Skip to main content

Episode 34

The National Gallery Podcast

In the August 2009 podcast, learn to draw root and branch. Plus the Barbizon painters, and tips on preserving Renaissance panels.

17 min 31 sec | August 2009

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode: a root and branch review of trees in art. We’ll be looking at how to draw them, where to draw them and what to do with them once you’ve chopped them down.

Trees 101

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Well, if you don’t know your ash from your elm tree, artist Sarah Simblet can help. Author of the soon to be published book, 'Botany for the Artist', she runs nature-drawing workshops at the Gallery and very kindly offered to give me and a young friend  some tips…

Miranda Hinkley (on location): Well, there’s nowhere I’d rather be this morning. I’m sitting in St James’s Park on a picnic blanket with Sarah Simblet and Irene Cameron. And we’re here because we’re interested in drawing trees. Sarah, it’s not as easy as it looks, is it?

Sarah Simblet: No, it isn’t. They’re an incredibly complicated subject, and they’re enormous as well. The biggest living organisms on earth – they tower up above us. It’s difficult to capture the whole perspective of a tree inside an image.
Miranda Hinkley: So Irene, you love drawing. What kind of thing do you normally draw and have you drawn trees before?

Irene Cameron: Not really. I like drawing people a lot… and cartoons, I like drawing cartoons. I’m good at expressions on people’s faces.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’ve sat down in front of an enormous plane tree. Why did you like the look of this one?

Irene Cameron: It’s just so massive, and the way it’s grown as well – all the branches are quite crooked and it’s got… it’s silhouetted against the light as well, which gives it perspective… if you get what I mean.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, artists have really struggled with trees, haven’t they, over time?

Sarah Simblet: They’re quite difficult subjects. They’re hard to get a focus on because you can’t see the whole thing at once. It’s fascinating actually walking around the National Gallery. You can go and specifically hunt for trees and look at all the different ways in which they’ve been painted and who could paint them really well and who just wasn’t interested, or struggled, or actually painted them rather badly.

And also it’s great to find that some artists have studied tree species really closely. For example, Rubens – he really distinguishes the difference between a willow and oak or a birch tree, and then you’ve got other artists who just make it up – they might sort of make a generic sort of ‘tree-ishness’ in the background, or they could actually combine different favourite qualities, so you might have the nice silvery trunk of a birch tree with the typical branching of an oak tree, kind of mixed together.

Miranda Hinkley: So Irene how are you going to go about drawing this particular tree?

Irene Cameron: I’m not sure. I think I’ll sketch out the trunk first, then draw the branches coming off it, then maybe have a go at the leaves, which are the hardest part because there are so many of them.

Sarah Simblet: A little bit of advice to start with when you’re drawing a tree: it’s important when you start drawing to think about why you’ve chosen this particular tree. What is it about this character that you want to capture? So it’s not just a trunk with some branches and some leaves in the end, it’s an individual which has got a particular lean to it, or perhaps you’ve chosen it because of the way that the branches drape, or the way it shimmers, or the way it forks, the way that it might have some asymmetrical balance. So whatever those qualities are that most excite you about this tree as opposed to any other one next to it, make sure that’s the main focus of your drawing.

You’ll also find that it might help to work quite loosely to start with. Make sure that you hold your pencil in a way that your hand is relaxed and your fingers can move easily. So for example – I’d say this to anybody really – don’t hold a pencil in the kind of cramped handwriting position with your fingers down at the bottom because it means that your hand can’t move. So keep your hand relaxed, and see if you can capture the entire height and shape and the essence of the whole tree in a few sweeping strokes which are actually travelling around your piece of paper. That way it’ll make sure that you get the whole thing in, whereas if you grow the drawing from one end up to the other, you’ll probably get to a point where you run out of paper.

Miranda Hinkley: How do you go about doing the leaves? I can see that there’s sort of light and shade there and different kinds of green, but how do you get that sense of something that has a specific shape and yet you can’t make out the individual parts?

Sarah Simblet: Well, it’s best to draw what you experience when you’re seeing, and as we look around us all the time, most of what we see is completely out of focus. The only thing in focus is the precise point that we’re looking at. And so if in your drawing, you shift between areas of focus and areas of looser impression, you’ll actually emulate the experience of seeing. And so with a tree, it’s quite important to not try and draw every single leaf – you’ll be here for a month, they’ll all have fallen off by the time you finish – and try and draw the action of this thing, rather than describing its precise appearance in every fragmentary detail. What are they doing? Do they cascade? In which case, make cascading marks. Do they shimmer? Try and make shimmering marks. Actually get your lines to almost perform like actors on a stage and become the subject of the tree by the way that they are moving on a piece of paper. And that way you’re going to evoke a sense of the presence of the tree, rather than have sort of struggled desperately with trying to draw five million leaves….

Miranda Hinkley: So you’ve started to put some leaves in there, Irene, and you’ve chosen this sort of bit off at the left. It’s not easy, is it?

Irene Cameron: No, I don’t like drawing leaves, because there are so many of them, and you can’t possibly draw them all accurately because that would take months and months and months. So it’s basically just a scribble right now.

