Paint a Watercolor Tree in the Fall

Step by step watercolor tutorial for painting a tree in its autumnal splendor

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Image by the author.

As summer passes and the shades of nature ebb towards beautiful shades of red, yellow and brown, trees become an irresistible subject for painting. In my local park, the beeches and oaks are all on the turn, but it is the maple trees that express this change of season so magnificently.

I think the key to making a successful painting of one of these trees is to attempt to capture the transition, giving you the chance to use an array of shades — from light green to dark brown — to achieve a finished painting that maintains the fullest expression of the palette.

I began this painting by sketching a simple outline of the tree. No need to be too precise here; in fact, as with all stages of watercolor paintings, the more open you are to changes and mistakes along the way, the better the outcome will be.

One of the things I take care to do is mark out an area in the foliage of the tree that I intend to leave blank. After all, trees are not blocks of colour but have many gaps and holes between the branches.

Now I began to paint in the upper parts of the tree, starting with the lighter shades, those parts on the outside and at the top where the sunlight naturally reaches. Don’t be afraid to load your brush with paint and commit it to paper: confidence in your brush mark will yield better results in the end, especially with watercolor.

Moving around the form of the tree, I was mindful of altering the colors in my brush, so that I might get an attractive blend of shades moving through the tree. I worked quickly to achieve this, making sure the colors mixed together o the paper.

In this painting, the light source is coming from above, so the lower reaches of the tree will naturally be darker, which is the area I painted next. In the very lowest branches, keep the colors nice and rich, so creating that characteristic “edge” that is so pleasing in watercolors.

Once the first wash was dry, I began applying a second layer (above), painting in a second wash of darker tones at the lower sections of the tree. Here, some over-painting is permitted. To maintain realism, think about how the shadows fall in the enclosed areas of the tree, beneath and within the main body of foliage. I like to darken my greens by mixing in some ultramarine blue, and a touch of burnt umber too.

The key principle with watercolors is not to overwork the painting. Generally speaking I try to do everything I need to do in two or three layers of paint, always moving from lighter to darker shades. If you keep the paint moving into different colors, you should get enough depth and texture even with just two layers of paint.

To finish the painting I’ve added a few more branches stemming from the trunk into the tree, and built up a little more depth in the lower sections of the foliage to suggest more shadow. When the paint was dry, I used an eraser to remove any lines left over from the initial pencil sketch.

For this painting I used:

640gsm cotton rag paper: This is a fairly heavy paper that doesn’t crinkle when wet. That’s my preference. Anything above 300gsm should be good.

3 brushes of varying size (see photo below)

Watercolor paints: chromium green, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, burnt umber brown.

All photos by the author. See more of his artwork here.

Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He writes about culture, art and life at his website.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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