“The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”
Inspired by Robert Frost’s famous poem, I set out to capture a few favorite trees and darkening skies. I loved playing with the complexity of branches and shapes using the simplest of colors. There’s something about these deep blues that brings out the mystery and beauty of this time of year.
Tips & Techniques– These pieces started with at least six failed attempts to paint trees at night. I began by doing numerous small “test” paintings of silhouetted trees against various skies, but none proved evocative or beautiful. I was ready to throw in the towel when I hit on trying negative painting techniques and finally saw something interesting evolve. So, my tip this week: before investing a lot of time in a big painting, try a few small samples to work out the kinks and test colors. It’s also worth remembering—and I am especially in need of this – sometimes it takes a few failures to get to success. Keep painting!
There are many reasons to appreciate stately, solid oaks. Raking their late-dropping leaves in December is not one of them. Persistent and tenacious, they hang on despite autumn gusts and rain storms that shake other trees bare by October’s end. And yet, as I rake pile after pile, I think: maybe we should be more like oak leaves, resolved to hang on as long as we can. Savoring each day of sun, knowing that the dark and silent winter will come all too soon.
Tips & Techniques– I’m testing a new box of Schmincke watercolors, so I decided to use “negative” painting techniques with this journal page as a way to figure out the range of colors I could get with a triad of Ultramarine Blue, English Venetian Red, and Yellow Ochre. I began with a very loose wet-in-wet wash of those three colors. Once it dried, I began to pick out the shapes of the leaves with smaller, but still very wet washes. You can lay lots of layers on top of one another with this technique to build values, depth and interest. The trick is to stop before overworking it or losing the spontaneity of the original wash.
Here’s how it looked along the way (sorry I didn’t take more photos toward the end; I got absorbed and forgot)…
Get to know your paints! I haven’t used English Venetian Red before, and though it looks similar to Burnt Sienna, it is less transparent and mixes very differently. Look how it becomes more purple when mixed with Ultramarine Blue. Burnt Sienna creates beautiful browns and grays with Ultramarine, a mix I use all the time. The purple toned darks worked nicely for the oak leaves, creating a lively triad with the Yellow Ochre.
It’s the perfect time of year for painting trees. Bare bones and branches, I like the unobstructed view, when limbs, bark, and shapes are revealed. This old maple in my front yard is interesting from almost any angle. I started mid-afternoon in glowing light but, because the sun faded quickly, it took me several days—and patience waiting for the right light again– to finish.
November Maple, 10″x14”, Watercolor on 140lb Arches cold press paper
Seasons unfold, pages evolve. That’s what happened here as I sketched a variety of fall fruits and seeds from the trees in our yard over the last few weeks. It’s all part of learning what’s here on the rural property we moved to in July. There are nice old sugar maples, red and white oaks, black walnuts, cottonwoods, birches, and white pines, with well-placed dogwood, pin cherry, and apple trees. There are many year’s worth of sketches in the trees alone…and you’ll see more in the future, I’m sure.
Tips & Techniques– Just as seasons evolve, your pages can too. While it can be nice to finish a page all at once, sometimes that just doesn’t work. Be patient. Do a little at a time, leave it, come back, and do more. Your most important decision is probably where to place the first object. Avoid the middle of the page, which tends to lead to a dull design and leaves only tight spaces around the center to fill. If you know you have a larger item (e.g., black walnuts vs. acorns), place it sooner than later. You can always find room for small things after the big ones are in place.
I could paint the colorful planter of flowers on my porch or the stately trees in my yard, or the golden field nearby, and sometimes I wonder why I don’t. Instead, I’m drawn this week to what most people would consider far less beautiful—a mass of polypore fungus emerging from a red maple growing (and dying) along a stream. But a sense of discovery and curiosity has long been integral to my art. I love finding things and finding out about things, and then keeping those discoveries between the pages of my sketchbook.
Tips & Techniques– These fungi were strikingly white, but translating white objects onto white paper is tricky. Whites come to life when placed next to darks. I had to look at this group of fungi over and over to begin to see the subtle values and to pick out the mid-tones and darkest darks. When painting whites, keep looking at what’s next to your lightest areas; squint; and keep evaluating whether you’ve got a good range of values from light to dark on your paper.
I appreciate the last vestiges of autumn: curled beech leaves in barren woods; uneaten grapes still hanging from tangled vines; oak leaves that refuse to fall. They hold on until the bitter end. And why not? Why not go for one last day of warm sunshine; one final chance at glorious existence before letting go. Wouldn’t you?
click to view larger
I take the beauty of fall for granted. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate it or that I am not awed by its glory. Only that I take for granted that it will be so, year after year. For those of us who live in the Northeast, it is a given that winters will be cold and long, that spring will burst forth in birdsong and flowers, that summer will be prized for its heat and fullness, and that autumn will complete the year with a cloak of gold.
I painted this page on location with a fellow sketcher who grew up in the Middle East. She marveled at leaves the way people who live in warm places marvel at snow when they see it for the first time. It surprised me; I had never given it thought. So here’s to a fine afternoon sketching and a valuable reminder to be grateful for things I take for granted.
Watercolor, Strathmore- 400 series sketchbook; click to view larger
About the technique– This sketchbook page was done with a watercolor technique known as “negative painting.”
- I first painted a wet-in-wet wash of primary colors (ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and Hansa yellow medium).
- When dry, I sketched an outline of the main leaves and began to paint around them with graded washes using combinations of the same three colors to create additional leaf shapes and patterns. Using a simple palette helps to ensure that the layers don’t get muddy.
- I continued to add more layers of paint, creating additional detail and a greater sense of depth. It’s kind of a dizzying process and you can easily get lost in it. The trick is stopping before tinkering too much and losing the spontaneous effects of the wet washes.
Watercolor, Strathmore- 400 series sketchbook