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!

Time Out for Art: Electrical Repair

I got up this morning to find my son eating breakfast by flashlight.  After a little exploration around the house, I discovered that some parts of the house had power while other parts did not.  I could make a cup of coffee, but I would have to drink it in the dark.  I could turn on the light in the bathroom, but not write an email since the modem didn’t have power.  I checked the breakers and they looked fine. So I called the power company and they sent out a technician.

Electrical Repair, pen and ink, 7" x 5"
Electrical Repair, pen and ink, 7″ x 5″

He first tested the power coming in to the junction box on the side of the house.  All looked well.  The power company is only responsible for the wires coming to the house; if I had a problem inside, he wouldn’t be able to help with it.  But before he concluded that for sure, he would check the other connections.  So he hopped into the bucket on the back of his truck and “flew up” to the top of the pole at the end of the driveway.  When that checked out okay, he got a ladder to check the connectors at the top of the house.  Bingo!  One of them was old and cracked and had shorted out.  It only took him a couple of minutes to replace, but it was long enough for me to capture a quick image of him up the ladder with all of his protective gear on.

Callejón San Vicente de Paul

My husband and I have returned from a trip to Spain and Gibraltar.  On the 94th day of February, when winter seemed like it would never end, we escaped to a warm climate: clear, sunny skies, and temperatures in the teens (Celsius).  My husband sent  pictures back to our children with the label:  famous artist sighting.

Ruth sketching, Rota, Spain
Ruth sketching, Rota, Spain

I was sitting on the wall between the promenade and the beach.  Despite having walked down this little street several times, it wasn’t until late in the trip that I realized the wonderful view of the church through the archway.

Callejón San Vicente de Paul (Rota, Spain), watercolor, 7" x 5"
Callejón San Vicente de Paul (Rota, Spain), watercolor, 7″ x  5″
Looking up the alley at the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la O
Looking up the alley at the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la O







Visitors to my Studio

Yesterday I had visitors, and while their mother and grandfather worked on their violin/guitar duo, we went into my studio.  Having my grandchildren in my studio is a special time for me.  At ages three and four, they still wonder uncritically at their ability to make marks on paper, and enjoy the fluidity of colors coming off a brush.

Visitors to my studio
Visitors to my studio
Enjoying colors
Enjoying colors








After enjoying the colors separately, this little one decided to try dipping the brush into successive colors, going all the way around the box of paint pans. “Hmmm. . . Brown!”  She rinsed the brush and picked up all the colors in a different order – still brown!  (Rinse, repeat.  Rinse repeat, with glee.)


Many adult watercolor painters spend a lot of time learning this same lesson: too many colors mixed together make “mud brown,” however their discovery is not usually accompanied by the same degree of satisfaction as this little imp felt.

Tropical!, watercolor, 5" x 7"
Tropical!, watercolor, 5″ x 7″









One of my adult students is painting a series of paintings using a pineapple as a motif.  I did a quick demonstration painting to show that there are ways to approach the subject that break away from the actual image in front of her.

I used three pigments (new gamboge, quinacridone magenta, and cobalt blue) mixed on the paper, a recognizable silhouette and some layering of color for value changes to get this colorful pineapple.  It’s not my usual style, but much like my granddaughters, I enjoyed putting sweeps of color on the page and watching the colors blend where they touched each other (without making mud brown).

Time Out for Art: Pen and Ink

We had a damaging storm come through last Wednesday night.  I’m thankful that no one I know of was hurt, but the trees in our area suffered many broken limbs. We now have only a small path through which we can navigate to our front door until our landlord gets out his chain saw.  The neighbor’s spruce tree is leaning over the fence and resting on our roof.  My son was late to work because a couple of locust trees on the corner were down and blocking the road.   Today, the county sent out a maintenance crew and they cleared the remains of the locust trees off the corner.  I had a few minutes before my art student came, and I saw an opportunity to do some drawing.


Clearing Fallen Trees, pen and ink, 9" x 12"
Clearing Fallen Trees, pen and ink, 9″ x 12″

When I have been drawing in my sketchbook lately, I have started with a pencil and switched to the pen when I was confident of where my lines should be.  I didn’t think I would have time for that today, so I went directly into the drawing with ink.  Later, I added some watercolor, which doesn’t make a smooth wash on the sketchbook paper, but adds some color.

Clearing Fallen Trees (color), pen and ink with watercolor, 9" x 12"
Clearing Fallen Trees (color), pen and ink with watercolor, 9″ x 12″

Time Out for Art: The Difference a Pencil Can Make

Being in a beautiful garden makes me want to capture the scene on paper!  Last weekend I participated in an art show at Historic London Town and Gardens, a county park south of Annapolis, Maryland.  As we were setting up the show, I looked outside and was enthralled by the sun hitting the gazebo in the gardens.  So after I had finished my chores, I took some time to go out and paint.  As I sat down to sketch out the scene, I found to my dismay that I had forgotten a pencil. Instead of going back inside to get one, I decided that I would just paint directly without drawing first.

