Trees have been a powerful theme of many artists throughout art history. Many artists have had arboreal obsessions and there are countless tree cameos in art history. Of course before canvas became popular as a painted surface in the 16th century, artists often painted on panels from whatever suitable trees were nearby; apparently Durer painted on poplar and Leonardo da Vinci used French oak.
The first great trees in European art were probably Albrecht Durer’s. In 1643 Rembrant van Rijn created ‘The Three Trees’, his largest and most striking etched landscape. We've heard that Vincent van Gogh was very fond of Mulberry trees and surreal trees are everywhere in Salvador Dalí’s work.
In 1912, lover of lines Piet Mondrian was inspired by the linear quality of an apple tree and chose to deconstruct it into its most simplified linear form. Then, in the 90’s, art duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped 162 trees in translucent polyester.
Trees remain as inspirational as ever for artists. Here’s our pick of our favourite trees in contemporary art...
Artist Rob Wass is known for his vibrant work which fuses nature with geometry and frequently features birds. His signature use of heavy black produces lively pops of contrasting colour in his subtle optical illusions. His latest work combines both optical illusion and nature; ‘Murmuration’ is a bewitching image of a tree formed from swirling flocks of starlings.
A murmuration is when starlings flock together, wheeling and darting through the sky in tight, fluid formations. Wass’ murmurations form the intertwining branches and roots of his handsome tree. His hand-colouring in vibrant inks portrays the varied colours of leaves; the orange is particularly reminiscent of an arboreal autumn. We love Wass’ contemporary tree teeming with life and energy.
Trees fill the oeuvre of husband and wife art duo Kozyndan. The couple are deeply inspired by their love of the natural world and their enthusiasm for environmental awareness fills their joyful and imaginative illustrations. Arguably their best known work is ‘Bunny Blossom’, a tree bursting into blossom but instead of flowers it has adorable little pink bunnies! You can spot another bunny tree in ‘The Bunnies Fall’, the autumn edition.
In an interview with Art Republic, Dan (from Kozyndan) explained, “
Last year the notoriously reclusive English artist and writer Stanley Donwood wrote on his blog, “I am still drawing trees, you know. Even though I promised that I'd stop. I can't, though; it's like an addiction. Only not like smack or crack or tobacco. Nowhere near so much alleged 'fun'. An addiction to 8B pencils. I will stop soon though. I think.”
Donwood’s latest release consisted of limited edition giclee prints with stridently colourful trees, black mists dancing between them and creatures permeating through the darkness. The idea behind the series is that we, as a species, spent so much time in the forests and this is his attempt to take us back there. We love Donwood’s dark, mysterious forests bristling with multi-coloured trees. We certainly hope his tree addiction doesn’t end anytime soon!
One of the major figures in contemporary British art, Bruce McLean is known for his rebellious installations, performance art, sculpture and public art. Now he works primarily in paint and he has returned to nature to express his painterly style. Larger than life and employing bold colour, his contemporary depictions of trees and plants renew the traditional genres of landscape and still life.
‘Designer Trees’ combines dynamic geometric shapes suggestive of architectural forms with stark tree-silhouettes. Though effectively Abstract, McLean’s palette and inclusion of a segment from a London street map perfectly capture the atmosphere of a sunny day in a London park. The urban atmosphere is increased by the inclusion of graffiti–like text. You can certainly imagine McLean’s sleek trees, such as ’Black Mimosa’ ‘Pink Cava Lilly’ and ‘Agave Americana’, in swanky city courtyards. We love how he boldly fuses the urban and natural.
Penelope Kenny’s work explores transhumanism, hybrids, evolution and biotechnology. Drawing inspiration from Darwinism, natural history illustrations and taxidermy, she creates fascinating postmodern animals that perch, crawl and climb up her contemporary trees. “I am inspired by how we perceive, organise and try to control nature, especially in relation to genetic manipulation and scientific tampering with the species boundaries,” explained Kenny in our artist interview.
Penelope Kenny’s depictions of trees serve as habitats for her weird and wonderful creatures. We like how her work explores scientific developments and imaginatively questions their environmental impact. We wonder what genetically modified animals might be living in our trees in the future? Or whether we will even have trees? It might be a little disconcerting but at least ‘The Tree of Modified Life’ is beautiful!