After Watercolor Basics… What Next?

STAGE I. THE BASICS.

Anyone with desire and focus, can learn to paint with watercolors. The process, however, can take a very long time, even years, and true artists never stop learning (nor do they want to). But let’s assume that you have learned what materials you need and the fundamental techniques you need to use those materials. What comes next?  When I began to paint in 2008, I didn’t know. I don’t think I even knew that I was considering such a question. What was important to me at the time was improving! I wanted to get more proficient. In this post, I intend to share some of the steps I’ve taken in my process of learning watercolor, a few questions I’ve asked myself, and several concerns I’ve had along the way.      

Red Bumpers Watercolor Painting.

STAGE II. COPYING & CLOSE OBSERVATION.

Beyond the elementary techniques, I found that what I wanted was to portray my reference images as accurately as possible. I quickly learned that close observation was required. But as an artist, I found ‘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, often assigning a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a ‘tree,’ we may not explore carefully 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, perhaps in part because there seems to be so much information.

When I started painting, I would choose an image to paint, and the first thing I’d notice was a lot of detail. I was distracted by details, as perhaps you are, too. What do you do with all that detail? How do you know which details are important? Those questions overwhelmed me. I had been told to ‘look carefully’ at a reference, but the more I looked, the more confusing detail I saw. Over time, however, I began to believe that the trick had to be focusing on something else, not trying to capture every tiny detail.  Focusing on small details, like individual leaves, or trying to include every tree trunk or grass blade in a painting, didn’t work well.

Thus, to paint more successfully, I forced myself to slow down. I tried NOT to look at small details first, but instead to examine and study the shapes, values, and colors that made up the larger framework of each scene. ‘Seeingdoes mean focusing attention, looking closely, but especially at the arrangement of shapes. For example, 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, I began to more accurately paint what I SAW, NOT what I THOUGHT I saw.

As I became more familiar with and practiced at painting, I began to see more subtle color, more nuanced detail, more understated tones. It seems that ‘seeing’ cannot be forced and may only develop gradually over time, with experience, and when one is ready. With practice, however, we can expect to notice more and sooner, perhaps even noting details that others miss or take for granted.

Forsythia In Vases Watercolor Painting.

DRAWING HELPS YOU OBSERVE CAREFULLY.

Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists may 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 ability or drawing technique deter you. I found that even sketching a quick, rough thumbnail required me to consider what was important in a scene. One of the main purposes of drawing is to TRAIN yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to ‘see’ like an artist and keep the big picture in mind.  By keeping details to a minimum, just getting some information down without stressing, you can help yourself to see.  

More specifically, you should look for basic SHAPES and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  See the image as a whole; and only then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes. Squinting your eyes often helps you to see beyond any unnecessary detail. Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, the goal is to be able to perceive what you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle. You must shift your perspective. Remember that shadows are shapes, as are reflections.  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 which details are important and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including learning the techniques of painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those you use when painting with a brush.

White Primroses Watercolor Painting.

STAGE III. BEGIN TO DESIGN, PLAN, & SIMPLIFY.

When I began to feel more confident reproducing an image before me, I sometimes found myself wishing I could improve a composition; the reference pictures I found weren’t quite satisfying. Occasionally I wanted to combine two photos instead of having to copy one. In other instances, I wondered if some of the components in a picture might be better relocated to another section of the picture, even left out. A tree or a building might have been blocking what I thought was the most interesting section of the picture.

At this point, I also began to take some of my own reference photos, to create a view I desired. I essentially inched my way toward DESIGNING my paintings, seeing what was in front of me but arranging and modifying the information to actually improve the picture, making it something I liked better and felt was more effective. 

Eventually it dawned on me that this desire to improve a reference might be the start to a new stage in painting for me. To improve a painting, I could forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. I could start to REARRANGE it! I could take what I liked and ignore what I didn’t want to include. Definite rules about design and composition existed and could greatly improve a painting. I wanted to learn them. 

Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts is a comprehensive guide and excellent resource that can help you learn more about composition. 

These blog posts might also be of interest if you want to know more: “Composition!?!”, (5/7/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/05/07/, and “Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!”, (10/16/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/.

