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Drawing the Himalayan White Oak: Behind the Scenes

For a botanical exhibition that is coming up around the end of this year, the theme is the impact of climate change on our biodiversity. The announcement for the exhibition was made back in March and while I knew I wanted to submit for the exhibition, I had no idea of which plant I wanted to illustrate. I spent several months reading about the climate crisis and how it is affecting plants in India specifically. I made a list of all the possible options - some I didn’t have access to so those were easy to cancel out. Others I wasn’t inspired by so they too fell off the list.

In my last post, I had written about my trip to the Himalayas, a sort of a vacation to rest my frazzled mind but also as a hunting expedition. No animals were harmed though; I was instead looking for the Himalayan birch, which recent studies have shown has suffered due to the climate crisis. By this time I knew that through my drawing, I wanted to bring attention to the tremendous risk Himalayan flora is facing due to rising temperatures.

Enjoying a bright sunny afternoon in the hills with a book.

But the birch couldn’t be found at the elevation we were at. We would have to travel higher up in the hills, which wasn’t possible for us at the time. So I instead chose to draw the Himalayan White Oak which could be found easily where we were.

Kind of like ‘When one door closes, another opens’.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I took some notes of the plant in my sketchbook but back in my home studio when I sat down to draw, the notes didn’t turn out to be particularly helpful. I did take a lot of pictures and it was using these that I was able to finish the final piece. I have lately been trying to draw more from life but I suppose sometimes all artists have to make do with what’s available (or not).

A knotty oak tree on the hillside.

In my head, I had initially thought of drawing this piece in colored pencils but once I came back and had decided on the composition, I was really taken by the idea of drawing it in graphite. There is something quite beautiful and moody about graphite work that I absolutely adore. And I’ve been practicing graphite for the past few months so I also felt fairly confident using this medium.

For this drawing, I chose the Strathmore Bristol Vellum. I like that the paper is more white than the Fabriano Hot Pressed (which is another paper I use quite often) but it is also not quite as textured as the Fabriano. I also considered using the Bristol Smooth but that has very little tooth and in the past, I’ve struggled with adding even 3 layers of pigment/graphite to it! Also note that I used the 300 series for this drawing; the bristol vellum of the Strathmore 400 series is so textured that when I used it with my colored pencils, it ate them up!

When I look at the work of other artists, I tend to notice the composition in particular as I find myself struggling with that the most. For this drawing, the initial plan was a fairly simple composition of a branch using the rule of thirds so that the focus would be drawn to the cluster of leaves on the left. Whether it worked or not, I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Halfway through the drawing, I also thought of including the acorns of this tree. But on this trip, I had not seen any acorns and so I had no reference photos or sketches. Luckily, in 2019, I had sketched some acorns in my sketchbook on a similar trip to the Himalayas, but in the winter. The sketches weren’t very good but I knew they were accurate as far as size and pattern was concerned. So, using these sketches, I added a little acorn and an acorn cup to the drawing. What do you think, do they make a good addition to the drawing? I quite like them (scroll down for the final drawing).

All in all, I am happy with the final drawing. Well, as happy as a self-critical person like me can be. Now to photograph it and submit it to the exhibition. Finger x.

A parting note about the Himalayan White Oak. Due to rising temperatures as a result of climate change, studies have shown that for several Himalayan flora, including the Quercus leucotrichophora or the banj oak, the flowering and fruiting time has shifted by 3-4 weeks. This change might critically endanger the pollination biology, and population structures and regeneration of the species.

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