Trees Aren’t Brown

by James Morris

Sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s right in front of you.

I recently overheard a conversation between my wife and a close friend. My friend just took up painting, and my wife has painted for many years. They were talking about how to paint trees, when my wife commented, “Look closely at trees – they aren’t brown.”

Take a look – they aren’t.

PinesTree trunks are mostly gray, in fact. Some are light gray; some are dark gray. Some trees, like paper birch, have white trunks with streaks of black. The Palo Verde, the Arizona state tree, has green bark. The bark of other trees, like cedars and redwoods, do look brown, with shades of gray. So, when you paint a tree, you shouldn’t immediately reach for the tube of brown paint.

BirchThe same is true of the sky. What color is the sky? It’s blue, of course. But take a look again. It can be white, or gray, or orange, or red, or purple, or black. It depends on the time of day, the presence of clouds and mist, and where you look. Sometimes it’s blue, but often it’s not.

One of my favorite Radiolab podcasts is called “Why Isn’t the Sky Blue?” Here, they mention that young children, when asked what color the sky is, may look at you quizzically, not exactly sure what you mean. Or, they might answer with a rainbow of colors. Only as they get older and learn that the sky is blue, do they answer, simply, “blue.”

We all “learn” that the sky is blue, and then stop looking at the sky itself.

The sky is reflected in lakes and the ocean, which aren’t really blue either, though we might think of them (or want to paint them) that way. Water is green or gray or black. Sometimes it’s blue, in shallow waters in the tropics, but often not.

The sun in the sky is seldom yellow. And the lighting in turn affects many of the colors we see. So a tree that looks light gray in the middle of a bright, sunny day might look darker gray at dusk. Impressionist painters famously played with light and color, questioning what it means to paint something realistically. Is it more realistic to paint something as we think we see it, as it might appear in a photograph, or as we experience it at different times of days, in different seasons?

Claude Monet, Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect, 1880

Claude Monet, Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, Winter Effect, 1880

Leaves tend to be simplified and caricatured as well. Think of a leaf. What do you see? Likely a typical leaf, such as a birch or oak or maple leaf, like this –MapleLeaf
But leaves don’t all look like this. What we think of as a leaf is called a simple leaf. But there is an incredible diversity of leaf forms, many of which don’t look at all like a leaf. Compound leaves, for instance, look like this –CompoundLeaf
What look like leaves here are actually leaflets. You may have noticed compound leaves on ash, honey locust, and horse chestnut trees.

The familiar blades of grass are also leaves. And it turns out that cactus spines that serve as protection and the tendrils of pea plants used for climbing are also leaves – highly modified leaves to be sure, but still leaves nonetheless. Petals, it turns out, are also modified leaves.

Children often draw trees as brown, the sky as blue, and the sun as yellow. And we often don’t “grow out” of these representations. These types of symbols certainly help us to understand, categorize, and navigate the world. But they can also simplify things to the point of being inaccurate.

Take bathroom signs. Typical symbols of male and female don’t hold for many (any?) men and women.FemaleMale
They are convenient and easy to recognize, but they can also be problematic as they tend to paint everyone with the same brush.

The traditional wheelchair sign looks like this –WheelChair
But many people have suggested that it overemphasizes the wheelchair and sends a message of helplessness. As a result, some people are advocating a change, with a new icon that emphasizes movement and speedblueicon
A simple change like this can in turn alter our thinking about how we view people who use wheelchairs.

The same applies to human skin. We think and can sometimes identify in terms of black and white, for example. There are of course social, historical, and political aspects that influence how we identify ourselves. However, neither color applies literally to anyone.

If you call yourself white, take a sheet of white paper and place your hand over it. If you call yourself black, do the same with a sheet of black paper. Does the color of your hand match the color of the paper? Is it even close? And is your skin the same color all over your body?

A charming book that explores this topic is The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. This children’s book explores the true colors of our skin, thereby celebrating both our similarities and our differences.

Symbols certainly have their place. The power button sign – a 0 and 1 for off and on –power_button
is easy to find and recognize on computers, cars, and other devices. It would be terribly confusing if we used subtly different symbols on various devices to reflect their range of functions. But when we apply symbols to the natural world, including us, we stop seeing what is literally right in front of us. And we risk missing out on a more rich and colorful world than we think we see.

Harold Weston, Winter Woods, 1938

Harold Weston, Winter Woods, 1938

© James Morris 2016.

11 thoughts on “Trees Aren’t Brown

    1. Andy

      Great post! It brings to mind being hired as a budding teenage artist to teach some neighbor kids art as a summer time gig back in the mid 80s. The first thing I shared with them was to *look* at things before they started selecting crayons, paint, colored pencils, and called their attention to most of the trees in our neighborhood being gray. They were pretty mind blown.

      It’s powerful stuff to realize that we need to investigate what things actually *are* -rather than go through life on assumptions. Thanks for putting this out there, and sharing with the world.

  1. Suzanne

    This is a thought provoking and important topic, and I like how you tie together many different ways we see (or don’t see!) the diversity around us. You also make the important point that symbols have a purpose and important function, but it’s important to re-evaluate what these symbols convey and whether they are an accurate representation of something. Art is a wonderful way to help us see the richness, color and diversity in our world. The pine trees in the first photo are very familiar indeed! I like the parallels you draw between how we look at the natural world and how we see each other. There is so much more diversity and richness in our world when we take the time to look at something more closely.

    1. James Morris Post author

      Thanks for your kind and insightful comments. Thanks too for the photo of the Weston painting – I think it really adds to the piece and helps to bring it full circle.

    1. James Morris Post author

      That is absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing that link, giving all of us a chance to listen to a 2-year-old try to pin down the color of the sky. I have read a lot about how young children perceive the color of the sky, but never heard one actually struggle with the question, what color is the sky?

  2. Emily Koch

    The Weston painting is the perfect coda to your piece: it is the gift that is bestowed upon us when we really look at the world without bias and a pre-conceived notion of what we are seeing.


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