No Really, That's How I Do It

Apple Tree

By Mary Anne O’Malley

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 17-2


The fall of 2009 was a lovely time here in Minnesota. The warm weather hung on for a long time and the coolness of the evenings was especially wonderful. One day, while driving past the trail that runs along Lake Minnetonka, I noticed what appeared to be apples in a tree. To me, they looked like jewels suspended in air in the midst of a mass of branches. I parked my car as close as I could and photographed the tree from inside the car. That way, if the weather turned and I needed to return for more photos, I would stay warm and dry as I worked. This is important to remember. If I’m going to create a subject and expect to return for extra drawing, I make certain that my view is from a spot that is easily accessible and will have the same perspective every time. 

I decided to compare my neighborhood apple trees with those at the Research Center of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. As I drove into the parking lot, there were rows of lovely trees, their varieties clearly labeled. Their leaves were mostly gone and the apples hung like the jewels I had seen along the trail. I selected a few trees that were somewhat visually isolated yet detailed enough to be compelling. I took out my stool, my sketchbook, and camera and began drawing. When I had finished, I photographed the trees from the exact same spot so the perspective of the photos would be the same as my drawing, and took many photos of the selected trees, fruit and the identification tags. 

After reviewing the images I chose a full-size tree that gave me good information and a clear view of the branching system, Haralson apple tree. Developed by Charles Haralson, it is an apple that reliably withstands harsh Minnesota winters and was released to the public in 1922. 

Next came the drawing. I use an acid-free paper called Esquisse made by the Bee Company in Beaverton, OR. I like the way it responds to my pencils and has an earthy, elegant feel. Unfortunately, it does not come in large sizes, which is why the drawing is pieced together. I wanted a large 22x30” drawing. 

On my computer I changed the photo size to 22x30”. I divided that image into approximately six segments 8.5x11” which enabled me to copy and paste each segment in Photoshop, later reassembling to fit the larger format. I wanted to replicate the bark pattern as well as the hanging apples and those that had fallen on the ground. 

I laid the segments one at a time on the light table and placed a sheet of drawing paper over them. I proceeded to draw marks indicating the rough outline of the branches on the drawing paper one segment at a time. I continued this process until the entire tree came to life on these six sheets of drawing paper. During this time I referred often to my drawings from the orchard as they were critical in making sense of the construction of this tree. 

The third step was to develop and finalize the drawing. I taped together the six computer segments to create the large photo image of the Haralson apple tree. I did the same with the six graphite drawngs. I pinned these two separate images side by side on the wall and realized that I would need to return to the Research Center once more to fill in missing information regarding the branch locations, size and overall form. 

Once that was done, the drawing of the Haralson apple tree really began to take shape. I use Cretacolor Fine Art Graphite Pencils from Austria. I paid careful attention to the proportions and the way the branches entered the tree. I also was careful in drawing the branch that grew straight out towards the viewer. I knew I wanted to develop a connection at the trunk that would give the viewer a real three dimensional feel. The drawing was developing its own energy and as I looked at it on the wall, day after day, I began to start to think of it as a painting. 

The transfer of the image is very time consuming and can take as much patience as the painting itself. I traced the drawing onto tracing paper and used Saral transfer paper to transfer that image onto watercolor paper. I made sure to draw the copy line just inside the branch as I did not want the thickness of the line to make the branch wider when covered with paint. All the small twigs were put in free-hand later on to maintain the small size required. I transferred the minimum needed to direct the image - the trunk and all the branches. I did not transfer hanging apples or the apples on the ground. The pole was added free-hand, however, I did use a ruler for correction when painting. 

I took special care with the perspective of the fruit as I wanted them to hang differently and in a natural way. I referred to my photos and drawings. Since I have trouble creating a random pattern, I did use the pattern that I actually found on the Haralson tree. 

Now I was ready to paint. I used 150 lb. Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper as I felt that the paint would stay on the surface well. I felt I could retain sharper edges and that dry brush would be more effective on this substrate as opposed to the 300 lb. watercolor paper I generally use. I felt I needed to make a change for this style of work. I used Series 7 Winsor & Newton #2 & #3 brushes. 

I began painting right where the branches converge on the trunk. I always feel that if I cannot get the most difficult part to work then I might as well start over! I was in uncharted territory working on such a large painting. I placed the paper on a heavy piece of cardboard so it would not bend and I placed it on my lap but resting against the table. At various times I propped the angle deeper with heavy books. This allowed me to work at an appropriate angle and reach all areas of the work. There were times when I needed to pin the sheet to the wall to work standing up, to get a better perspective in adjusting color and detail. 

I had ordered some new colors from Daniel Smith that I thought would be interesting to work with especially for the bark. I used Smalt, Lunar Blue, Purpurite Genuine, Perylene Violet, Hematite Violet, Minnesota Pipestone, Tigers Eye, and Hematite, as well as Grey of Grey and Buff Titanium. I also discovered Undersea Green and Serpentine Genuine as well as Mayan Orange. I like to mix my colors and though it is not necessary to have so many unusual colors to work with, I will admit that it made this painting a lot more fun. 

By now it was well into winter and I was grateful to have taken so many photos and drawings of the apples on the ground to recreate that moment last fall when I was so inspired. I find that, when I feel that inspiration, I really need to act on it rather than keep it only as a memory for future use. I will always remember that lovely fall season when I was able to create this painting that expresses my love of apple trees, along with my gratitude for all the plant breeders of long ago who developed varieties that we are able to enjoy today in the northern cold of Minnesota. 

  • Measuring at the site, to insure accurate scale in the studio.
  • A photographic reference, clearly showing fall patterns and the glowing colors of the fallen apples.
  • Finished drawing reference, pasted together from smaller sheets of drawing paper
  • Working in the studio on improvised slanted ease
  • Paper protected, working in graphite.
  • Finished painting, Haralson Apple Tree in late fall, 22x30”, © MaryAnne O’Malley