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This page will look at Techniques for showing trees in Coloured Pencil

We discussed Trees and foliage at the April 2010 Knuston Hall course

when Foliage was the topic for the second (Intermediate ) day.

It is clear that people have a lot of difficulty with trees and foliage generally.

They can either ‘do’ trees - or if they can’t, they shy away from landscapes altogether.

Clearly it would help if I could show some ‘recipes’ for doing the foliage.

Looking at the work on the course, it is also clear that what works for one person

can offer an impossible barrier to others.

Trees and foliage also differ a great deal,

not only in different parts of the world,

but in different parts of the same wood.

To describe a method for doing this or that type of leaf cover

on these or those types of trees, begs the question that we should be solving as artists.

What do we see when we look at something ?

How do we interpret what we see ?

And how do we translate what we see in three dimensions into two dimensions ?

TREES  in your Landscape   2

Let us see if we can make sense of this problem.

First of all look at a reference of a hillside with some trees and bushes in mixed vegetation.

See how there are trees on the edge of the hill that are in silhouette and show sky through the branches.  In these trees you can see the shape of the tree clearly.

Coming down the hillside  there are quite large trees on the left and in the lower centre we have smaller vegetation and bushes.  To the extreme right we have open ground which folds and shows shadow and therefore shape.  In bulk, trees show their shape only in the way that light catches the tops and the protruding branches and the resulting shadows show the undersides and give form.

The whole exercise of painting foliage is one in showing the shape of the trees through the shadows cast by light and the colours of the leaf cover.

I am going to work with this picture (above), but first of all let us look at a smaller sample of a different tree cover as this may make basic explanations easier

What do we actually see ?             Areas of light and shade

Where is the light coming from ?       

              Probably above, and slightly ahead and the left, picking out the protruding branch against the shadowed underside to the leafed area.

What we see is a combination of light and shade.  Colour has no part in determining what the brain says we are seeing, it is all down to light, shade and pattern,  That tells us the we are looking at leaves on a tree.

In order to show the effect of the reference immediately above, we can do it with graphite just as well as coloured pencil.   Perhaps an approach for some people would be to practice the shape and detail of trees using black only. This might well provide the basis on which to build the skills of using colour later.

The first requirement in getting a believable painting of tree cover is to settle on a direction for the light and be careful to keep that light consistent all the time.  Using a photo reference is a great help here, but likewise, you can meet problems when you amalgamate references where the light is not from the same direction.  My advice is only to use one reference when you start out.  If you wish to use two, make sure they were taken in the same light and the same direction.

If you still have problems, you may find that turning the reference upside down helps.

This will make the subject look less like the brain says it should.  Your picture should then try to reproduce exactly what the reference shows - putting aside any thought over what it is.

With foliage, it will still look like foliage, but when reversed, it will tend to look ‘wrong’.

You then draw and paint what you SEE . Not what you THINK you see.

 I suggest you look again at the examples shown in Trees section 1 and see how the light and shadow differ in different examples.

You can also look again at how colour differs.  Not all leaves are green.

And green comes in a whole load of different shades, not only in the leaves themselves, but in how far away they are from the viewer.  Don’t forget the rules of aerial perspective.  The further away from you the subject is, the more reds will disappear from the spectrum and the more blues will predominate.  Similarly, distance adds dust to the atmosphere which blocks vision and tonal contrast decreases, so further away subjects are paler and bluer.

This means that we can differentiate between nearby trees and distant trees, by adding more warm tones and greater contrasts to the foreground subjects, and reducing tonal contrst and adding blues to distant tree colours.  This may not be exactly how the reference shows it, but it  makes a big difference to how the eye separates out the layers in your picture into foreground and distance and gives a more three dimensional look to a two dimensional image.

So let us have a look again at the trees on that hillside above Polperro harbour.

This is the first stage of the picture.  I am only showing a small part of the whole - the final image will show the whole picture.  To start with, I have used a cold pressed paper.  The image is a large one for Coloured Pencil - 17 inches by 11 inches and was started out on a stretched piece of paper in A2 size.  When I prepared the board, I found that Cold Pressed paper was all I had in the size I needed so that was used.  In fact it had a lot of advantages in showing the harbour mud , but I will come back to that later.

I made up a selection of thin watercolour pencil washes on a large white plate (as described elsewhere in the site, and put down a general underpainting of the whole picture - and the image below shows the area of trees we are looking at.

See how there are a number of layers added to the paper in the patches where shadow will be strongest.

The aim - as ever - is not to worry about detail, but to get a feeling for the lights and darks of the subject and apply the appropriate colour base to kill the white paper.  This will give colour strength when we add CP later.

Though in this case we are also going to work with dry watercolour pencils as well so the result should be quite vibrant.

The sky alongside the  hillside is a basic watercolour sky wash laid down in a traditional way on wet paper on a tilted board.  The strongest pigment is at the top and clear water is added progressively  to reduce the strength of colour as it comes down the paper, replicating the effect of the strongest blue sky above and the palest blue on the horizon.

The graphite or pencil drawing can now be erased from areas where it isn’t needed as we will work on the underpainting with reference to the photo

I have now added some further drawing into the picture using the new formula Derwent Watercolour Pencils.  Several layers of colour are put in dry so that the pigment can then be manipulated with a damp brush.  You can see how the relatively rough surfaced cold pressed paper gives a grainy effect to the new dry colour added.  This is not a problem.

Also note how there is quite a lot of sepia and lighter browns added to the green mixture in the layers of dry pigment.  There is sky showing in the trees on the edge of the hill which I want to keep.

Below, you will see that the colours have been blended with a damp brush and in some cases have been shaped and lifted with kitchen tissue to reduce the colour levels.  Some more dry colour has now been added to define edges and tree trunks.

The overall colour level is now much greater with the addition of water to the dry watercolour pencil medium.

As a matter of interest the same treatment has been done to the buildings where dry colour has also been added to show roof lines and windows more clearly

More dry point pencil is added to bring up those areas of deep shadow and also add in more ochre shades in to the yellows - and some white to pick out the light highlights such as on the bushes below the top house.  The amount of detail doesn’t look great in the image below, but the actual area we are looking at is about 6 inches wide x 5 inches high.  As far as colour balancing of the images are concerned these pictures have been taken by camera with available light, and quite long periods between photos, as the picture was started in October 2009 and finished in May 2010.  The sky will give you one idea of the constant as that is unchanged from the start.

Here is the completed full image ( below).


Colours ( and definition ) are quite strong - which you will get when you use Watercolour pencils dry and then damped down and manipulated.   That suits a cheerful image like this.

The picture is actually two reference photos amalgamated. The left hand house, Hydrangeas and the three nearby boats are on one photo, and the hillside and the rest of the harbour are on another.  You don’t actually see the same view of the harbour and hillside from the slipway by the hydrangeas.

The slipway is actually about 100 yards nearer the hillside and you don’t have this view of the left hand side buildings from it.

The muddy floor of the harbour is exactly how it was left from the initial washes.

Some of the boats on the right do not exist

The wall of the left hand house has a light wash of pale blue on it ( compare to the paper white around the windows )

For those readers who were hoping that this page would offer a ‘magic bullet’ to solve all their foliage problems, I don’t think it will.

I don’t think there is a single technique that solves the problem.

There are a lot of instant solutions and special brushes to do foliage in Watercolour, but I suspect that many are simply creative ways to generate art material sales.

It all comes down to looking carefully

And painting what is actually there      -     That applies to any medium

If you find a method, different to mine , that works for you, please share it with me - and I will share it with the readers on this site

Thanks  PW

Next Page


In the landscape


using Watercolour

and Wax type pencils