The Light in the Dark Forest


The finest way to draw–Bluegray tanagers sketched from a comfortable hammock on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Right on the other side of that railing is a fruiting tree. Note the pink toenails- on the artist, not the bird. But where is my drink with the umbrella?

I don’t even know where to start, but let me do a short show and tell. It was a terrific trip and I got a lot of photos and sketches, as well as ideas for projects and a series of paintings or two. I like that sort of trip, with lots of think time. I actually spent many hours just looking at how light affects the understory: watching patches of sunlight break up and move around the forest floor, highlighting a seedling here, a root there, a liana’s curve, a foraging agouti, a nephila in its web.


Oh, that Nephila in its web!


A warm patch of sunlight on the forest floor lingers briefly before vanishing or moving on.

If you think about it, plants in the deep shade of a tropical rainforest floor don’t get much sun, and these ephemeral patches of moving light may be all they get. A sunny day is required (and there are a lot of rainy days in the tropics) but the light is filtered through the canopy, broken in pieces by vines, leaves and branches- a tight basketweave of shadecasting biomass. As the sun moves through the sky, the patch works its way across what’s beneath. That young Dipteryx sapling might get a few minutes of sunlight sliding across it once every few days. Dipteryx trees are forest giants when they mature, but if they are in deep forest, they start out growing VERY slowly. A seedling just five feet tall with a stem of an inch in diameter might be ten or twenty years old.


Sunlight=growth. This tree seedling is lucky enough to have rooted earlier in what was later to become a light gap. Luck plays a major role in the life of a rainforest tree.

If a big tree falls and opens up a light gap for the seedling, the Dipteryx can grow with amazing speed and reach canopy size quickly. This is how the forest regenerates itself, fascinating stuff. But from my point of view, the patchy light in the forest understory made beautiful patterns, ever so lovely to look at and so much fun to draw.


Watch this drawing being made in three video clips:

15 thoughts on “The Light in the Dark Forest

  1. Lyn Weir says:

    Hello Debby,

    I have been following your blog for a while now and thoroughly enjoying being able to participate from afar in your artmaking process. Especially enjoy seeing your sketches progressing to completed works.

  2. Linda says:

    Oh, these drawings are just perfect! You show us that the life of an artist/naturalist is really tough — oh, what trying conditions you were in while studying the tanagers! (grin) And what a great description of the movement of light through the forest, too. All the time spent observing must be time well spent — I’m sure your series of paintings will be marvelous, and can’t wait to see them! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Rich says:

    I was curious about the type of sketchbook you are using. It looks like a Robert Bateman? Also, what is that chubby little pencil and what grade do you use for the majority of your sketching work? One last question… Do you use a modified-contour drawing technique or some other method of making your sketches so full of life?

  4. zeladoniac says:

    Great questions- I used to use Robert Bateman sketchbooks exclusively but they have stopped manufacturing them. For this trip I made my own sketchbooks, buying pads of plate-finish bristol paper, tearing out the paper from the pads and spiral binding them into books at an office supply chain. I even printed out some sketches onto a single sheet which I had laminated for a cover. It actually came out to less money than the “real” sketchbook would have cost, and the paper was nicer, if slightly heavier.

    The pencil is a Koh-i-noor Hardtmuth Triograph 6B. It has a triangular cross-section that feels good in the hand, and has a beautiful wood that looks like nicely finished furniture. It gets a great range of tones and works well in damp climates (something you have to take into account when drawing outside). The only downside to this pencil is that it doesn’t fit most pencil sharpeners, but I found one that works: a Helix 37110,( Otherwise, you can sharpen it with a knife, something that’s a little inconvenient.It’s a great pencil and has become my favorite.

    I’d go ahead and call my drawing style modified-contour (good call!), with a lot of shading-as-you-go and emphasis on a thick-and-thin line quality. It’s very fast and loose and has its roots in fashion illustration, which is where I started out, drawing newspaper advertising for a department store chain in California. It’s served me very well as a field sketching technique. After all, there are deadlines in the rainforest, too (rain’s gonna fall, toucan’s gonna fly)!

    Thanks for asking!

  5. otterdotes says:

    Ahhhh, I absolutely love your style of your drawings! The worst part is that I know I could satisfy myself like your work does to me, but I’m not interested enough in drawing to practice it. Maybe as I grow older I’ll change ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. marie says:

    i was looking up drawing tips on rainforests for a comic of mine and i came across your site. I greatly enjoyed watching your videos, i got a taste of what a rainforest is really like. Keep up the drawings! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. hilda says:

    hey i’m really impressed with your sketches. I’ll love to learn to draw like you do
    wonderful job ! and beautiful garden by the way

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