This gnarly, knobbly looking thing is behind the Music Annex at UC Davis, next to the back alley that runs alongside the Arboretum. It looks a bit like an ancient sea creature that has broken through the deck of a ship, only to be cast under an ancient spell and turned to wood (lignified?). I needed to sketch at lunchtime, so I sketched this. Trees are beautiful, aren’t they. The uglier, the more beautiful. I used to like climbing trees as a kid, but I’d never climb very far, just to maybe the first branch, and I’d feel like a tree-dwelling champion. I was a big fan of the Ewoks when I was a kid, and always wanted to live in a tree-top village. I never had a tree-house, though I did have a climbing-frame in my back garden with a little metal swing at the top, it was less like a tree-house and more like a birdcage, but I loved it. I wish I had had a tree-house though. I didn’t have a tree though, so there was that. What would be cool would be to have not a tree-house but one of those houses which is just a door in a tree-trunk, and you open it to reveal a spiral stair-case going down, down, down into a subterranean world. I was a big fan of Mr.Happy when I was a kid. Jamie and the Magic Torch as well. Hang on that wasn’t a door in a tree, I’m not sure why I thought of that. Anyway the problem with that would be lack of sunlight, and it’s not really a tree-house any more and just a cave, and I don’t want to live in a cave. Unless it’s accessible by fire-pole. I was a big fan of Batman when I was a kid. I think every house needs a fire-pole, really. Coming back to this tree though, you have to wonder how much of it has been shaped by its proximity to the Music Annex. Trees are alive, they can experience and feel, and perhaps the presence of all that music has made it feel more alive and expressionist than trees next to, say, the Mathematical Sciences Building. (By the way I can vouch that those trees are generally very good with numbers). Or maybe all that music has warped its personality in the same way that listening to hours and hours of sad pop songs can make you eternally miserable, like the guy in High Fidelity? Maybe this tree is a music snob, and only listens to tree music you haven’t heard of. Or maybe, just maybe this tree is angry and frustrated, knowing that so many instruments being played right there, right on his roots-step, are made of wood, his dead friends, his dead relatives. All those woodwind instruments like the oboe and the clarinet, all those violins, cellos, even pianos, guitars, ukeleles, xylophones, they play such bitter notes when you are a tree. Or maybe they see it differently, maybe trees are proud that their kind can produce such beautiful sounds. Or maybe, and this is more likely I’ll admit, maybe it’s just a tree and it couldn’t give a monkey’s.
I’ve been a bit slow with posting this year. My sketching numbers are down too; but then again, 2016 and 2017 were a little hard to beat for sketch volume! I have a fair number of recent sketches still to scan though, but before we get on with those, here are the two I did on the last Let’s Draw Davis sketchcrawl, which was on a lovely sunny-after-the-rain morning at the Farmers Market. The trees were painted in exciting colours. We had a good turn-out, I talked a bit about drawing crowds and perspective (remembering all the things James Richards once taught me). These trees are almost all leafless now, as we hit mid-December. There were a lot of locals out this day, gearing up for the festive season. Below, sketched from almost the same spot but looking in a different direction, across C Street to the rear section of Davis Community Church.
And all of a sudden, two months passed and I didn’t post a thing. Perhaps I just really liked that sketch of the Manetti Shrem; whenever I would give out my little Moo card recently, I always thought, oh the past is old now but yeah, great sketch, I liked that one. I have sketched a lot since my last post (which was dated March but in sketching time zone it was still only January). My computer broke, so I took that as an opportunity to be really lazy about scanning my sketches regularly. Now I have a new machine the time has finally come to sketch the backlog. I’m going to break chronological order though, even sketchbook order, and post for my return to the sketchblogosphere this opening illustration of the latest Seawhite of Brighton sketchbook, the bright pink redbuds in the UC Davis Arboretum, with the Water Tower behind the tree. Those redbuds are gone now, but that colour is a powerful opening line to this book.
