The other day I received a request to demonstrate painting a palm tree in sumi-e. As I have painted these in watercolor, but not in sumi, I thought I would do a bit of research. To do this, I just googled “palm tree” and clicked on “images.” You can also go to places like WebShots, Flickr, and so on, and do a search for palm trees. The reason I did this search is to look at the different types of palm trees, as well as consider which one might make the most interesting composition. Shape of the trunk, direction of the leaves, texture and structure all play important parts in a photograph and a painting. As sumi-e is shades of black-grey-white, I find these elements are especially important focal points.
The above photo is an amalgamation of numerous public domain images of palm trees, as well as one I took when I was in the British Virgin Islands several years ago. Some are very familiar to us here in SoCal, especially the top center one – these are the palms that are found lining the streets of Santa Monica.
I also have a couple of ACEOs I did of two different palm trees. The one on the left is a sago palm (I think). We have three of these in our back yard. The one to the right is a banana palm. Sagos are short, squat, and slow-growing. Their fronds are stiff and pointy. The banana palm is a much more “loose” palm – if such can be said – as its leaves fly around and are not serrated as most palm leaves.
Whenever I think about a painting, whether in watercolor or sumi, there are elements to consider. For me, the shape of the object on the page is perhaps the most important.
With sumi-e and other ink-painting traditions, the essence or spirit of the subject matter is important. I don’t think this is less important in modern Western painting, but scientifically exact and accurate rendition of an object is less important in the East.
This means that a sumi painting of a palm tree must catch the qualities of a palm tree. For me, the sound of a palm tree in a brisk wind is its most outstanding abstract feature. Fronds dancing in the wind would be an element to catch. Other elements which say “palm” to me are the trunks. Many have smooth trunks, such as can be seen in the pictures above, but the sago palm, the king palm and many other have rough trunks. Fronds are dropped from the tree and the trunk develops a very ragged quality. Do I want to re-create that texture?
As I have been thinking about doing another video about painting, this request has come at a perfect time.