Red Geranium Watercolor Painting.

I found that this designing and PLANNING need to be done BEFORE any paint is put on the paper. Again, you will need to study your subject for a while. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision (even to crop an image) and SIMPLIFY your subject. 

Ask yourself what your focal point is. What will your painting be about? Is there a lead-in to invite the viewer into the picture? Think about what you want to say before you start. WHAT do you hope to achieve, and HOW are you going to achieve it? Establish some clear objectives. 

While drawing or sketching develops necessary observational skills as mentioned previously, drawing also helps you to plan and condense information into a simplified format. This clarification will strengthen the message of your final 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 streamlined, easier on the eye of the viewer, because you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material. Thus, drawing trains the brain to think about and analyze what is essential to the picture.

High Jinks Watercolor Painting.

IV. EXPRESS FEELINGS & EMOTIONS.

A later stage in improving my painting skills grew out of the wish to have my feelings and emotions come across in each painting. When establishing the IDEA for a painting now, I try to think about how I feel. We all interpret a scene in our own way – WHAT you want to emphasize and WHY will probably differ from what interests me or another person. That is to be expected – we all have different experiences, reactions, thoughts, and feelings that affect our impression of our world. These factors will affect our chosen focal point, our ‘big idea’ for a painting, even the style in which we paint it. (Our own particular concerns and perception directly determine the painting style we choose.)

In other words, I try to consider MOOD when planning my painting approach to a picture, and then work to express it. It seems easier for me to achieve some success at this in some paintings than in others. I contemplate how the scene makes me feel. Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? I strive to determine what it is I want to show and what the meaning of each topic is to me. Why did I choose to paint this picture? Why was I drawn to this image? Does the scene remind me of a favorite place?  Does the picture make me feel calm? Do I feel like laughing when I look at or think about this subject? 

I believe great artists are able to paint their feelings about a scene, as well as an impression of its actual appearance. (Think about Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, for instance, or Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring.) They make sure they don’t copy the details so faithfully and precisely that there is no room left for life, mystery, or emotion in a painting. Instead, such artists paint their interpretation and memories, share what they feel are the significant factors behind what may be a commonplace scene, attempt to translate emotions aroused in their hearts. They often reveal their skill at rearrangement and invention in the scene.

T’s Fall Road Watercolor Painting.

Emotion can be conveyed in a painting in a number of ways. The mood of a painting can be created or altered by hard, soft, or lost edges; light and dark values (contrast, high key, or low key); line and arrangement of masses (lyrical, angular, curved, open, closed-in, a preponderance of verticals or horizontals); light (overcast, ominous or threatening, nighttime, bright and sunny, glaring, or late afternoon); and color choice and color proportion (warm, neutral, cold, cheery, drab, soothing, jarring, or balanced). For more in depth information on emotion and mood in painting, see “Get In The Mood!”, (9/4/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/09/04/get-in-the-mood/

Choosing and combining so many variables appropriately and successfully to express your emotion takes experimentation and practice, yet is the ultimate goal in art.

Take note of and respond to your own emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. Think with your heart. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! 

V. BECOME YOUR OWN TEACHER.

After painting for ten years, I lost my beloved mentor and watercolor teacher, who died in 2018. Before he died, he asked me to take over the teaching of his watercolor classes. While I didn’t feel at all ready for that, I really didn’t want to let him down. For that reason, I started teaching others what he had taught me. However, I couldn’t help feeling that there was still more for me to learn. If I had questions, though, who could I ask? My solution was to study art books, seek information online, and continue taking occasional workshops in person and courses online. 

I also began writing blog posts (in 2018) to share with others the information I was learning about watercolor. I studied and wrote about things I was struggling with, or topics I found especially interesting. In order to write about a subject, I had to consolidate, understand, and make sense of it for myself. Writing has helped me know my own thoughts.

I think we can all work towards becoming our own best teacher. Always keep learning on your own and for yourself. I’m not suggesting you avoid taking classes or working with watercolor instructors you enjoy and are learning from. Instead, I’m asking you to treat yourself as a good teacher would, by being supportive of yourself, allowing yourself to investigate and learn more about the art topics that you might be struggling with, and searching out information about your art interests. (One of my recent investigative searches has been about how to paint light, create the glow of light in watercolor.) I hope that you take an active part in your own art education.

