Painting A Japanese Maple In Watercolor

A practical guide to painting a tree with beautiful red foliage

Japanese maple in watercolor
Japanese maple in watercolor

Painting a Japanese maple in its full splendor is a pleasurable challenge. The plethora of red foliage appears to make it a simple subject; the test for the painter is to attempt to incorporate other color variations into the work. In this painting, to give variety to the red paint, I’ve used some yellow ocher and ultramarine blue. The full range of colors used here are:

  • Cadmium red
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

After making a brief sketch of the basic outline of the tree, I started by painting in the outer foliage where the colors are at their brightest. Working with watercolours, I always suggest keeping the detail to a minimum, letting the texture of the paint do the work of portraying the finer details of the tree.

Working downwards into the body of the tree, I tried to bring in other colors — dashes of blue, brown and green — to suggest shadow and give variety to the color tones. With the paint still wet, the different tones blend nicely into each other.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The key to a successful painting in watercolor is to move quickly. This does pose a challenge: one of the trickiest aspects of watercolor is how unforgiving it is on mistakes. Generally speaking, you get one chance to laden your brush with paint and commit it to paper. Erasing it is almost impossible and over-painting is often counter-productive.

In that spirit, paint with confidence and be happy to let the picture take its own shape. Accidents will happen, so let them come and welcome them to the picture.

Next, begin applying darker shades of paint over lighter shades. This works best when the watercolor paint is dry. To maintain realism, think about how the shadows fall in the enclosed areas of the tree, beneath and within the main body of foliage.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Also, to darken tones, instead of using black paint, try mixing in some ultramarine blue and a touch of burnt umber too. These tones keep the colors alive. Next, I began to paint in the trunk of the tree, paying close attention to the twists it takes to support the foliage. Again, be careful not to overdo the detail here, as the vitality of the painting can be lost if too much is painted in.

During this final stage, I decided I wanted to soften the tree trunk and branches, to try to blend them into the texture of the tree. I did this by taking a wet brush and applying it to the areas to soften, then using some kitchen towel lifted away the paint. This gives the painting more of a misty, patchwork quality — you can choose if you want this in your own picture.

Japanese maple in watercolor
Japanese maple in watercolor

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.

I hope you like the final image. For reference, the paper I used for this painting was 640gsm cotton rag paper: This is a fairly heavy, grainy paper that doesn’t crinkle when wet. That’s my preference. Anything above 300gsm should be good. Also, 3 brushes of varying size (see photo below).

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life. Sign up for more.

See more of my artwork here.

Written by

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store