Be inspired by trees in the Gardens and the Arboretum

The second of a series of posts to keep you in touch with the inspiration found in the grounds and gardens of West Dean College of Arts and Conservation.

Use these photographs as inspiration and start or continue with your West Dean Sketchbook project. Share your experiments, sketches, paintings and making with us on social media (@westdeancollege) and using #westdeantogether.


St Roche's Arboretum, 20 hectares, is one of the less well known delights within West Dean's designed landscape. Historically, the Arboretum has been known for its collection of large specimens of North American conifers that grow surprisingly well on the thin clay soils overlying chalk. Indeed, the late, internationally renowned, dendrologist Alan Mitchell commented on their quality by saying that "the Arboretum has all the character of a North American forest" and despite the depredations of weather and age this remains true to this day.

It is also the burial place of our founder, Edward James, who had a particular passion for trees and the arboretum and who specifically asked to be buried surrounded by the woody guardians that he loved so much.

This is a group of Thuja plicata or Western Red Cedar.

It’s native to North West America and can achieve a large specimen of around 70m. Thuja groups that are planted or are growing densely together tend to display this growth habit whereby they raise their crown, leaving bare stems to maximise the amount of light that their leaves are exposed to at the top of the canopy.

The species name plicata derives from the Latin word plicāre and means "folded in plaits" or "braided," a reference to the pattern of its small leaves.


  • Ink is a great medium to use when experimenting with the linear structure of the trees. Try blowing ink across the page for branches. Find sticks to use instead of a pen or paintbrush to make marks. Crumple up paper dipped in ink and use to print or use in a collage for bark textures.
  • Texture could be embraced in a drawing exercise through frottage (technique of obtaining an impression of the surface texture of the tree by placing a piece of paper over the surface and taking a rubbing). Frottage can be a starting point of the drawing. The rubbing can be taken with a soft pencil, charcoal or crayon, even an old lichen covered stick from the ground can be used as a drawing implement as it too leaves interesting marks on the paper when rubbed against the bark. This frottage experiment can then be worked into using ink and other drawing media and alongside inspiration from the photographs. 
  • Explore painting trees to abstraction using either monotone, a limited palette  or an unrealistic palette such as the red and blues Mondrian uses in some of his tree paintings.  
  • To create texture in fabric; with synthetic fabric (lining fabric is ideal), lay on top of a sheet of tin foil of the same size, crumple up the fabric and tin foil together and pop in a moderate oven for a few minutes, remove from oven and allow to cool. The fabric will retain the texture /memory of folding.
  • Make a sculpture using found materials or discarded materials that you can find around your house. Corrugated cardboard is an ideal material to cut, bend and carve - for inspiration check out the installation by Eva Jospin in the Hayward exhibition – see below. Collect twigs on your daily walk and bind together using string to create your own tree. This can grow over the weeks.


  • Piet Mondrian’s fascination with trees developed out of his earlier landscape painting. His abstract pantings were based on realistic sketches which he reworked almost to abstraction. He condensed the trunks and branches to a network of verticals and horizontals. He acknowledged the inspiration of nature but added, ‘I want to come as close as possible to the truth, and abstract everything from that until I reach the foundation of things’.
  • Sculptor Giuseppe Penone's current work is mostly focused on trees. Exquisitely attuned to volume, mass, and space, Penone crafts trees out of materials like bronze and wood, revealing the disarming similarities between bark and skin, branches and limbs, trunk and torso. He is one of the artists featured in Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery. Director Ralph Rugoff leads a virtual tour of this group exhibition that looks at how artists over the past 50 years have explored our relationship with trees and forests.
  • Short Course tutor Carole Waller has just printed some beautiful silk scarves developed from a photograph she took of trees just coming into bud outside the workshop doors, whilst teaching at West Dean in March. You can see this design on her website.
  • Other Artists inspired by trees include, David Nash, Rebecca Partridge (one of the Visiting lecturers on the MFA Fine Art programme at West Dean), Tacita Dean, David Hockney and Gustav Klimt.

Learning in lockdown

For further creative inspiration, why not check out our series of bite-size tutorials from the College’s expert Short Course Tutors.

With the hope to keep you connected with creativity and each other, and provide inspiration while we all stay at home, many of the tutorials focus on materials you may already have; try drawing a charcoal self-portrait, fill a sketchbook with mixed media collages or learn the basics of crochet. 

Video tutorials are posted daily on Instagram, Facebook and the College's YouTube channel.