Now, in the middle of May, my seasonal allergies are going haywire at the mere sight of foliage. Seasonal allergies are the most boring thing ever. For me, very little really works, other than staying insulated in my office. However since I do have to coach soccer, and I also have to get out and draw from time to time, and also cycle from home to work, exposure to the outside world is, regrettably, necessary. It is boring though, having allergies. Boring, because everyone has a solution you haven’t tried. “Mm, yes, thanks, yes,” I nod, trying to find the facial emoji for “I am pretty sure I didn’t ask you for a cure”. Boring, because there is so much sneezing and never enough Kleenex. It’s funny how sneezing is automatically asking for a tissue. Sneezing is not however asking for a blessing, so come on world, let’s stop doing that. “Bless you.” says random person after sneez one. “Bless you!” they say again after sneeze two. “Oh, bless you,” they say after sneeze three, the concern creeping into their voice. They no more want to continue the blessing than I want to receive it. They have now locked themselves into a trap of politeness, like someone holding the door open for you when you are that bit too far away, they stand there expecting you to walk faster because they are holding the door for you, and even though you weren’t actually going to go through that door but turn and go another direction you feel you have to go through the door and pretend to be doing something in that building, you stand there looking at your phone like you are trying to remember the place you are pretending to look for, and you have to wait for them to leave the vicinity before creeping back outside the door and going the other way (that’s never happened to you?) “Bless you again!” they say on sneeze four, as if to say look, you’ve had your fun, nobody sneezes this much on purpose, and I’m not made of blessings. “Wow, hahaha!” they say on sneeze five and you want to vanish into a portal as you fumble for the dry half of the tissue in your back pocket. On sneeze six they raise their eyebrows, as if saying an internal prayer for forgiveness because they are refusing to bless this clearly sick individual who cannot stop sneezing. On sneeze seven they are ready to fight you. On sneeze eight you are obviously dangerous and they get their phone out, either to tweet about you or to call the police. On sneeze nine they dial, but this time they dial the Guinness Book of Records. On sneeze ten you’ve gone viral, the world’s media shows up and talk shows are discussing whether you are just a crisis sneezer, sneezing for attention, or whether you are the first victim of a new epidemic that will soon sweep the nation if we don’t vote for tax cuts for pharmaceutical companies (oo-er, little bit of politics, mrs thatch, mrs thatch). On sneeze eleven you’ve sold the advertising rights to the space between sneezes, mostly to those same pharmaceutical companies who offer allergy products with names like Zqxywfyl or Snotadrine. On sneeze twelve you’ve received so many blessings that you can officially be listed as a religion on the Census form. On sneeze thirteen – seriously thirteen sneezes? – you’re already appearing in sponsored ads at the bottom of websites with titles like “whatever happened to sneezing guy”. On sneeze fourteen, nothing happens. Everyone is calm and has just accepted you have allergies and will sneeze a lot. Everything is quiet. And then someone says, “I take local honey, that always works for me.” Which is code for “if you ever sneeze again, I swear I will end you.”
So yeah, no more bless-yous, no more “my sister-takes-this” cures, please just ignore my sneezing. By mid-June I should be ok. At least when I am sneezing, I am not making loads of dad-joke puns (oh right, except for the “a tissue!” one).
One damp grey day last month I ate my lunch and went over to The Barn (an old building on the UC Davis campus) to draw, surprise surprise, a panorama. I approached it in the following way. I mapped out the scene with a few light guidelines in pencil, so that I could be sure to fit the whole building in, and then went straight into pen with the drawing itself, drawing the large, heavy leaning tree. I started there. I knew my lunchtime was short (I had eaten at Shah’s Halal food truck by the Silo, spicy chicken over rice, so good) and that this would take more than one lunchtime. Normally I would draw the front of the building first but it’s always easier to draw on the left page when standing, back to the wall, holding a landscape-format sketchbook. For some reason I always struggle a bit more sketching the right page while standing. So I drew the big tree, it was just too interesting. I did the tree, left the rest, went back to work.
