Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part III.)

Tree color is dependent on several factors.  Never depict trees in your paintings as all the same color – a strong, unvaried green – because you “know” what color trees are.  Tree color varies with the type of tree (species), the season, and the distance from the viewer. You should look for blue/greens, yellow/greens, and red/greens.  Your work will be far more interesting if you include and even exaggerate these variations in color, paying special attention to the cooler, darker hues of the shadowed areas which appear on the side of the tree away from the source of light and on the undersides of the branches.

Spring trees display fresh, bright foliage.  Make the foliage translucent by mixing your colors with plenty of water, and try to keep your shapes well defined.  Leave lots of white paper showing between foliage shapes to suggest sparse, new growth.  Lemon yellow or Hansa yellow light with sap green would work well for creating bright greens and yellows.  Remember to paint foliage in at least two layers (light and dark).  For spring trees in the distance, strive for cooler greens by adding blue to your mixtures; the blue will complement the warm, bright colors of nearer trees.  A good reference for seasonal paint colors is my blog of 11/27/2018, entitled “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Palettes.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/27/spring-summer-autumn-and-winter-palettes/.

Summer trees look more solid and richer in color than spring trees.  The foliage is fuller.  Build up the summer tree in two or three layers, starting with the outline of the canopy.  DaVinci Sap Green and Ultramarine Blue work well for summer foliage, with perhaps Payne’s Gray added for the darkest parts.  Remember to leave a gap or two for sky holes.

Autumn trees have somewhat less foliage than summer trees, and as the season progresses, the trees will, of course, drop more and more leaves, and foliage will become sparse.  Autumn colors are rich and warm:  siennas, reds, and yellows develop, and a few greens linger.  More branches are visible.  In bright sunlight, your autumn tree will appear somewhat paler than you might expect.  Try to mix your colors on the paper, dropping in several colors next to each other and allowing them to blend softly into each other on their own.  Trees are seldom a single color.  A variegated wash of Cadmium Yellow and Light Red with a touch of DaVinci Sap Green could be used to make a range of fall colors.

 

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Conifers have a somewhat different structure and shape than deciduous trees.  To paint conifers convincingly, you must take notice of their structure.  You don’t want to paint Christmas trees!  Conifers develop around a single central trunk.  Look closely to get the angle of the branches correct.  In general, limbs grow up and out.  More specifically, branches at the top of a conifer head upward, those in the midsection go outward, then head upward, and those near the bottom head downward, then upward.  Remember: all the branches are heading for sunlight.  Coniferous branches tend to be shorter and most branch out flatter than deciduous branches.  Try to leave space between many of the branches.

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White paper birches are tall, thin trees found in the Northeastern United States, growing singly or in clusters.  The trunks tend to be thinner than those of many large trees, with only a few large limbs but many smaller horizontal branches and flexible twigs.  The bark of the birch tree is paper-like and chalky white, sometimes peeling, broken with irregular horizontal textures and dark scars.  Larger branches are white, but the smallest branches appear black.  When you are painting birch trunks, brush strokes, shadows, and bark texture should follow circumferential lines, using blacks and grays (mixed by combining Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna) and a brownish orange (made from Burnt Sienna).

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You should paint distant trees as simple masses of shapes with minimal detail.  Squint your eyes to observe shapes and groupings of light and dark areas.  The farther away the trees, the paler and less detailed they become.  Distant trees also have a cooler (bluer) color.  As you move from the horizon to the middle ground, you can very gradually warm up your colors by putting more yellow and less water in them.  However, you still need to reserve your richest greens and strong contrasts for foreground trees.

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Many of the previously mentioned details about trees may seem obvious or overly simplistic, but a lot of beginning painters do not paint with these many small details in mind.  Attention to such details helps you paint convincingly and accurately.  Details are important!

