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!

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.