Although some people have used the term “photo realism” to describe Sandra Allen’s strikingly detailed, large-scale pencil drawings of trees, it’s not a label she favors. “No, it’s not my goal to do photo realism,” the Hingham, Massachusetts, artist explains. “I like to say that my works are more portraits of trees than copies. I am interpreting what I am seeing, like a painter, not just reproducing it.”
Indeed, Allen set out to become a painter after earning a BFA from Dartmouth and an MFA from Yale. “Back then I thought to be a ‘real’ artist you had to be painter,” she says. But after being disappointed with a series of paintings of trees she did in the late 1990s—“they were absolutely awful,” she remembers—she turned to pencil. “Suddenly, everything clicked. I loved the way working with pencil helped me capture details like tree bark, burls, scars, and other nuances. It was my ‘Aha’ moment. I was painting with graphite.”
She has become widely known for her drawings, and her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and other museums, as well in private and corporate collections throughout New England and beyond.
Why trees? “They are so grand, so old. They are the oldest living things on the planet, and they make us realize how small we are,” Allen says. “And there is such beauty in their imperfections. It’s fascinating to try to capture all of this in a drawing.” It helps that she lives near Hingham’s 251-acre World’s End, a Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park that is chockablock with stately trees.
After spotting a tree that interests her, Allen will photograph it several times in different lighting conditions, often at sunrise and near sunset. “Getting the right light is the key,” she explains. “Light helps me make the composition more interesting.”
Then she will create a collage using scores of her photographs which she overlays with a grid that helps her decide on what she calls her “sculptural narrative” or composition. A tree portrait, from photography to composition to drawing, can easily take a month. Her largest portrait was thirty-seven feet high. “Each piece is different,” says Allen. “And with each drawing I am pushing myself to go to a new place.”