Oak, Wood pigeon, elm sapling and oil seed rape

Oil on canvas, 1550mm x 1150mm, framed
private collection, Australia

the oak from a glider at 1000ft

oil study

on a cloudless afternoon in May, painted from about 40 meters - close enough to see many different greens. Afternoon light gave strong warm shadows against bright turquoise. There were only a few days like this each year so I added to the study over three years; the painting itself developed over four.



head-on sunlight creates a flattening effect,  like a pub sign or stained glass window. To build in this idea I took photos from 100 meters with a zoom lense whose narrow depth of field flattened the photo space. 

Combining photographic and painted sources gave the simplification of form as seen from a distance with the range of colours seen close to. The contradiction suggests something seen and imagined at the same time, like an emblem embedded in vision.

digital colour textures


Colour-textures were then generated by mapping oil study colours onto digital selections. I used dozens of prints of colour selections like this one to guide the distribution of colours observed in the field. The method produces a very articulate and rich account of colour.


under painting was laid in thin acrylic, switching to oil when observed colours could be used.
About half way, now in oil. We're very sensitive to small differences between textures. Grids helped here, because textures are easier to compare over small fixed distances. After a while I became quicker at seeing these differences.

rough and smooth

A photograph has only one surface quality, but oil paint on canvas has many. Mutual enhancement of smooth and rough passages is a stock in trade of oil painting, and can be used to distinguish film and surface colours. Here the sky and darkest shades look filmy, but the leaves in sunlight look like small surfaces.


This painting was the centerpiece for a show in Shoreditch, London. It was shown surrounded by small oaks, different versions of itself. As for its meaning, trust the tale not the teller; but these are some suggestions:

Close observation tries to grasp the tree as unique thing in a small window of time. But clarification and artifice suggest an oak tree of the mind, an idea.

There are multiple time frames : oaks have been around for millennia, this one for about two hundred and fifty years ; an Elm sapling lives just a few years before it succumbs to Dutch Elm disease; the modern crop takes a few weeks to ripen; the light was like this for an hour or two each day; the pigeon flew past in seconds.

The oil seed rape variety, "Lioness", was bred in Germany for high yield. It was fed on petrochemical derived nitrogen and the seeds were sold for manufacturing oil-seed petrol which could be used anywhere in the world. The tree is growing only a few miles from where John Constable worked and he may have seen this very tree - but he would never have seen a crop like this.

The bird reminded me of birds in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, for example "the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." *. For some reason I find passing birds in a specific landscape very moving. They are always different, unique moments, but seem to mean the same thing. I was not surprised to find that the word augury is linked to the ancient Roman practice of telling the future by the passing of birds through an area of sky.

I was driving from Colchester to Clacton wondering how to get the colour of a woodpigeon against oak leaves in direct sunlight. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dead woodpeogeon in the road. I pulled over, put it in the boot and later, on a sunny day, fixed it on a stick in front of the tree.

environment and images


A big oak outside my primary school gate in Wolverhampton, and the badge of the present school cap. There are lots of oak trees in the suburb where I grew up, small corners of which seemed almost wild to a child.


An oak tree in a valley painted in the 1920's by my grandfather, Jack Taylor. The painting is formulaic but refers to a real location. There is more about this in my book "Oak:one tree, three years, fifty paintings".


Pub sign showing the famous oak tree in which King Charles II hid to avoid Cromwell's men - The Royal Oak. Bank's brewery was local to Wolverhampton. My father, grandfather, great grandfather and I myself all drank at another Bank's pub, The Swan, at Compton. Jack Taylor's painting above was of a view by the canal a short walk away from The Swan.


The painting starts its journey from a studio on the fens to Sydney, Australia. The other side of the world.

* from God's Grandeur, sonnet dated 1877.

On July 1866 Hopkins wrote in his journal : " I have now found the law of the oak leaves. It is of platter-shaped stars altogether; the leaves lie close like pages, packed, and as if drawn tightly together. But to these old packs, wh. lie at the end of their twigs, throw out now long shoots alternately and slimly leaved, looking like bright keys. All the sprays but markedly these ones shape out and as it were embrace greater circles and the dip and toss of these make the wider and less organic articulations of the tree.Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose. Ed.Gardner, Penguin. P. 109

This intense observation of nature by a poet is part of a Western tradition that bridges art and science. But Hopkins' attempt to get almost inside non-human things also connects to a pre-industrial, pre-scientific world. For example, Anglo Saxon riddles imagine what it's like to be a swan, or an onion...

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