When I was reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, I used mental approximations for oaks and elms every time I ran up against them. I would find "oak" in a sentence, and all I knew was tree. My image for oak then was nothing more than a general tree.
Outside of pine trees and palms, I had little notion of what the different types of trees looked like. I was not aware of their seasonal changes — being from Miami, I only knew one season. Tolkien's rich environment and whatever implied meaning he was driving at was lost on a reader that could never differentiate a maple from an oak.
And yet I love trees! I take notice of them every time they call my attention by a shift of sunlight or by clusters of diverse textures in the distance. I appreciate the grace of branches, and I try to memorize the exact shapes of leaves. I take whatever haphazard details I can recollect back into my studio, and I try to paint the details that remain with me.
But was a branch dark gray or brown? Was there an order of connections that the branch had as it climbed up into the canopy? I could visualize the image, but not every correct element would make it intact. Since I draw and paint from memory, understanding what you had seen earlier provides a greater advantage than merely memorizing random details.
I went to the library one day and found a few books on botany. I took them home to go about studying the categorization of plants with seriousness. I was finally going to acquire some understanding about trees.
However, I immediately ran into walls of scientific jargon. A dry text was what I encountered. Keen specificity were the barbs I had to negotiate. The first book didn't even have a warm introduction to spur me on. Before getting into the good stuff, the general groupings of species and other foundational information was too convoluted for the novice, and forty pages in, I was convinced there was not going to be any "good stuff."
I had given up, but I had not forgotten. In another part of the country, at another library, some years later, quite by accident, I found a how-to book on painting trees. I was flipping through it, convinced it was just another book on artistic technique when I slowly realized what the author was in fact doing. He was classifying the basic types of trees, grouping each one in two-page spreads, explaining through the point of view of a watercolorist what differences to look for in each type.
Enraptured, I took it home, read each spread carefully, took notes, and committed them to memory. His descriptions of what to look for provided me with building blocks. The structures of things were being decoded for me, and I was dreaming up possibilities for how to use them with my own painting techniques. I was taking my work from memory and infusing it with a system.
However, I soon took this basic knowledge and found myself asking questions, wondering why paint trees when we have real trees all over creation? Here's a charming little painting by the symbolist Gustav Klimt I find in an art history book, and the trees look so convincing. But do I want to look at Klimt's lesser known landscapes or see the actual landscape? We assume this is what the trees looked like under such lighting and other conditions. Klimt's simple, clear landscapes are beautiful, but I feel real trees are so much more than the ones that are raised in the mind's fancy with his maneuvers in oil paint.
On the other hand, I could be wrong since I have never seen the actual paintings but only photographic reproductions of them. However, regardless of which tree tickles the mind in a more direct manner, Klimt does provide ideas by the way he composes them, the manner in which he paints them, and the colors which he chooses. And these ideas, if still present to someone who had discovered them in his paintings, would bounce off the actual landscape when the time comes to look at an actual tree. And just like how the painted tree can bring up the visual characteristics of a real tree in your head, the real tree may have a tendency of invoking the tree that was made with nothing but paint marks. I know because I have seen such trees once under the same lighting conditions and immediately thought of Klimt.