Douglas David: One, Two, Tree

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Summer Sun, 48"x30"

MY FAVORITE TREE Artist Douglas David explores his ‘metaphor for life’ STORY



mild fog hangs over Tansy Hill, a quiet, leafy, dead-end road just north of Stowe. The moody, mid-morning fog blankets, and softens, the surrounding farmland like a rumpled white quilt that’s been tossed over the landscape. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” says nationally known artist Douglas David on a late June morning as he paints what he’s long described as “my favorite tree.” As he unloads his oil paints, brushes, a paint-spattered easel, and a pristine 30- by 48-inch canvas from his pickup truck, he points to a majestic apple tree growing in a farmer’s field just off the roadside. “That’s it,” he says as he tightens the bolts on his five-foot high easel. >>



A Day at My Favorite Place, 20"x10". My Favorite Tree, 12"x6".

David, a well-known and successful Indiana-based artist, has come to Stowe almost every summer for the last 20 years. He was first lured here to study with the legendary en plein air painter and teacher Frank Mason, and has returned most every June, even after Mason died in 2009, to paint with “the Maestro’s” students. In addition to painting with Mason’s acolytes, he also returns to Stowe to paint this Tansy Road apple tree that he first painted in 1997. It’s become a sort of “right of passage” for the 61-year-old oil painter. “For the last two decades it was the first thing I painted when I got to Stowe in early June and the last thing I painted by the end of the month,” he says as he secures his canvas onto his easel. “It’s become a symbol of my arrival and departure. But there’s more to it than that.”


••• Using a two-inch-wide natural bristle brush he works quickly and efficiently to cover the canvas with a thin background color, or underpainting, of muted cadmium red. It will act as a base for more colors and show through the finished painting to give it a faint, subtle glow. As a summer chorus of chickadees, warblers, and sparrows sings and chirps all around us, David tells me that he has painted this tree over 40 times. He sets down his brush for a moment and explains, “I fell in love with this tree in 1997 when I discovered it with Frank and his students. And, as I have painted it over the years, I have come to see it as a metaphor for life. You know, it’s never the same two years in row. It grows and changes and gets more interesting with age.” Story continues on p188, photos on p.186 >>


My Favorite Day, 48"x30". Misty Tree, 30"x24".

Artist Douglas David painting en plein air in Stowe, as he’s done for over two decades.



PERSONALITIES He pauses a moment and adds, “Like we all should.” “And there’s another thing,” he says. “Each year when I first paint the tree it makes me look back on all the things I have done over the last year and ask myself what am I going to do in the future. It’s my touchstone. A few years ago I had a cancer scare. Painting this tree that year helped remind me that it’s wrong to take anything for granted. It also reminded me to examine where I was in my life and career.” David usually compares the two apple tree paintings he does every summer. “I look at them together and can see my growth. I see how much more artistically comfortable I got throughout the month, how much freer and looser I painted. That always interests me.” He confesses that he’s always trying to create a work that is fresh and spontaneous. “I don’t like paintings that are overworked.”

••• By now, less than half an hour after he started, the painting has taken shape. David has sketched or roughed in the tree’s branches and is working quickly to add some clouds. “There, that really makes the tree pop out. I like that,” he says as he adds blues and violets to the sky. The fog is also beginning to lift. “That makes me work faster and prevents me from fussing too much,” he explains. “I prefer to focus on distance and depth, more than detail. I want my work to be free, as if it just fell off the brush.” “A lot of people ask me how I can paint the same tree over and over,” says David as he steps back to examine his composition. “Needs a bit more shadowing, right there,” he says as he dabs on paint. “I explain that the tree is always changing but it also often teaches me a lesson. For example, one year I went back home to Indiana after June, thinking I wasn’t too jazzed by the tree. It had too much dead wood in it. But then I realized, ‘Hey maybe that was me. Not the tree.’ It got me thinking.” “Another time a painter asked me if I’d seen my tree recently. He said he had and didn’t think it was as interesting as it used to be. I didn’t say anything but I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s us. Not the tree. Maybe we have to look a little harder. So there’s a lesson there.” Some 45 minutes after he began, David steps back from his painting and pronounces it finished. As he packs away the canvas and his gear he begins to chuckle. “I am always coming back, year after year, and studying this tree, seeing how it has grown and changed, and how I have grown and changed. I often wonder if it sees me and says to itself, ‘That crazy guy is back and is painting me again! Wonder what he’s up to now?’ ” n //////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// ESSENTIALS: