Friday, January 8, 2010

Charles Brindley and Big Trees

On New Year's Eve of 2009, instead of buying a bottle of champagne, my partner and I treated ourselves to a visit to an artist we admire:  Charles Brindley, of Adairville, KY. Brindley grew up in Nashville and studied art at MTSU and at the Arrowmont School in Gatlinburg.  He is best known for his large-scale, meticulous graphite renderings of giant, ancient deciduous trees of the Southeastern mixed hardwood forest.

I first encountered Brindley's work on the cover of a program guide from WPLN, Nashville's public radio station, in the 1990s. It was a drawing of a bare tree in winter. I pulled the cover off and thumb-tacked it to the wall over my desk, and I looked at it every day for a long time.  I think it may have influenced my early photographs, many of which were studies of trees.  Brindley's monochrome drawings are so detailed that they look like photogravures from a distance, with their matte surface and their long gray scale.

My second encounter with his work was recently, at the Belle Meade Club in Nashville.  Three large drawings of trees on the Belle Meade Club golf course are hung in the downstairs lobby of the club.  Again, from a distance, one might mistake them for photogravures, but on second inspection they have an otherworldliness that is definitely not photographic.  One notices, for example, that there is nothing in the drawing but the tree:  no background of other trees, no hills, no people, no golfers.  A few birds may perch in the bare branches, and a few old leaves cling to the branches.  There's a suggestion of a big cloud behind the tree. The tree stands alone.

The drawings at the BMC are oaks, but this osage orange portrait below suggests the scale and ambition of these drawings.

These drawings are impressive on several counts. First, they are big.  The one above is 23 inches by 29 inches, and Brindley does the drawings on site.  (Sometimes, if it's cold or rainy, he draws from inside his car, a feat in itself.)  Second, the draftsmanship is very, very good.  Brindley has been drawing for thirty-seven years, and he became obsessed with drawing trees in 1985.  From 1985 through 1991, he says, he drew trees almost constantly.  It shows.  Eventually he challenged himself to do twelve large drawings a year, and he has done this consistently every year since, amassing a large body of work on the subject of deciduous trees, especially large, old trees, and mainly depicting their forms in winter when the structure of the tree is easiest to see.

Brindley's medium for these drawings is the humble graphite pencil.  He goes through a lot of them every year, and he uses all the grades.


For early 19th century American landscape painters like Cole and Durand, drawings done on site in the landscape were a means to an end:  they used these drawings as references when making larger oil paintings in their studios.  In the late 19th century, the French Barbizon painters pioneered the idea of painting directly from nature, "sur le motif," instead of in the studio. This became the signal method of modernist landscape painting, in the hands of Cezanne, for example.

Brindley does both.  He makes large, finished drawings "sur le motif," in five or six visits to the site, but he also makes reference drawings outside, in the landscape,  that he uses later to make larger composite drawings later in the studio.  And he makes paintings from these reference drawings.

Here is a study with notes written directly on the drawing, in true 19th century style:

And here is a composite drawing based on several drawings put together. This is a commission for the MBA school, and the subject is some trees on the MBA campus.

Tomorrow I will be writing about some of Brindley's paintings and  more about him, his work, and the Northern Romantic landscape tradition.

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