Painting Decisions Along The Way…

In Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang fully formed from Zeus’s brow. Painting, however, doesn’t work that way. Even when a painter has had many years of painting experience, the creation of a painting takes much thought and trial and error. A great picture does not necessarily happen easily, quickly, or without struggle. Beginning artists may think that with a little more experience and practice they should be able to paint well, to know what they need to paint satisfying pictures. It is not, however, a skill that you either have or you don’t. Self-taught painter Dan Scott ( drawpaintacademy.com) has described well the necessary process for ALL artists (whether beginner or advanced) to continue to evaluate and make ongoing decisions while painting every picture.

Dan Scott writes:

“Something you may have noticed from watching my painting demonstrations is that it is not a straight-line path from start to finish. There are all kinds of twists and turns as the painting progresses.

It starts with a rough vision in my head – what I think the painting will end up looking like. Then, more often than not, that idea morphs and transforms as my brush hits the canvas.

I go in a different direction with my colors. I change the position of that tree. I make mistakes I need to fix (and mistakes which I cannot fix). I realize my color palette cannot mix some of the colors I need, and so on…

By the end, the painting sometimes only has a slight resemblance to my initial vision. But that is OK.

This is why I don’t like to talk as if there is some kind of set formula for creating a painting. Of course, I do use certain techniques and processes over and over again, but I always try to remain flexible in my approach.

I prefer to treat painting as a “choose your own path” kind of thing, or in other words, a long string of decisions and problems you need to solve. The outcome depends on the quality of your decisions along the way, not how well you are able to stick to some predetermined path or process.

All the techniques, processes, tips, hacks and tricks are just tools at my disposal to help me along the way. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, if there is anything you should take away from my painting demonstrations, it is not how to go about creating a painting from start to finish, it is how to make decisions.”

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Along the same lines, in recent watercolor classes at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors at Tumblers Bottom Gallery, 30 Main Street, Ayer, MA., we have been exploring and learning about values while working on several twilight snow scenes. It has been necessary to continue to evaluate our efforts as we paint. Is the nighttime sky too dark or not dark enough? We know we need to still have the contrast between lights and darks, even though the picture has more dark values than light, for the painting to have impact. How can we paint the glow from a lit window or the reflected light from a streetlight? We create a plan, try it out, then evaluate to decide whether we have achieved what we hoped for. No? How can we increase the glow of the lights? Perhaps we should increase the contrast by darkening our color close to our lightest values. Perhaps we should employ the complementary color of our light source color in mixing our dark to make things pop more. This improves the picture, but there is still not enough glow. It seems that we may have put too thick a layer of color on the lights.Let’s try to lift some color off or maybe scrape – the light should be whiter. Now, the lights look good, but the shadows are too pale in relation to the light, particularly in the snow in the foreground. Let’s add more and stronger shadows. This helps to create depth and lead the viewer into the picture toward the light. Details in the distance need to be softened more – distance blurs detail, as does darkness. Through trial and error, the paintings start to look better. We squint our eyes and study our work again. Finally we are satisfied.

 

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Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…

Many inexperienced painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to observe closely what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually looking at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed object.  Artists try to avoid labeling an object as “tree” or anything else and instead train themselves to interpret what they see in a new way.  Seeing means focusing attention, looking at shapes, values, and colors before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the “tree”?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can accurately paint what you see, NOT what you think you see.

Drawing helps you see, and seeing helps you draw.  Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you!  One of the main purposes of drawing is to train yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to see.  Look for basic shapes, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes.  Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush.

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational skills, is that you will learn to condense observed information into a simplified format, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simplified, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Reference photos:

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Line drawing:

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Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, use the information to record an image skillfully.  Mastering these techniques will improve the quality of your work.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

Your picture has your touch in it.  You can pick a subject that appeals or has special meaning to you.  You can rearrange what you’re looking at any way you like.  You can simplify or exaggerate parts of what you see.  Look beyond the normal, the everyday, the expected for your painting subjects.  Notice the negative shapes, the rhythms, the reflected lights, the colors.  Look at an object close up for a new viewpoint.  Consider a portrait approach or botanical style.  Look for varied shapes and unusual forms to add interest to your picture.  Each person sees the world in a different way.