If interested, the following blog post will explain more about creating the best possible attitude toward your painting: “How Can I Become My Own Best Teacher”, (7/21/2021), https://leemuirhaman.com/2021/07/21/how-can-i-become-my-own-watercolor-teacher/.

Crossroads Watercolor Painting.

WHAT’S NEXT?

For me, I want to continue to write and to paint with watercolor. I hope to freshen up my website, perhaps even adding an option to purchase directly from the site. I would like to improve my skills at designing my own pictures more creatively, and to spend more time painting my own compositions. I will also, of course, persist in studying, learning, and researching what intrigues me about watercolor.

What’s next for you?

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, and the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you by email. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf. that you can download and print.

What do you think about this quote by Martha Beck who has said, “An artist’s real contribution isn’t what he paints, but the way he sees.”? Let me know in a comment below.

My Approach To Watercolor… Step By Step.

All artists develop unique ways to create their art – there are many variations in approach to painting, not one correct way.

I prefer an interpretive realistic style much of the time. I don’t strive for a hyper-realistic or photographic reproduction of a scene, but for an image adapted from what I see – one that expresses emotion and shows strong value contrasts. To create good realistic art, you need to make it personal. Your art should reveal what you want to say and what the image means to you. See Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy, a blog post written January 22, 2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/22/realism-better-than-an-exact-copy/.

STUDY IMAGE. FINALIZE COMPOSITION.

Tris-Flowing Forward In all Directions- Acton Winter Pond

 

Template – Flowing Forward.

Initially, I just sit with the image I have chosen to paint. I look carefully, study, and analyze before beginning. (Painting Begins With Looking And Seeing” (12/18/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.) I’m trying to anticipate possible problems I might encounter as I paint.

I think about what attracted me emotionally and what details, therefore, will be important to include in the painting. In this way, I design a CENTER OF INTEREST to emphasize. Here, I choose the sunlit orange bushes along the far edge of the river to be my center of interest. I see this focus framed by verticals (tree trunks) and horizontals (shore line and flow of the river). I note that there is open water (where there are reflections) in addition to the hard ice toward each shore. (These differences in ice/open water are barely noticeable, yet important.) I also consider whether there are unnecessary details that detract from the effectiveness of the picture. For instance, I will simplify this image by reducing too numerous tree trunks in a busy background, and by removing distracting branches hanging near the center of interest. However, I decide to keep the broken stump in the foreground because it points like an arrow toward my center of interest.

I might explore lights and darks with VALUE STUDIES, including light, mid, and dark tones. (I want to insure that the greatest contrast of values occurs around my center of interest to draw the attention of viewers.) I like that the orange bushes are surrounded by the dark woods and white ice. I must also keep in mind, as I paint, from what direction the light is coming. I make a note of the sunlit middle ground and shaded distance and foreground. I also occasionally experiment by changing the COMPOSITION (arrangement of shapes) with small thumbnail sketches, especially if I’m combining two photographs or have added/removed some shapes. ( I Have An Image I’d Like To Paint. Now Where Do I Start? 8/21/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/21/i-have-an-image-id-like-to-paint-now-where-do-i-start/.) In this image, however, I like the composition as it is.

PLAN. CONSIDER TECHNIQUES AND COLORS.

More specifically, I consider my plan of attack. Where will I begin painting? Perhaps I’ll start with the background or the sky? I need to have  some idea what I want to do, but also want to be open to adapting plans as the painting proceeds. I think about what TECHNIQUES and specific steps I might try. I decide that when I complete my pencil sketch (which doesn’t include every detail shown in the template) on watercolor paper, I will mask the top edge of the orange bushes and a few tree trunks in the distant trees to protect some sunlit areas. I feel that too many details in the distance would detract from the orange bushes, so I’ll try to avoid overdoing the far trees. I won’t mask any of the ice – since open water in the middle of the river will be painted wet-in-wet, while darker hard ice in the foreground will be painted around the lighter ice areas.

