Painting a Tree in Watercolor

I made this tutorial in order simplify painting a tree for my watercolor students. There are many ways to paint a tree, but this one has given me the greatest success in teaching how to think about the light-to-dark process of painting a deciduous tree.

Exercise for painting a deciduous tree in watercolor

This exercise uses three main steps for painting the tree.

  1. Using a light value of yellows and greens, paint one big shape to represent all the leaves. Make sure that the edges are irregular and “leafy.”  Leave some holes for the birds to fly through.  (The edges of the holes should be irregular also.)  Let this dry.
  2. Using a darker value of green, paint in some shadow shapes in the leaves on top of the first layer.  Only paint about 30% of the initial shape.  The arrow on the page is a reminder that the sun is coming from that direction, so the shadows should be mainly away from that side. Let this dry.  If the shadow shapes look pasted on, soften a few of the edges and let it dry.
  3. This is the hardest step to conceptualize.  Starting with the trunk, paint it down into the grass and up to the bottom of the tree.  Weave the trunk up through the leaves, making it thinner as it gets higher and branches out.  Only paint on the darker green and in the bird holes. (Because we want to suggest that the lightest leaves are in the sunlight and closer to us, imagine the branch going behind these leaves and coming out the other side.) The shadowed leaves and the bird holes are wonderful opportunities to show the branches dividing and going in a different direction.  Like the trunk, the branches get thinner the further out they are. (This tree could have had many more branches and twigs.)

I left a space on the left for my students to paint step 1 while looking at the example. Then they can use my first stage painting to practice step 2, and my step 2 to practice putting in the trunk and branches.

This is an exercise that I suggest you DO try at home!

Violin or Flamenco Dancer?

It is my pleasure to introduce “Camilla Serafina” who is here to dance for you.  Can you hear the haunting flamenco music?

While we are digging out after this weekend’s blizzard, she is on her way to Florida, to dance in the New Score Chamber Orchestra’s auction fundraiser.

Many thanks to my husband for his help in completing this project!

Will She Dance?

I wrote in December that I had been given a decommissioned violin to turn into a piece of art to be auctioned off at a fund raiser for the New Score Chamber Orchestra.  As I looked at and held this instrument, the idea that resonated most with me was that of a flamenco dancer.DSCN1039

So I stripped the violin of its remaining strings, pegs, and tailpiece and purchased some black and red fabric.


My husband built a stand for the violin, both to hold it upright and to give it the illusion of having legs under the skirt.


The bow became the arms, with the frog and the tip acting as hands.


Metal plates screwed into the joints allowed me to pose the arms at the angles I wanted.  Then the plates and screws were hidden under electrical shrink tubing.


A souvenier fan from my niece’s wedding was cut down and painted to become part of her costume.  Here you can also see two of the pegs and part of the tail piece that became her face.


Amazingly, as soon as we attached the arms, she took on the persona of a dancer.

Now to dress her!

I made a petticoat to hold the ruffled skirt away from the box stand and then began making her ruffled dress.  I have made clothes for myself and my children, usually from store-bought patterns, but I don’t know of a pattern company that has a dress pattern for a violin, so I was on my own.  As I was debating gluing fabric on the front, back and sides for a bodice, my daughter mentioned that she would miss the sound holes if I covered them up.  In what was actually a simpler option, paint would became the top of the dress with a ruffle to further define the bodice and a ruffled skirt glued on below.


What Would You Do?

When a long-time friend helped start the New Score Chamber Orchestra, I was privileged to provide the cover art for their programs, a collaboration that has continued for several years now (see Summer Nights Passing and Brand New Score ).

As a fundraiser, the orchestra has purchased several violins and has asked several artists to each turn one into a piece of art to be auctioned off.  So I have this “canvas” in my studio, waiting for its alter ego to appear:


What would you do?  How would you repurpose this falling apart instrument as a piece of art?


Imagining Winter

Snowy Evening, watercolor on canvas, 4" x 4"
Snowy Evening, watercolor on canvas, 4″ x 4″

We don’t have snow here, yet.  It’s not even officially winter, but I am thinking ahead and painting some snow scenes.  I have purchased some iridescent medium which can be used mixed in the watercolor paint, or brushed over top of it.  I use it to add some sparkle to the snow, but these images don’t show the sparkle.

Winter Fun, watercolor on canvas, 4" x 4"
Winter Fun, watercolor on canvas, 4″ x 4″

Still Feeling Crabby?

On one of our extended trips this past summer, we pulled into a marina at Knapps Narrows to re-provision the boat.  As we were getting started again the next morning, I looked across the creek to one of the warehouses where watermen sell their crabs.  A young man was working, stacking the crab baskets and lids, helping to tie up the boats as they came alongside, and loading baskets.  I was intrigued by the strong sunlight and shadow shapes.  By the time I went below decks to get my camera and returned, the young man had finished and gone inside.  However, I took a couple of pictures of the building, docks, baskets, and other boats in the area and put them together in this watercolor.

Beats a Day at the Office, watercolor, 10" x 14"
Beats a Day at the Office, watercolor, 10″ x 14″

Feeling Crabby?

The cooler weather of autumn has all of the crabs scrambling along the deep channels of the Chesapeake Bay, headed toward the mouth of the bay where they will burrow into the sand to wait out the winter.  So, here I am, painting from photos and memories.

Searching for Jumbo, watercolor, 10" x 14"
Searching for Jumbo, watercolor, 10″ x 14″

One summer morning when we had overnighted on the boat, we were awakened by the enthusiastic cries of crabbers following their chicken-neck line.  There was an exclamation of either glee or woe with every crab that came up, glee when it was big enough to keep, and woe when they had to throw it back.  But the loudest cries were for the big crabs when “Jumbo!” resounded across the otherwise quiet morning waters.  It became apparent from their accents that two of the crabbers were visitors from eastern Europe, and we enjoyed their delight as we watched them over our morning coffee.

An Unusual Tree

A Tree of a Different Color, watercolor, 7" x 5"
A Tree of a Different Color, watercolor, 7″ x 5″

One of my students likes the splatter trees that I have been doing, but she wanted to keep the leaves in clusters of more discreet colors.  So we started experimenting and came up with this tree of unusually colored leaves (and a few watercolor drips).

I painted the leaf clusters first and let them dry.  Then I mixed up a dark color for the trunk and grew the trunk and branches amongst the leaf clusters, going behind the lighter areas so that they come forward and going through the holes in the tree and over the darker areas in the leaf clusters.

I’m guessing that this might be an autumn tree since the leaves are falling on the ground and some of the branches are starting to get bare.

What colors have you seen in leaves recently?