London Town Gazebo, watercolor, 5" x 7"
London Town Gazebo, watercolor, 5″ x 7″

I don’t remember why I stopped before I had finished the painting.  There aren’t any shadowed spots in the overhead leaves and the small tree in front of the gazebo doesn’t have a trunk or branches.  I remember not being happy with the depiction of the sun on the wood or the roof of the gazebo, but liking the feeling of spontaneity conveyed.

I made sure to bring a pencil the next day and managed to get a sketch done outside before it started to rain.  (I have enhanced the drawing with a photo editor so that you can see the lines, as I usually draw lightly on the watercolor paper.)

Sketch for Londontown Gazebo, pencil, 5" x 7"
Sketch for London Town Gazebo, pencil, 5″ x 7″

Several days later I painted this picture in my studio, using the first painting and my memory as references.

London Town Gazebo #2, watercolor, 5" x 7"
London Town Gazebo #2, watercolor, 5″ x 7″

So what difference does a pencil make?  It helps me plan before I start painting.  I can save light spaces better if I delineate them first. A pencil sketch lets me see the composition before I start painting, and allows me to measure elements for their relative sizes.  Maybe with more experience I could do it without the pencil, but for now, I rely on it to sketch.




Weekly Photo Challenge: Good Morning!

Today is the last day of this week’s challenge, and so far my plans for pictures for this theme have all been thwarted.  Although I have coffee paintings, and early morning scenes from the boat, I wanted something new to post.  But, alas, the morning following our night on the boat was dreary despite the glorious sunset the night before.  I thought I might put my morning coffee next to a rain-drenched window today, but the wind died and the glass stayed dry.  So here is my “good morning” picture, drawn with a graphite stick:

Good Morning, graphite, 8" x 10"
Good Morning, graphite, 8″ x 10″

I’m thankful for a warm, dry place to sleep, and the strength and health to get out of bed each morning!

Time Out for Art: Discipline and Patience

How often do I finish a painting and then “check off the box.”  Been there and done that!  But what happens if I do it again?

Recently I posted a painting of my niece and my daughter at the beach.  My niece, Annie, wanted to see the evolution of the picture, so I have hunted up all my references.

It started out with a day at the beach with my sister and some of our children.  We were both living in Florida at the time, but in different cities,  and met at a beach about half-way between our homes.  I took many photos that day, but the image that stayed in my mind was of our daughters running into the waves.

Annie and Elizabeth, digital photo
Annie and Elizabeth, digital photo

I wanted to paint the scene, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.  (This was before I started studying with Gwen Bragg). I decided that the photo had too  much information for me, so I did a pencil drawing, which gave me shapes and values without the distraction of colors.

Annie and Elizabeth, pencil, 11" x 8.5"
Annie and Elizabeth, pencil, 11″ x 8.5″

And here is the painting:

Annie and Elizabeth (#1), watercolor, 15" x 22"
Annie and Elizabeth (#1), watercolor, 15″ x 22″

Several years later, while studying with Gwen Bragg, we had a lesson on painting waves at the beach.  We had already done a lesson on painting people, so I decided to do this picture again.  I am glad that I had the discipline and patience to revisit this picture, as the character of the waves and the sky now help to highlight the movement of the figures.

Annie and Elizabeth, watercolor, 14" x 21"
Annie and Elizabeth, watercolor, 14″ x 21″




Time Out for Art: Teachers

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of attending a workshop taught by Tony Van Hasselt. It was a wonderful learning experience because he is a talented teacher. One of his maxims that we heard repeatedly was, “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” as he stressed the importance of taking a few minutes to do a value study before starting to paint.  These value studies shouldn’t take a lot of time and don’t have to be big, just a simplification of the shapes and relative values for planning purposes.

The lesson for my students this week was on painting a still life containing a piece of glassware. In preparation I painted a simple set up with a wine glass and some grapes.  Here is the value study:

Value Study for glassware, pencil, 4.25" x 3"
Value Study for glassware, pencil, 4.25″ x 3″

This week’s photo challenge from the Daily Press is to show a scene from two views, one in a horizontal format and the other vertical.  So, I’m going to paint my set-up again.  Which horizontal format  do you prefer?  Why did you choose that one?

You can see this week’s other examples of pencil drawings at the Zeebra Blog!

Time Out for Art: Drawing a Line (or Knot)

Bowline, pencil, 5" x 7"
Bowline, pencil, 5″ x 7″

Jeff Werner wrote in Sail Magazine, “Once you cut a piece of rope off the spool at the chandlery and bring it aboard your boat and give it a job to do, it becomes a line you have put to work.”  Here I’ve put my artist’s line and the sailor’s line to work together.

This knot is a bowline, probably the most commonly found knot on a sailboat.  It is used when one wants a fixed loop in a line that won’t slip or jam, such as fastening a mooring line to a ring or a post.  The bowline is strong, but unties easily once it is not longer needed.  It is a poor safety knot since it can work its way untied when there is no pressure on it.