As I think about beginning to paint, I think about LAYERS. Some parts of the picture are ‘in front of’ others. This suggests that one would begin painting the ‘behind’ layers or ‘underneath’ layers first. In a watercolor landscape, therefore, painting often starts in the sky or background. In this image, I will begin with the far tree line, above the shore and bushes. Further, I see several colors in the trees, which suggests that several layers will need to be applied to the trees.

But I mustn’t get ahead of myself! Before painting, I consider what pigments might be best to use. I like to create a TEST SHEET with a number of pigment possibilities before I make decisions about what colors to try in an actual painting. (If you intend to paint this image, substitute the pigments you have on hand already. You can see by looking at my test sheets that there are many suitable color combinations.) Since I want the effect of sunlight in the middle distance, I consider yellows that I could use for an underlayer. Originally, I begin with Raw Sienna, but feel it doesn’t ‘glow’, so I then investigate Gamboge and Winsor Yellow. I know I want transparent, non-staining colors for the second layers of both the distant trees and the orange bushes (because the technique I will try in both locations is to scrape the second layer of paint to reveal tree trunks and branches underneath). See the attached photos of my color experimentation for this painting.

Color test sheets – Flowing Forward.

SKETCH IMAGE, MASK, AND BEGIN PAINTING.

I transfer my image to watercolor paper ( Saunders Waterford 300 lb. rough), mask tops of orange bushes, a few distant tree trunks, a few horizontal snow strips in and among the orange bushes, and the small sunlit patch on the right-hand front tree trunk.

Flowing Forward masking

Initial sketch with masking – Flowing Forward.

When masking is dry, I scumble in tree shapes (with pale Gamboge) over the far tree line, leaving plenty of ‘sky holes’ among the trees. While this is drying, I mix Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue to make a dark brown-gray for the next tree layer. I have my palette knife at the ready. When the yellow paint is dry, I scumble varied tree shapes (again leaving ‘sky holes’) over a small section of the yellow far trees. As the shine (of wet paint) starts to dissipate, I use the point and edge of the palette knife to scrape back some tree trunks to reveal the sunlit yellow ‘underneath’. I paint the brown-gray, in small sections, varied but darker at the bottom and lighter higher up, to insure enough time to scrape before the paint dries. (Scraping back color is effective only when the paint is damp/wet.) I finish scraping one section before painting and scraping the next section of tree line.

When the scraped tree line has dried, I dot in some sky color (very pale and juicy Cerulean mixed with Cobalt Blue) in the saved ‘sky holes’.

 

MIDDLE DISTANCE.

When the distant trees and sky paint have dried, I remove masking fluid from the bushes and far trees. With the same yellow (Gamboge) used for the tree underlayers, I paint an underlayer (with pointy tops) to cover all the middle distance bushes. I let dry. Then I mix the orange for the second layer of the middle distance bushes. I decide to try a mixture of Transparent Pyrrol Orange and Transparent Red Oxide. I’m hoping to apply orange more thinly in some sunlit layers, more richly in more shaded areas. I paint a small section at a time, as with the far tree line, and scrape with the point of my palette knife to lift numerous thin branches out of the orange to reveal the yellow below. When dry, I will be able to shadow below and in the more shaded sections of the orange bushes.

Flowing Forward background

Background painting – Flowing Forward.

WATER/ICE.

I plan to paint the wet, open water in the center of the river with a wet-in-wet technique. This area shows reflections of the sky, some distant tree trunks, and orange bushes. I create three puddles of color to be ready to paint this area. These puddles can be mixed somewhat darker than you might expect, since the color will be diluted to some degree by painting wet-in-wet. First, I combine Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue (sky reflection). Second, I form a puddle of Transparent Pyrrol Orange (bush reflections). Third, I mix Cobalt Blue and Transparent Red Oxide to create a blue-gray. At this point I pre-wet the paper, but only in the area where I see reflections and know there is open water (in the center of the river).

