Story behind the art of Karen Coleman

Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Autumn Sycamore

Platanus occidentalis
State Arboretum of Virginia, Boyce, Virginia

One of my favorite trees is the American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis.  One of my favorite places to walk is the State Arboretum of Virginia.  When the call for entries came for “Out of the Woods,” I immediately thought of this tree in this place.  However, before making a decision, I decided to go for a walk at the arboretum and keep an open mind while considering all the variety of trees there.

The State Arboretum of Virginia, covering 172 acres, is part of the Blandy Experimental Farm located in the northwestern part of the state near Boyce.  Blandy’s mission is “to increase understanding of the natural environment through research and education.”  The arboretum is one of the three principal programs designed to achieve this mission.  Started in the 1930s, it has over 5,000 woody trees and shrubs from around the word, in addition to a native plant trail and herbaceous gardens.  With support from the Virginia Department of Forestry, the arboretum staff and many volunteers continue to actively plant new trees.

Blandy also supports research by inviting environmental and ecological scientists from around the world to participate in their research community.  They offer a wide range of habitats, facilities, graduate-student fellowships, and undergraduate programs.  Many programs are also offered to the general public, some specifically designed for children and families.  Subjects include environmental issues, gardening, ecology, natural history, and living lightly on the land.  I presented a program on botanical art there in 2015.

Needless to say, the arboretum provides much inspiration for selecting a tree subject for artwork.  They have wonderful groupings of native trees such as Flowering Dogwood, Common Persimmon, Tulip Poplar, White Oak, Eastern Redbud, Red Maple, and many more.  They also include imported species from a variety of countries, including a 300-tree gingko grove and a 36-tree Cedar of Lebanon allee.  However, the American Sycamore always pulls me in, especially with the changing autumn colors of its large leaves.  It is such an imposing tree with its immense height and unique bark.  I went back again this past winter, and the sycamores were even more dramatic in the winter landscape.  The scale-like bark of the tree flakes off to reveal the white, creamy or greenish smooth bark below, especially in the upper branches, which makes this pale giant stand out from all the other trees.

I contacted the Arborist, Robert Arnold, and asked if the American Sycamore had any special significance for the arboretum.  Although they have planted native sycamores all along the drive at the front entrance, he told me that the tree is not one of the arboretum’s iconic specimens.  In fact, most of the impressive sycamores that are growing throughout the grounds are volunteers, which makes them even more awe-inspiring.  This beautiful, tenacious native tree holds its own against the stunning variety of Blandy’s tree landscape and is a favorite of many visitors.

I decided to stay with my original choice of the American Sycamore as my subject.  I wanted to show its unique bark along with its beautiful autumn leaves, which I drew at half size as they are so large.  I used my favorite medium, colored pencil, on Dura-lar.  This drafting film is matte on both sides, allowing me to apply pigment on the front and back.  I chose to show all the flaws in the leaves as they drop from the tree and seasonally age, which to me made them come alive.  I hope people seeing my “Autumn Sycamore” will recognize and appreciate the wonderful characteristics of one of our most majestic native trees. 




  • © 2017 Karen Coleman
    Autumn Sycamore
    Platanus occidentalis
    Colored pencil on drafting film
    15-1/2" x 12-1/2"