How To Paint A Tree
My first artistic love was with watercolor. Even though I tend to use oil paints in my practice, I’ve never quite got over the romance of the watching watercolor paint drying on paper. From a glistening droplet to a parched plateau in a matter of seconds, I especially like the “edge” that watercolor dries with, that fringe of slightly more intense color around the perimeter. Like a halo.
Watercolor paint is sometimes unfairly associated with the amateur end of art-making, despite some great artists from history having engaged with the medium, from Vincent Van Gogh to J M W Turner to Winslow Homer.
Not only can watercolor be extremely expressive, it can also provide a perfect means of painting outdoors — en plein air, as the French say — since it is a quick medium to apply and dry, and the amount of equipment you need to carry with you is minimal.
This quickness does pose a challenge. For me, one of the trickiest aspects of watercolor is how unforgiving it is on mistakes. Generally speaking, you get one chance to laden your brush with paint and commit it to paper. Erasing it is almost impossible and over-painting is often counter-productive.
The exception to this is when applying darker shades of paint over lighter shades. This works with watercolor. For this reason, in painting this simple image of a tree, it makes sense to start with the lighter shades of the object, those parts on the outside and at the top where the sunlight naturally reaches.
First things first: use a pencil to sketch out the broad outline of the tree. There’s no point in being too precise here — as the paint spills from your brush it will always take over your best laid plans.
Next, start to build up the foliage. Keep your brush well-loaded with paint so that paper is able to soak it in. This keeps the colors nice and rich, and creates that characteristic “edge” that is so pleasing in watercolors.
Moving around the form of the tree, be mindful of altering the colors that are in the brush, so that you get an attractive blend of shades moving through the tree. In my painting, the light source is coming from above, so the lower reaches of the tree will naturally be darker.
Build up the foliage with a mixture of small brush marks and larger swathes of paint, being sure to leave white gaps of paper in between for added texture.
With the lighter tones, once an area is dry, try not to over-paint it too much. The pleasure (and pain) of watercolors is in the accidents; so if you’re tempted to re-do an area that didn’t work out as planned, try to resist and instead incorporate the accident into the picture.
The darker tones at the bottom of the tree are the next area to paint in. Here, some over-painting is permitted. To maintain realism, think about how the shadows fall in the enclosed areas of the tree, beneath and within the main body of foliage. I like to darken my greens by mixing in some ultramarine blue, and a touch of burnt umber too.
Also, if any of the paint in the lighter areas is still wet, don’t be afraid to let the paint seep into these spots: you could get some interesting results.
To finish the painting I’ve added a few more branches stemming from the trunk into the tree, and built up a little more depth in the lower sections of the foliage to suggest more shadow. Where the branches pass in front of the darker areas, I’ve pressed a bit of kitchen towel to soak up the paint a little, thereby “ghosting” the color of the branch a touch (see the bottom-right quarter of the foliage).
There are no hard and fast rules with watercolor, and different materials will yield different results. For reference, the materials I used for this painting are as follows:
- 640gsm cotton rag paper: This is a fairly heavy paper that doesn’t crinkle when wet. That’s my preference. Anything above 300gsm should be good.
- 3 brushes of varying size (see photo below)
- Ultramarine blue
- Chromiam green
- Yellow ochre
- Burnt umber
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