Don’t do this if you want to paint a decent tree

Ask a mountaineer why they climb mountains and they usual reply “Because it’s there…”. That basically sums up my relationship with painting trees. Trees in watercolour are challenging but essential in a landscape.

However, just before I decided to take part in the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year competition in 2015, I worked out that as it was a landscape competition, it would probably be a good idea if I could actually paint a decent tree.

WARNING – what follows next might make you laugh, so don’t read this on the train or the Doctor’s surgery.

OK how hard can it be to paint trees I thought? I’d been teaching myself to paint for 2 years, but oddly had overlooked learning to paint trees (and erm leaves)…

So I set aside an afternoon to do something about that.

And after 3 hours slugging it out over several sheets of paper, I realised the scale of the problem. No matter how hard I tried, what I produced didn’t look anything like a tree. Or anything that grows naturally in the landscape. This didn’t instil a great deal of confidence in my ability, and probably contributed to a bit of a melt-down after the painting event.

Put it this way, most parents have at some point been handed the odd painting created by their child at Nursery School. Believe me, my tree wasn’t even THAT good! If your son or daughter had brought my effort home it would go straight into the rabbit hutch. No question.

But in the interests of Art, I’ve decided to share with you my very first attempt at painting a tree.

OK here is that very tree…

Yep. Total disaster…A blob, Alien species? At worst a smudge. At best a broccoli.

The leaves and branches are totally out of proportion to the rest of the tree. The foliage isn’t the right shade of green and doesn’t remotely resemble leaves does it?

OK you can stop laughing…

I’ve since worked out my first mistake. The brushes I used were completely wrong. I used a round brush instead of a flat or angled brush which produces more realistic leaves; and my use of paint was over generous. I didn’t really understand how to control watercolour back then either. All paint and not enough water.

I’ve since learnt that the skill required to paint trees in watercolour is as much about suggesting leaves, and allowing the light in. It’s not about painting every single leaf either. Watercolour also requires keen observation skills, and really looking and seeing what’s there.

So, it turns out painting trees is pretty difficult. And after spending an entire afternoon painting dozens and dozens of them, and becoming increasingly more despondent at the results – I realised I needed further study. To be frank – months of practise to get it right.

I was therefore in trouble. The painting competition was less than a week away…oh dear.

Guess what? It didn’t end well.

But in the spirit of honesty and transparency, I resisted the urge to put my efforts through the shredder, and I’ve kept them as a reminder of how far I’ve progressed in my artistic career. Besides, if my early work on trees went into the recycling, I have visions of the Bin Men rolling around helpless with laughter outside in the street. “That’s a tree?!”

Thankfully, I’ve almost mastered the skill now – here’s an example just to prove I have actually moved forward. And I am more confident about including the odd tree or two in my landscapes.

So, if you’re an aspiring artist and are struggling with a particular subject, like trees for example. Don’t give up. Keep practising. But please keep your work so you can look back and have a good laugh. When you finally move forward you can pat yourself on the back, when you realise you’ve achieved your objective and climbed that mountain. Even if it does take you a few more months, or in my case several years.

What’s been your biggest artistic challenge and how did you overcome it in the end?

Warmest regards


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