Sarah Simblet: But you’re really succeeding in drawing a flickering impression of foliage on a sweeping bow. You’ve got the weight there and you can feel that it is actually moving in your picture, so you’re managing to capture the experience that we have when we look at a tree, so we really believe in it. I think it’s a really lovely drawing of a tree; it’s coming together very well.

Irene Cameron: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Sarah Simblet and Irene Cameron. If you’re interested in drawing, you might like to know we run a weekly ‘Talk and Draw’ session in the Gallery every Friday from 1 to 2 pm. After a short talk about a painting, you’re invited to make a drawing in response. The events are free and all materials are provided; you can find out more at

Barbizon school

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): So as we’ve heard, for some artists, trees act as visual furniture, a way of guiding our attention to more important happenings within the frame. But in the work of one group of painters – the stars of our current exhibition, Corot to Monet – trees take centre stage. Known as the Barbizon school after the French village where they set up home in the mid-19th century, these artists painted landscapes inspired by the nearby forest of Fontainebleau. Leah Kharibian visited the exhibition with Steven Adams, an expert on the Barbizon painters, and began by asking him about a picture that seems to capture the group’s shared fascination for trees.

Steven Adams: It’s a painting by a Barbizon artist called Diaz de la Peña and he’s painted here a cluster of trees in the forest of Fontainebleau. It’s an interesting painting, because what’s distinctive about Barbizon art is that the compositions are different. If we step back a generation or two, we find a very different type of landscape painting that’s heavily stage managed. All of the figures would be classical heroes, Greek, Roman shepherds… the paintings are inspired by reading Virgil and classical poets and historians. People would have painted landscapes very much like a theatre, so we’d find trees on the left, a bit like the flats on a stage set. And here we have someone taking the trees and placing them right in the very centre of the landscape, so this is the very thing that you focus on, they’re the dominant part of the painting.

Leah Kharibian: And this is a landscape that’s quite local – it’s a French landscape – is that important?

Steven Adams: It’s enormously important, I think, because the training of landscape painters in the previous generation would have required that they went off to Rome and this was the place in which the best kind of landscape painting, the most intellectually respectable art was made. Now in the middle of the 1820s, the first generation of artists start to look… start to go to Barbizon and start to think about painting the French landscape. The generation before would have seen the French landscape as something that is really quite trivial – it’s not really intellectually respectable – and this generation say, here’s a landscape that’s worth recording.

Leah Kharibian: So is it a case that Parisians are also coming to this place?

Steven Adams: That’s absolutely the case, because between 1845 and 1849 it’s possible to get from the centre of Paris to Barbizon in the best part of half a day, so the journey from the centre of Paris to nearby Melun can be done in not much more than an hour. In the 1860s, there are jokes in magazines and they complain that hoards of Parisians descend on the forest, that people are whistling the latest refrain they’ve heard at operas in Paris, it’s dangerous to walk through the forests because you run the risks of tripping over an easel – there are all kinds of hazards.

Leah Kharibian: But there’s not a sign of any Parisians in this picture. I mean, Diaz has gone out of his way to pick something that looks very rural and he’s got a couple of peasants. You say there were lots of artists at Barbizon; were the local peasants in on the deal?

Steven Adams: They were. Barbizon is essentially a rural community, but in the 1830s and 1840s, I think, when hordes of artists come to Barbizon, when the art schools close for the summer, groups of young artists leave Paris and go for a retreat over the summer months – this is quite an important source of additional income for peasants that would have eked a relatively meagre living from the landscape.

Leah Kharibian: Now this picture was painted in the 1850s, but Barbizon as an artists’ colony lives on, doesn’t it?

Steven Adams: It lives on for some time, yes. In the 1860s and 70s, the younger generation of Impressionists were going to Barbizon and when Monet, I think in the 1864, goes off to the forest of Fontainebleau, this is the natural place for an aspiring young landscape painter to go. And then it continues in the 1870s and 1880s, American artists go to Fontainebleau, and this becomes the place to go, very much, if one wants to become a landscape painter. So in the same way that in the second half of the 20th century, New York was the place for ambitious painting, so in the 19th century, Barbizon remains the place to go for ambitious landscape painters.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Steven Adams, talking to Leah Kharibian. Sunny Days in the Forest by Diaz de la Peña is part of the ‘Corot to Monet’ exhibition; if you’d like to come along, the show runs throughout the month and admission is free. 

Panel painting

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: when a painting returns to the Gallery after time away in Conservation, its newly cleaned and restored colours are often a revelation. Members of the Conservation team spend a lot of time carefully restoring pictures to their former glory – and it shows. Far less visible, however, is the painstaking effort that goes into repairing what’s underneath the paint surface, which – before canvas became all the rage in the 16th century – was usually a panel made of wood. With this month’s theme in mind, I visited conservator Britta New to find out more, and began by asking her why the team have made caring for panels a speciality.

Britta New: Well, it’s a very important part of our collection. We’ve got about… a third of the works here are actually on panel and the Gallery’s developed a number of different tools and techniques that we can use in their care.

