What do Magnolia x soulangiana ‘Candolleana’, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, and Cedrus deodara ‘Shalimar’ have in common? Besides sharing the landscape in front of the Arboretum’s Hunnewell Building, all were the objects of attention this past Saturday in a two-hour drawing workshop. Exhibiting artist Paul Olson led an overflow group of excited and budding draughtspersons as they experienced (some for the first time) making art en plein air—French for art made outside, or Arnold Arboretum-speak for drawing unique and eminent trees in a naturalistic setting.

Paul Olsen nature drawing worksop
The Arboretum landscape served as an outdoor studio for students in Paul Olson’s drawing workshop on July 13, offered in conjunction with his current Arboretum art exhibition, Drawn to Paint.

Mother and son, husband and wife, partners, friends, and individuals representing a wide range of ages and drawing experience came to learn more about depicting nature. An instructor at both the Massachusetts College of Art and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), Olson is well-versed in introducing students to the basic concepts of drawing, and drawing trees is a subject he particularly loves. As an ardent Arboretum advocate and visitor, he encouraged the class to look at the variety of shapes and sizes, textures, and shades on display in the collection.

“The Arnold Arboretum is a magical place for me,” Olson said. “Stepping through the gates I am transported to an earlier time. A time of hikes and turning over rocks in the woods, where every day brings new discoveries. I am focused on my surroundings and in the moment with eyes and ears and heart wide open.” With this in mind, Olson encouraged workshop participants to pause and really look before they picked up their pencil to capture what they saw.

Participant in Paul Olson drawing workshop
Participant in Paul Olson’s drawing workshop sketches in front of the Hunnewell Building.

After a quick introduction and demo, Olson’s students took pencils and paper outside to take that moment and look, situating themselves in the shade (it was 90 degrees in the sun) beside a three-flowered maple (Acer triflorum), under the hybrid tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera x chinense), or among the trees by Linden Path. They followed Olson’s suggestions for starting with a quick thumbnail sketch, then enlarging it, paying attention to the simple shapes and placement on the sheet.

As the workshop was breaking up, one student stayed after to continue her drawing, saying “It’s rare that you can actually access the artist.” Another summed up the experience for everyone: “Just wanted to say thank you. It was awesome!”

In 2013, Paul Olson mounted a solo show at the Arboretum featuring his expressive and original drawings of Arboretum trees. His current show, “Drawn to Paint”—on display now through July 21—shares the next step in his process—the paintings created in his studio after spending time in the Arnold Arboretum drawing en plein air.

Paul Olson drawing
Paul Olson featured a collection of drawings of Arnold Arboretum plants in a 2013 exhibition, Drawn to Trees.