The Poetry of Trees
By Deborah Secor
Driven by imagination and improvisation, George Shipperley’s oil pastels stir emotion with an exciting interplay of color. (For a free download on learning how to use oil pastels, click here.)
George Shipperley conveys his imagined world of tree-inhabited abstract landscapes using oil pastels to colorfully articulate his emotional responses to the beauty he sees. Experimental techniques are essential to each of his paintings, allowing successes and imperfections to reside jointly. “The best thing about a painting is often the imperfection of it,” Shipperley points out.
“Imperfection carries the beauty, the individuality. It’s expressive.” The only framework Shipperley uses for most of his paintings combines his memory, experimentation and experience. “Imagination is a prerequisite for me. It keeps me more in tune with the composition and design. I rely on my heart,” he says. “Intelligence gets in the way of emotion. It’s analytical, while emotional impulses aren’t. There’s so much more honesty in emotion when you don’t cover it all up. There are such beautiful things you can do on impulse—you don’t want to lose that originality.”
Accidental discoveries abound in Shipperley’s paintings. Uninhibited, seeking unplanned and intuitive combinations, he puts down many layers of oil pastel across a large sheet of mat board and scrapes it all down with a single-edged razor blade, or liquefies it with medium to achieve a chance mixture of color and texture that brings to mind a certain mood. “I like that spontaneity, the way the color stirs my emotion. I let the results suggest to me what’s there.” Once he arrives at a subject, he then divides the paper into loose shapes that define the larger masses, and freely describes what is in his mind’s eye. “The design is the most important aspect. These shapes determine the poetry of spacing and the ease of looking at them. I may divide it up so there are trees or hills. I usually begin with the sky, working forward, progressing via the divisions, constantly asking myself what this suggests.”
When painting with oil pastels, Shipperley is most concerned with distilling his subject matter to its essence, using very little detail. Burst of Purple (below) elegantly distills the subject, utilizing energetic complementary colors showcased in front of lively neutrals; the sole details a few branches incised into the impasto oil pastel with the corner of a razor blade. “I started with greens originally,” he explains, “but I wasn’t entirely happy with the color. I chose the purple almost instinctively. You can still see [green] tinges coming through. The sky was the most difficult part because I wanted the color to stay out of the way, behind everything. I finally covered the tree so that I could see only the three bands on the left side and found the right color that way.” Additional sparks of saturated yellow beneath the tree accent the yellow-green swash across the foreground that has been scraped with the edge of a blade.
Shipperley looks ahead, often asking himself if he’ll still love the painting in five years. “I think simplicity is the most enduring element. If I’m confident of its lasting appeal I know I achieved this wonderful simplicity. I prefer my paintings to have a mystique to them, rather than give the viewer too much information. I often tell my students that when they start subtracting rather than adding to their work, they’re thinking as an artist should.”
For the Beauty of the Trees
Shipperley’s flagship trees inhabit many of his paintings. He continually combines accidental colors and gestures to explore the interchange of trees with the surrounding landscape. “I like the poetry of trees, the way they relate to each other, reaching to the sky and to one another. With just a branch I can move the viewer’s eye. There are incredible composition and design elements you can express with trees,” he says.
Not only does he paint many abstract landscapes, but he also paints still lifes. Some artists seem to take still life lightly, like it’s second best somehow. I don’t think it’s the subject, but how we paint it that matters,” he continues. “I like to paint foliage or flowers for their color and the directional elements, much like I do in the tree paintings. These are all imaginative, too, there’s no setup in front of me. Instead I like to look at it as an artistic structure, which gives me the freedom to compose. In Rose Burst (left) you see that the background gives rhythm to the painting. The design is more than just a still life; it’s the patterns and shapes and the use of a limited palette. Everything is arranged but still ambiguous. It’s an explosion!” he declares. “The subject is simply the vehicle of the design, so that this isn’t really about a vase or flowers. I want to be stirred up, to feel an emotional impact that won’t allow me to stand still. Imagination is so important—there must be no restrictions. I always tell my students that they shouldn’t paint it as it is, but choose and rearrange things.”
Working in a variety of sizes when painting with oil pastels, Shipperley often finds larger paintings particularly compelling. “I like painting large because it allows me more freedom. Although it’s not the only size I paint, it has more impact to me. For one thing, your mistakes are larger,” he laughs. “I don’t want to pass up these golden opportunities to be imperfect. That may be the best part. How can you be an artist and not use your heart and soul? We can be so inhibited, afraid to pour out our hearts, but unless it affects you, it’s not a painting. It’s not all about beauty,” he muses, “but, as Renoir said, I want to paint beautiful pictures because there’s so much in life that’s not beautiful.”
Deborah Secor (deborahsecor.com) is an artist and writer who lives in Sandia Park, N.M. She founded the Pastel Society of New Mexico. To read about George Shipperley, check out the digital issue of the February 2007 issue of Pastel Journal.
Inspired by these abstract landscapes? Check out more by Frank Satogata in his article on warm and cool colors in abstract landscape paintings.
Shipperley isn’t the only one with an interesting technique for painting nature. Check out Josy Britton’s watercolor gallery to see her inspirational mosaic technique!
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