Miranda Hinkley: So why might a panel end up down here for repair then?

Britta New: Well, most of our panels are made from oak or poplar, and each of them have got their own characteristics, but they’ve all got a cellular structure that moves in response to changes in temperature or the moisture content of the air, and we often talk about panels breathing – they contract and expand over periods of time and they can warp in and out as well. At the moment, we’re quite happy with a curved appearance and we tend to allow panels as much freedom of movement as possible.

Miranda Hinkley: So this is where the panel looks as though… I mean, it’s literally curved, it’s slightly sort of buckled, almost…

Britta New: Yes, it tends to bow out in the centre and push out so that it’s got a three-dimensional appearance, rather than a very flat plane like a canvas painting. And as I say, we’re quite happy with that nowadays, but particularly the Victorians didn’t really like that – they wanted to get their paintings to behave themselves and stay flat, and they went to really quite some lengths to get the panels to behave.

They’d often plane down the reverse of a painting, which would make it thinner and more flexible, and then they would stick a wooden lattice structure, what we call a cradle, to the back of the panel and that was designed to keep it flat. The problem was another development in the 19th century was the advent of domestic heating systems and these can make the environmental conditions, like the moisture in the air, fluctuate wildly and this is the sort of thing the panel would be very reactive to. A thinned panel painting would be even more reactive and so the idea of thinning and cradling the painting actually caused an awful lot more problems than having just left the painting by itself.

Miranda Hinkley: And there’s a piece that you’re actually working on at the moment, aren’t you, this 'Virgin and Child in a Mandorla', which is by a follower of Perugino, and that was in a similar condition, wasn’t it? I mean, it almost looks like a kind of corset, strapped to the back of the panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s as if the panel has been put into a straightjacket. This is exactly what happened to the painting in 1890 when it was last treated and over time the panel had begun to move but it was held firm by the cradle. It began to take on a corrugated appearance relating to the position of where the cradle batons were on the reverse and where the panel had then tried to shrink against the painting, it literally pulled itself to pieces, and it formed these splits that over time became wider and wider. The last photographs we’ve got of this painting were taken in the 1950s and they show some hairline fractures that when I began work had actually developed into open splits.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got these fixed points at the back where the painting is actually attached to the cradle, and those bits are held firm and it’s the bits in between that suffer, and that’s where the splits occur.

Britta New: Yes, precisely.

Miranda Hinkley: So you’re about in the middle of the conservation process now. Can you explain what’s happened so far? It looks like you’ve got a scrapbook here of what’s happened with this panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s useful to keep documentation of all the work that we carry out. The old varnish was very thick and dark and this was first removed with solvents, and then we glued a tissue paper to the front of the panel, which just protects the paint film while the structural work is being carried out. The cradle was then very gradually pared away from the back using gouges and a metal strap and any remaining glue that was holding the cradle to the panel originally was swollen with a poultice and could then be removed. After we’d removed the cradle, we took off the tissue so that we could see the paint film and then we could make sure that when we did the repair everything would be correctly aligned.

If we don’t do the repairs very well and make sure the surface levels are in alignment and the levels of the painting don’t match up either side of the split, then it’s very hard to disguise that during retouching. Getting the right surface is incredibly important. We had to work on each split, one by one, so we applied the glue and then clamped the splits in position until the adhesive has cured and just worked along the panel until everything was repaired.

Miranda Hinkley: And you’ve actually got a quite hefty piece of machinery to help with this clamping bit of the job.

Britta New: Yeah, we’ve got a special clamping table that was actually designed by my predecessor and it looks a bit like a medieval torture implement, but actually it can do some very delicate work. It can hold the panel in position while we’re working on it and apply varying levels of pressure while we’re working on it at different areas of the panel and just make sure that we can make sure those levels are correct.

Miranda Hinkley: And that’s the stage you’re at now; what happens next, Britta, how do you get this piece back into the collection?

Britta New: Well, we’re in the process of making an auxiliary support for the painting, basically just to support it during framing and handling. It’s basically just a backboard that’s made from the same material as the body of an aircraft because it’s light and it’s inert, and the painting is placed on that with a series of foam blocks behind it. The foam blocks can compress to take up any movement that the painting has and that will provide adequate support for this painting.

Miranda Hinkley: And so presumably that makes it much safer when people come to pick it up and move it around?

Britta New: Yes, absolutely, it’s very important because it’s not just us that will be handling it.

Miranda Hinkley: So once you finish the tray, then presumably the painting goes to restoration and any touching up is done?

Britta New: Yes, I’ll take it back upstairs and then begin the filling and retouching and then it will be able to go back on display, which is quite exciting. Every time you work on something, you spend so long, you actually get to know it really really well, and mentally it becomes your painting, so I suppose when it goes back on display it’s a particular thrill to see something that you’ve worked on up in the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’ll look forward to seeing it again upstairs. Britta, thank you very much.

Britta New: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the panel in future episodes; in the meantime, thanks to Britta New.

That’s it for this month. Don’t forget you can visit the National Gallery’s permanent collection, free of charge, any day of the week – we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!