches was done many years ago in southern France at Renoir's Garden. It took me all morning to sketch a 300 year old olive tree, that to me, was a sculptural work of art. I was only using a simple graphite pencil so I wasn't able to show the pale blues and lavender tones that infused the amazing texture of the massive, twisting trunk. I took a photo of the tree to go along with the sketch, and worked hard to create a tonal sketch emphasizing the deep , dark fissures in the trunk. I often tell my student's 'Don't be afraid of the dark!'.......using the full range of a tonal band is important, and those spots of the darkest graphite that you are able to lay down will make your drawings pop.

Drawing can be an obsession. It will heighten your observation skills and allow you to translate your creative vision into something that others can also visualize. It also is therapeutic, forcing you to slow down and spend unstructured time intimately connected to the world around you. Most people think that they aren't very artistic. They have stalled out at the third grade level and continue to draw stick figures and symbolic images collected by their left brain, not what they are actually seeing. I bet you all can picture the house you first drew with chimney, curling smoke and front door? ....or the tree with huge trunk that suddenly breaks out into a million line-branches before crashing into the top of the paper!

One of the first exercises that I ask new students to draw is a Oak tree from memory. Generally they all have wide trunks with a large 'knot' highlighting the surface, then horizontal branches that twist outward, perhaps holding up a rope swing. So there is a commonality, but the differences are amazing. Some are all line, while others are mostly tonal; some are bare, while others are covered with individually drawn leaves. Some use a specific 'leaf calligraphy' while others try the simple outline / balloon approach, or just give up and scribble randomly over the branches. The left brain is doing most of the work. On the other hand, if you draw a tree that you are actually looking at, you can attempt to draw what you are really seeing, using the right side of your brain,the side that analyzes each line and angle, and doesn't rely on labeled images from the past.

So get out there and capture images of trees with either a pencil or a camera!