I came back two days alter to continue, and THE TREE WAS GONE!!! Totally gone. The place was all cordoned off while the tree-chopper-people finished off chainsawing it up, and I stood there looking at my page like, “but…but…”. I don’t know how old the tree was, but look at it. It was really leaning over. It was an aging ballerina, tumbling in slow motion as time froze around it. I’m sure the tree was older than me. And I had sketched its very last days. This scene no longer looks like it does in this sketch. I carried on drawing the rest of the scene, The Barn itself, the buildings behind, the lines of the bike path. I was going to add paint but, I don’t know, it didn’t seem right. That tree was drawn at the end of its life. I wonder what it was thinking at the time? “I’ll Be Bark”
This tree is in the courtyard of the School of Education at UC Davis. Trees are very useful as symbols for education, epitomising how we learn, with branches and bark and roots, and how they have leaves, then they don’t, and then they do again, and also birds and insects. Trees are also very useful for how we think about life in general, not knowing where the branches will come out, how many extra branches they will sprout, how they sometimes grow more on one side because of wind, plus the leaves fall and provide nutrients for the soil so that the tree can grow bigger, plus birds’ nests, that whole life metaphor. I like to think about trees when writing stories, how you can write and write, taking you off into branches unthought of, which don’t have to intertwine and reconnect, instead you step back and see the whole tree and realise that is the story, right there, with all the leaves falling and growing and the birds’s nests and the insects, and how the little creatures that live on the tree play the part of characters moving around from plot line to plot line. I also think trees make a good analogy for language, the way it evolves and branches off, yet each branch has a symbiotic relationship with nearby branches, especially with birds that make nests in there eating certain insects but leaving the insects on other branches alone, so they grow into different types of insects which in turn affect the branches themselves, and then you add squirrels into the mix and you have a perfect metaphor for both prescriptive and historical linguistics right there. Trees are awesome, we need them, not only for breathing (something about carbon dioxide) and furniture, but also as symbols of whatever it is we are trying to say. And the great thing is, there are so many types of trees – Oak, Palm, Acorn, there are loads of tree types – you can fit whatever it is you are trying to describe into any type of tree. Try it out, next time you are in a meeting, “So, can you explain to me how this new marketing plan will strengthen our growth in emerging markets?” “Well sir, I like to think of it as being like a Beech tree. Here are the roots, then you have the bark, and you don’t know exactly where each branch will come out of the trunk but they will come, and the tree will still end up as a tree shape, and birds will build nests, and squirrels will move about symbolising our customer base. Leaves will grow and fall and grow, and if it all starts getting out of hand we can chop it down and build a nice beach hut or a deck-chair.”
I sketched this tree because I liked the bark. It reminded me of something a dog said once.
And so, the fourth season. If you are ever interested in how the same scene changes over the course of four seasons, here is sketched evidence. Not that you need evidence, you can just look outside with your own eyes, but if you are a season-sceptic, if you think the seasons are all just a big con then hopefully this should paint the picture clearly. The view of the Chemistry building at UC Davis, sketched from almost exactly the same spot (except the most recent; it was a bit muddy so I stood on the driest patch of grass, in the shade of a tree-truck so as to stop glare on my book). The leafless scene. Note that I wrote “1-6-16” as the date because I am clearly a new-year-sceptic, it’s all a big con by the calendar lobby. Below, you can see the Spring blossom scene, the fiery red autumnal scene, and the leafy green summer scene.
This is a Leap Year. For those of you on other planets, a Leap Year is one where everybody makes rubbish jokes about those who have birthdays on February 29th technically being far younger than they really are. It happens once every four years and apparently we have them to correct our imprecise calendars; if we didn’t then we’d have a situation eventually where the sun would be getting up at lunchtime and something to do with aliens. So we call this extra day ‘Leap Day’ and act as if it is somehow ‘extra’. To make it really ‘extra’, another day in the weekend would have been nice. Saturday 27th, Sunday 28th, Leap Day 29th, Monday 1st, etc. Apparently though we can’t do that because, again, aliens. Anyway I sketched more spring blossom on Leap Day lunchtime, revisiting a scene that I sketched in November when those same trees were flaming with red and orange. That autumnal scene is below. I didn’t sketch them while leafless, you will have to just imagine them naked. Now they are clothed in brilliant white blossom, tinged with pale green. The Chemistry Building looms behind, unchanged and like a rock. I mean literally like a Rock, because the adjoining Rock Hall lecture building is away to the left, off-screen. The trees’ positions look slightly different, due to my slightly different standing location (you go where the shade is on a sunny day). It’s a test of observation. Two seasons in Davis.