“I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But Don’t Have The Talent.”

While watercolor painting has a reputation for being unforgiving and difficult, I believe anyone can learn to paint using watercolors. It’s NOT a matter of having some inborn “talent.” Painting well is A SKILL that is learned step by step, and it must be pursued with attention and effort. Skills improve naturally with PRACTICE. It takes time, and, yes, you may struggle in the beginning and be unsatisfied with your first attempts. However, keep practicing, and at some point, all that you have been learning will come together into a gorgeous painting.

I find that the ATTITUDE of each of my watercolor students makes a huge difference in their success in class! Students who become successful painters begin with a more open attitude. They try to relax, are willing to try new techniques, and accept that they have a lot to learn. These students understand that they are beginners. They don’t expect themselves to be perfect. In fact, they expect that they will make mistakes, that mistakes are inevitable. They are much more likely to ask, “What can I learn here today?” than to state, “Ugh, this picture is awful.” They keep trying, ask questions, and do not give up. No matter what happens, they keep painting. They understand that the more they paint, the better they will get. Successful learners are willing to try, take a chance, and not take themselves too seriously.

Believe me, nobody starts off as an expert; everyone begins as a learner. I can still remember one of the first paintings that I did on my own. I set up a still life that included a pair of old work gloves arranged on an antique redware milk pan. I had high hopes. I mixed my colors, and they were spot-on, but when I was finished and stepped back, what I saw looked like dead bananas on a huge pretzel bun! Very frustrating and disappointing!  It was, however, NOT the end of the world. I persisted and tried again. (I’m pretty stubborn.)

What do new students tend to get impatient with? Many difficulties arise involving students’ ability to judge and control the AMOUNT OF WATER used in mixing paint or applying paint to their pictures. Even executing a smooth and even flat wash can be tricky. SOFTENING or fading an edge well can also be challenging. Understanding how to avoid blossoms or cauliflowers also depends on controlling wetness.

Further, beginning painters often are disappointed when their paintings don’t look exactly like their reference photo or the objects that they have painted. But keep in mind: we don’t want a photograph! Painters with some experience strive to create an impression to express how they feel about their chosen subject. They SIMPLIFY, often eliminating some details while focusing on what they feel are the salient ones. They may emphasize lighting or specific colors or soften some edges to help focus a viewer’s attention on what they wish to have noticed in their picture. Keeping a painting simple makes for a strong painting!

I always encourage students to use QUALITY materials when they paint, as doing so makes success much easier to achieve. While many teachers recommend starting with student-grade materials, I think that is a mistake. Don’t buy the cheapest brushes, paper, or paint to try to save money. You will instead frustrate yourself!(Look for my post about what materials a beginner should look for, Help! I Don’t Know What Art Supplies To Buy!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/31/help-i-dont-know-what-art-supplies-to-buy/, available July 31, 2018.)  On the other hand, just because materials are the most expensive does not necessarily mean they are the best.

Becoming a skillful watercolor painter does not happen overnight. When students make learning to paint a priority, they COMMIT themselves to the effort even when it seems that for every two steps ahead, they take one step backwards. They organize their lives to meet their goal of becoming skilled painters. They try to stop making excuses not to go to class or not to do the painting. They may at times feel unsure or afraid or discouraged, but they are determined to keep going. They promise themselves to finish what they start! And as time goes on, these painters produce better and better pictures. Their work becomes consistently amazing!

I really do believe anyone who has desire and the willingness to put in the necessary practice can learn to paint well. Give it a try! You CAN do it – one step at a time. Take a watercolor class, and you’ll get support and help all the way, AND you’ll have fun doing it. If you want to learn to paint, you can!