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.

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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!

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?

Autumn Trees

The changing colors of the trees has inspired me to paint some more “splatter trees.”  Watercolor pigments are tapped off my brush onto the paper in a random fashion and then sprayed with water so that many of the droplets run together. After this is dry, I go back into the splattered shape and find where the trunk and branches of the tree should go.

The brightest colors are the masses of leaves in the sunlight and are closest to the viewer, so the trunk and branches go behind these shapes.  Darker areas are leaf masses in the shadows and areas without color are the “bird holes,” (left so that the birds can fly through the tree without bumping their heads!)  The branches go through these areas, making sure that they are connected to the trunk in a logical manner.

Red Tree – #82 of 120 Paintings

Red Tree, watercolor, 7"x5"
Red Tree, watercolor, 7″ x 5″

As the days here in the northern hemisphere shorten, the trees are beginning to change colors and drop their leaves.  This is an imaginary tree, formed by splattering yellow, red and blue pigments on the paper and then misting the paper to let the colors run together.  I’m never sure how the tree will turn out!  After the “foliage” is dry, I come back in, painting the sky, ground, and finding where the branches and trunk show through the leaves.

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120 Paintings

  • “It takes 120 bad paintings to know something about painting.”  –  Larry Seiler as quoted by Jeff Mahorney in his blog
  • Each painting is small in format and should be completed in about an hour or less.
  • My goals are to improve my technique, to paint faster, and to gain experience with a variety of subjects.

The Golden Hour: Nancy’s Swing and Evening Races

For photographers and artists, the “golden hour” is the first and last hour of sunlight of the day.  During this time, the sun’s rays hit the earth’s surface at a low angle and the light gives objects a golden-yellow glow, which is enhanced by long, purply-dark shadows.  I’ve had several opportunities recently to be out painting in the evening and managed to get these pictures done before the mosquitoes chased me indoors.

Nancy's Swing, watercolor, 5" x 7"
Nancy’s Swing, watercolor, 5″ x 7″

My friend’s property is in Londontowne, Maryland, overlooking the South River.  It was the southern docking point for the ferry to Annapolis in colonial times. Because it is situated near the water and on a long sloping hill, the area in which this swing sits usually has a breeze, even when the rest of the area is stifling hot and still.

Evening Races, watercolor, 5" x 7"
Evening Races, watercolor, 5″ x 7″

This picture was painted just outside Annapolis, looking north toward the evening races on the Severn River.  Several classes of sailboats were out racing at the same time, a delight to the viewers and a thrill for the participants.

 

Emotional Response to Color: Comparison

I thought you might like to see all three versions on the same page.

You described the first version as:

sombre, pensive, like the end of autumn, quiet, lonely, open, calm, welcoming, smoky, hazy, lost, faded memories, depressing

 

The second version came across as:

mysterious, inviting, deep, meditative, introspective, moon-y, dangerous, magnetic, quiet, pensive, calming, unreal, peaceful, nighttime

 

And the final version was described as:

welcoming, calming, peaceful, quiet, dusk, a prelude to wet weather, somber, sad, unnatural

Thank you for all of your insightful comments!

 

 

Emotional Response to Color, Part 3

This is the third (and last) place for you to visit, my friends.

Mountains and Trees (III), watercolor, 7" x 5"
Mountains and Trees (III), watercolor, 7″ x 5″

I’ve enjoyed hearing how the previous pictures made you feel, and request your indulgence in telling me again!  If you have not commented on one of the previous posts (Part 1, or Part 2) I would still like your input!  Thanks.

Emotional Response to Color, Part 2

This scene is very similar to the one I posted yesterday, but the color is different.  I have tried to make the values (the light-ness or dark-ness) of each section similar.

Mountains and Trees (II), watercolor, 7"x5"
Mountains and Trees (II), watercolor, 7″x5″

I’m deliberately not showing the previous image because I don’t want you to compare them, but I would appreciate your comments on how this scene feels to you.

Emotional Response to Color

This is the first of three pictures of mountains and trees.  Each picture is monochromatic and depicts the same scene.  I’m looking for how different colors convey varied emotional messages.  (Come back tomorrow and the next day for the contrasting pictures!)

Mountains and Trees (I), watercolor, 7" x 5"
Mountains and Trees (I), watercolor, 7″x5″

What feeling does this scene elicit when you view it?