When the wet shine just leaves the paper, I pick up some sky blue paint and swoop it onto a small section with horizontal strokes. I immediately pick up some blue-gray and place it across the damp paper, leaving white space for placement of the orange paint, which I paint next. I do NOT mix these colors, but charge them (drop them) next to each other. All edges will remain soft and the colors will remain separate if not mixed on the paper. As the wet shine begins to dissipate, I use a damp thirsty flat brush to lift out a few tree trunk and small branch reflections. I let dry.

I prepare to paint the gray solid ice next. I will leave the lighter sections of foreground ice as the white of the watercolor paper for now, so I mix a medium value gray  from Cobalt Blue with just a touch of Transparent Red Oxide.

When applying paint here, I try to keep in mind there are hard edges (wet paint applied to dry paper) where I see the gray meet white ice in the foreground. As the gray ice extends into the center of the river, however, it meets the open water with a soft edge. (I apply the gray paint, adding water to thin the paint and soften the edge where it meets the already painted open water.) I don’t try to darken at the base of the tree trunks yet, although I try to vary the value of the gray as I apply it in some areas, and I also paint a bit of dry brush texture.

Flowing Forward water:ice

Water and ice underlayers painted – Flowing Forward.

GLAZING.

While planning, I have already determined that the foreground is shaded. (See above STUDY IMAGE section.) I use a GRAY SCALE to check the value (lightness/darkness) of the ‘white’ ice in the foreground – I know from past experience that eyes can play tricks. I’m also aware that the value of a shaded object is usually 40% darker than the same object in sunlight, as written by Jan Kunz (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68), and others. When I check the value (on my template) of the sunlit ice and compare to the value of the ice in the foreground shade, in fact, the shaded ice is 40% darker in value! I realize I need to darken its value in my painting, probably by applying a GLAZE. This glazing will help highlight the sunlit center of interest, by contrast.  Read Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale? (5/21/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, to learn more about the usefulness of a gray scale.

A glaze is a transparent wash of color using a thin application of transparent pigment. Transparent pigments are desired so that the colors below the glaze, or the white of the paper, in this case, continue to be visible through the finished glaze. Here, I combine Cobalt Blue with just a touch of Transparent Pyrrol Orange (blue-gray) in a thin, juicy mix. After testing the value, I apply a glaze over the shaded foreground with a fairly large, soft brush. I reevaluate the value of the foreground ice and compare it to the value of the sunlit ice in my painting (with the Gray Scale), when the first glaze has dried. If necessary, I will glaze again, on dry paper, until the lighter-shaded, foreground ice is about 40% darker than the sunlit ice in the middle distance. Correct relative values are one of the most important factors in creating an effective image.

FOREGROUND TREE TRUNKS, BRANCHES, FINAL DETAILS.

I combine Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue to mix a strong blue-black. Dark foreground tree trunks are then painted darker at the bottom and lighter toward the top. Since some higher spots and the left side of the trunks are sunlit in places – I blot the color to remove some paint and provide texture there. I will add some sunlit yellow (Gamboge) only to the sunlit left sides of the trunks (when the blue-black paint is dry).

With the same paint mixture, I add smaller branches up high in the foreground trees and a few thin twigs on the foreground ice. I try to simplify to avoid busyness that would distract from my center of interest.

Then I add some final textures and shadows (with the same blue-black mixture) to the foreground ice (dry brush, dots, a few streaks, with occasional softening of edges). I now make sure to darken the area in the ice circling each foreground tree trunk to suggest depressions.

Flowing Forward Finished Painting

Finished painting – Flowing Forward.

Finally, I step back and evaluate. I ask myself if my values highlight the center of interest. Do any marks seem out of place or distracting? Are there any adjustments I feel I should make? (It is possible to correct some mistakes and improve watercolor paintings. See I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes (10/9/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/10/09/i-guess-weve-all-made-painting-mistakes/.) Sometimes, I set the picture aside for a day or two, and look again later with fresh eyes. Occasionally, a mistake needing to be fixed jumps out at me. At other times, I am satisfied that the painting is ‘finished’.

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Photos taken and copyrighted by Tristan T. Haman (https://www.instagram.com/thaman15/).

 

Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.

Method.

Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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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!

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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

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Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

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This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…