I was hiking in the mountains, back home, on a cold, overcast day and I came across a very old tree. Dead on its feet, its bark was starting to split and rot away. Shelf fungus had begun to grow and climb its trunk, forming bulbous, rhythmic stairsteps that reached toward the branches.
When I see a tree like this, I can’t seem to walk past it. I don’t know why, exactly, but there’s something about fungus that strikes me as both alien and familiar, something both playful and a little unsettling.
It’s a kind of death knell for a tree, isn’t it? When the tree has died and started to rot, the fungus harvests the remaining energy and those blooms appear on the surface. The fungus climbs upward while the tree crumbles: a burst of color and strangeness as the tree returns to black compost.
I wanted to try and get at those contrasts (contradictions?) in this piece.
This was one of the first paintings where I attempted to combine digital and traditional processes. The shelf fungus would involve lots and lots of complex shapes that needed to be very precisely rendered. After experimenting with a few approaches, I decided that using vector lines was the most efficient (and most forgiving) way to handle them. The trunk, on the other hand, would lend itself well to looser, hand-painted lines.
Starting with a pencil sketch, I did the ink in layers, using transparent vellum paper. First the outlines of the trunk, then the bark texture.
Finally, I scanned everything in and started building the shelf fungus in Illustrator. I was hoping that I’d be able to make a “prototype” shelf and then duplicate all the way up the trunk. Unfortunately, because of the (slightly exaggerated) perspective, no two “shelves” are the same point of view: we look down on the bottom ones and up to the top ones. I experimented briefly with doing them in 3D using something like Blender, but getting the shape right ended up being too hard (I wish I had more skill/experience with polygon modeling).
So I resigned myself to drawing each one, one at a time. It took forever, but the beauty of working digitally is that I could refine, adjust, and tweak as I worked until I had exactly what I wanted. No worrying about ruining all the layers underneath with a mistake.
I did a few watercolor washes to add texture to the background, but I ended up doing most of the coloring in Photoshop – another first. I’m suspicious of digital color and especially of digital “brushes,” which to me often look too slick. They’re improving by the year, but I still believe that nothing can replace the glorious randomness – and happy accidents – of a brush filled with ink.
That said, I discovered that the only good way to add the snow was with a brush in Photoshop. I needed precision, and I could only find that on the computer – along with the ability to erase and rework it at any point. I still feel like I could have made it more lively and gestural if I’d been able to do it in ink, but (after several attempts) I could never get the lines precise enough to be convincing as powder, frozen in the bark.
Looking back at this piece, it’s one of my favorites, but I also see myself at a point where I was forcing things to be a little too tight, a little too precise. The paper-to-digital process taught me a lot about how best to use each medium, and how they can work off one another when combined. There’s something really lovely about the computer’s relentless, infinite precision when it’s woven in and around big, freewheeling, energetic, splattery ink lines. More and more I’m learning to let my hand go when it’s holding a brush, knowing I can reinforce those gestures with a million little details on-screen.