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Doc, Grumpy, Dopey and Cézanne

Saturday, 24th January 2004
Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

trees sketch

dwarfs' houseI've arrived early at the local high school, which gives me a few minutes to sketch the trees - cypresses, weeping willow, birches, amongst others - around the caretaker's bungalow before Wendy, our producer arrives. This is just the type of composition I need for the forest around the dwarfs' cottage for our production of Snow White.

I sketch the bare trees as if they were in leaf and the Leyland cypresses as if they were tall pines. I could of course have imagined this scene but it's difficult, when you're making things up, to get the randomness that you get in real life. Not that this is entirely random: the group of three cypresses has been artfully planted but that will serve to balance the house, stage right, and provide an element of structure in what could be a rambling, woolly composition.

long-handled brushClimbing a step ladder, I roughly paint the outlines of the trees in dark green using a long-handled brush that I use at home for decorating and painting garden furniture. Rita (who plays 'that darn cat' in this particular version of Snow White) follows me, energetically blending greens and yellows for the foliage and picking out the branches in brown.

Paint on Canvas

It's such a pleasure for me, as a natural history illustrator who normally works alone, to:

  • work as part of a team

  • work with a large brush on a 20 ft wide canvas

  • work on a fantastical subject where botanical accuracy is of secondary importance

It's surprising how these simply painted trees can take on their own character. The bush I paint to the right of the group of 'pines' ends up with such a thick, solid trunk so that it looks like the sort of bonsai tree a sumo wrestler would grow, or (in a crude way) like one of those stage trees that you might get in a Giotto fresco. But I don't worry about this 'mistake' (as I would if I was painting a real landscape); it's a tree that makes me smile.

'The top of that larch in the top right has ended up looking like the head of a bear!'

'We could say the dwarves grew it that way!' suggests Rita.

CezanneI find myself thinking of Cézanne not because we're going for a post-impressionist style, not because we're trying to create 'artwork', but because the pleasure of working in paint on canvas reminds me of the pleasure that comes over in Cézanne's work.

We're working with a limited range of emulsion paints and that gives a chunky, semi-cubist look to some of the foliage.

You can look and look at Cézanne's paintings - and you should - and you can read and read about his life and you can learn what the critics think about his role in art history but, for me, it's the experience of working with paint, brush and canvas that brings me near to feeling what he felt.

No wonder he looks as could be the eighth dwarf; to me he seems to me to have a twinkle in his eye, a touch of earthy magic about him; he shares with the dwarves a deep identification with nature. Like them he's become almost a part of the landscape. Cézanne could look at a tree, a mountain or even himself and see the underlying structure of nature.

I drew Cézanne direct from his portrait in the Musée d'Orsay a few years ago . . . hoping a little of that magic would rub off on me! next page

Richard Bell

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