Drawing a tree is the most fantastic cliché, and the common poplar is the most fantastic of trees. They have a mercurial pulse in their wild sap that drives them to extremes, to sacrifice limbs to storms, and die young and mutilated, having lived well. Compare the Slavic birch that suffers meekly and whose fall at an equally young age amounts to little more than a resigned sigh. Poplar and its quaking and shivering leaves, green coins that shiver and shower. Dancing tree, talking tree, no other is so great a model.

At the beginning of spring I occupied myself with drawing a clutch of battered poplars by the stream. With broken and twisted branches, dead tops, and bizarre growing angles they yet contain an unrepressed lust for life that attracts me. Of these drawings, the smallest is around the size of a postcard and the largest is, well, around the size of a large postcard. I begin very plainly and produce a boring image barely worth mentioning.

McLean Reed Poplars 1 copy

Reed McLean, Battered Poplars 1 (destroyed), mixed media on paper mounted to aluminum, 2024.

I  discard it without much worry, it’s a good sign that it isn’t quite so simple. I need to get closer, the playful forms of the branches are what count. I paint over the first picture and start another focusing on a locus of broken and convoluted limbs. The large gestures go well, and I almost like it, but I trip over the details. Leaving out this information completely feels lacking, but describing it unbalances the focus of the drawing. Any twig overly focused on is magnified by my faltering hand and rendered larger than the branch that bears it. At every instant, this distortion is uncomfortably present. I thought I was experienced enough to avoid this phenomenon but I am caught in it regardless. One element turns out ok, but my effort to simplify the now overwrought details makes a mess of my drawing. I am out of practice.

McLean Reed Poplars 2 copy

Reed McLean, Battered Poplars 2 (destroyed), mixed media on paper mounted to aluminum, 2024.

Now I am a bit annoyed and I stop for a moment and look across the stream at three great oaks. One lays broken where it fell years ago. The arched trunk still maintains its gesture, reaching for light even in its repose. Over this and bereft of leaves stands the mute tower of a snag. Above it an empty hole in the canopy lets in the sky. I hurry when I walk beneath it, expecting the tower to lean and plunge towards me with its silent, final mass. The largest of the oaks still lives, its thick trunk hollowed on one side into a living sepulcher, but its buttressed branches hold a shifting canopy of glossy new leaves shining with vitality. The shining leaves and trunk wet with rot seem irreconcilable. What is the name of something at once newly born and dying?

Describing these great forms feels somehow naive, my young fingers and my juvenile enthusiasm prevent me from comprehending the violent years that bent these tortured shapes. I imagine the fate I share in common with these trees, but still I cannot recognize their contortions as death. It is much too idyllic. My picture cannot take on this scene without the pretense of beauty. I turn back to the poplars. Nothing on my side of the stream has gravity like these oaks, no opaque time of years long past. I will have to try again with a wider frame of reference, a calmer mind and a patient hand.

McLean Reed Poplars 3 copy

Reed McLean, Battered Poplars 3, charcoal, pencil, colored pencil on gessoed paper mounted to aluminum, 2024.

The next day is all bright relief, soaked in a hot light that darkens the sky to the bluest well. I draw sitting, slowly, delicately. The sky is so dark and the light so brilliant. It makes for an accurate drawing and cramps my back and neck. This drawing is successful as far as it looks like the trees, but resemblance alone does not satisfy me.

I move closer and this time draw standing, and this is a lot of fun. I do a quick sketch and move on, and I feel optimistic.

McLean Reed Poplars 4 copy

Reed McLean, Sketch for Battered Poplars, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, 2024.

Again I begin strong, with good and limited use of color and value. But in the details it begins to fall apart. Slowly, and then all at once, I am faced with a very unsuccessful drawing. Without thinking I act quickly and darken the middle of the drawing in a few big marks. Somehow this undoes the tension that was developing in my picture and in my body, and I regain my confidence. I make very few moves, maybe fifty, and the drawing is done. I have no idea what to think of it, and I put it away.

McLean Reed Poplars 5 copy

Reed McLean, Battered Poplars 5, charcoal, watercolor, chalk on paper mounted to aluminum, 2024.

One more drawing is left in me. I start right away, and I know exactly where I am going this time. My marks are bold, the highlights bright, the composition simple and cleaner than the previous drawings. But then something happens that I did not expect. In the middle of a difficult moment, a man walks by and starts to observe me. I can’t help it, it throws me. Soon I have another audience member, and he’s a talker. This is not the first time this has happened. My town is a bit rough, and frequently, someone will come up to me and I will always brace myself. However, almost everyone is genuinely curious and very kind. I find my expectations of people constantly challenged and I’ve grown quite attached to putting myself into situations where I have to confront my community, and they me. Usually, I like working outdoors for this reason, but this instance was bad timing. This is the excuse I make when a couple days after finishing this drawing that I thought was a success, I find it rather mediocre.

McLean Reed Poplars 6 copy

Reed McLean, Battered Poplars 6, charcoal, PVA, watercolor, natural pigment on paper mounted to aluminum, 2024

However, at the same time, the previous drawing has undergone a change and it catches my eye. I look again at this picture, and I realize that I like it. It is ugly, but it has a different ugliness than the rest. My failure seems to have left empty space in the middle on which to focus, a vacancy in the drawing that I find welcoming. Looking at it now, I can tell I really failed and had to come back from it. Maybe it starts to get good once you can forgive yourself for failing.


Image at top: Reed McLean, Stumped Ash, ink, iron acetate, acrylic medium, colored pencil on paper mounted to canvas on board, 2021.