Branching out into new trees

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LESS IS MORETON View from Coochiemudlo Island to Stradbroke, between bloodwoods (oil on hardwood by Michael Burge).

I DON’T know about other artists, but I find foliage extremely challenging to paint.

In art classes at school, our teacher explained the effect of aerial perspective, which requires the fine detail of a canopy of leaves to be rendered as a solid wash, not a mass of lines capturing individual leaves.

Although in reality, capturing foliage is a combination of both techniques, and the fine line between them holds the key to successful treescapes.

In the sclerophyll forests of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I grew up observing the dry, reddish-green hues of the eucalypt trees that eventually saw the region World Heritage listed.

When people in the northern hemisphere asked me what the place was like, I’d often say: “Think the Grand Canyon, with foliage”. It’s quite true: remove the dense green blanket that covers the Blue Mountains and we’d be left with a stony, gold and pink landscape akin to Arizona, traversed by the creeks and rivers that shaped the canyons.

Here in my new subtropical home, the riparian landscape relates more to the ebb and flow of water.

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NOT TOUCHING Here on Coochie, tree trunks often stand apart in rows.

It’s taken me a few years to tackle this new landscape’s foliage, with its wetlands, woodlands and mangroves that give onto Moreton Bay views, stretching to peaks and mountains from which the rivers carve their way to the sea.

Fooled by the lack of four definite seasons in my first year here, I thought a nut tree at the end of our street was dying when it lost its leaves in winter.

The trees seem to stand differently than they do on the ridges of the Blue Mountains. It’s common to see them growing in stands where the trunks do not superimpose, like well-behaved children holding themselves to attention. Perhaps they are old planted rows,  or maybe the effect is entirely natural?

Coochiemudlo Island’s Melaleuca Wetlands receive much of the focus of the island’s conservation measures, but there are significant pockets of vegetation beyond their 19 hectares.

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TALL TIMBERS Cypress Pines, Coochiemudlo Island (mixed media, by Michael Burge).

Throughout the foreshore, native Cypress Pines (Callitris) claim their place with far more right than the dominant exotic Monterey Pines that dot the upper Blue Mountains, the result of attempts to recreate English gardens over a century ago.

But both have the same cooling impact, with their deep emerald shade. Under various local names – including Bribie Island Pine and Gold Coast Pine – they rise to extraordinary heights before seeming to rest against one another. Take even the shortest walk around the island and you’ll see them, just inside the island’s perimeter.

Paperbarks (Melaleuca) abound in the island’s wetlands, where their soft forms are composed so differently to gum trees, with stocky, short trunks and heavy arms, shrouded in layers like puff pastry.

Old growth gum trees (Eucalypts) and bloodwoods (Corymbia) stand at incredible heights in some places, providing important habitat for birds, particularly the island’s parrots. Standing at many island street junctions, these soaring columns are unmissable during a walk through the island’s interior.

And the most alien of them all, the mangroves, like trees with two canopies – one skyward, the other pushing its way into the earth in a skeletal framework of roots, sometimes underwater, sometimes high and dry.

The best way to see the mangroves is to take a kayak around the western edge of the island on a rising tide. Here, you’ll be able to safely ‘fly’ between mangrove branches and over their underwater ramparts. In winter, when the water is clearest, it makes for an unmissable experience.

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LIGHT TOUCH The striations of light hitting paperbarks, Stradbroke Island showing across Moreton Bay (oil on canvas by Michael Burge).

Walking through the island woodlands at the end of the day, with the sun split by hundreds of trees, light falls in a myriad of colours on trunks and branches, tinting them with a glow that shines so brightly it almost seems unreal.

Tree trunks appear as though they’re striped with an impossible apricot and pink glow, while the deep blue-green of the bay and distant islands are unaffected by the play of sunlight.

And foliage is transformed into clouds of iridescent green. I daren’t render a single line to capture it.

Check out my online gallery for Moreton Bay land and seascapes; Coochie Boat Hire for kayak hire through the mangroves; and Escape to Coochiemudlo Island – a walking tour that takes you through the island’s interior and wetlands, and around the foreshore.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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