Painting Birch Trees in Watercolors Tutorial

Posted by: Cathy

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I'm currently painting a large diptych of birch trees so I've been trying to find reference materials.  I came across this great tutorial which I thought would be super useful for those of you that use watercolors.

Materials required are:

1. Photo reference for sketch and value study (strongly recommended).

2. Pencil, eraser, ruler, masking tape, old regular size bath towel (tightly rolled), 1/2 sheet (15" x 22") 300# 100% rag (cotton) Kilimanjaro watercolour paper.

3. Two water containers (one for clean and one for dirty water) - large plastic cottage cheese tubs are ok.

4. Paper towels and/or clean rag (to absorb excess water from brushes when necessary).

5. Board with non-porous surface (i.e. sheet of plexiglass approx 20" x 24"). A smooth non-porous table top will work well enough in the beginning, however, you will not be able to tilt or move it like you would a separate board.

4. Palette. If you are a beginner and don't want to become too heavily invested in equipment at this time you can use a white ceramic dinner plate for mixing your colours and a plastic ice cube tray to hold your pigments. It is best to fill the wells from tube pigments and allow them to dry out before your first session. Then, when you are ready to begin painting, mist the surface with a spray bottle, wait a few minutes, and they will be ready to use. I use a Robert E. Wood palette. The wells are large and the inside is divided into two large mixing areas. The lid also works as a palette for holding four smaller washes.

5. Brushes - 2" flat wash brush (this should be a watercolour brush - not acrylic or oil as they are too stiff and will damage the surface of the paper); 1" flat wash brush; plus at least one round - #9 or #6. When you begin painting on full sheets of paper, a 3" flat wash brush is advised.

6. Paints. These should be watercolour tube pigments. There are now manufacturers who make large quantity tubes (37ml.) of good quality watercolour paints. If you begin with a small selection of primary colours you should be able to mix anything you need and can add more to your palette as you begin to experiment. I use the following basic colours in these lessons:
watercolour palette

Red: Alizarin Crimson

Blues: Cobalt Blue; Ultramarine Blue; Prussian Blue

Yellows: Aureolin; Gamboge; Burnt Sienna

Step 1



Using the photograph provided (or, where not available, the photo of the completed painting) lightly sketch in the design on your watercolour paper. When painting your own compositions, you should always spend some time on thumbnail sketches, planning the arrangement of your shapes. Remember to vary the size and contours while creating a design that you can paint without too much difficulty. You want to have some fun during the painting...the journey is just as important as the destination.


Step 2

Thoroughly soak the paper by immersing it in a tub of water for about 5-10 minutes allowing the paper to stretch. This will open up the fibers of the paper letting the pigment settle, while reflecting the white of the paper towards the eye and thus creating the luminous look of stained glass. The final piece should look like a watercolour painting, not just a painting done with watercolour pigment.

Step 3

Holding your paper carefully by the corners, let excess water drip off and then place onto your board. Now, roll your towel over the paper several times. The paper should remain damp but not wet - all glisten or shine should disappear. You now have a workable surface which will allow you to easily achieve both hard and soft edges at will.

Step 4

Tape the edges to your board. The water trapped under the paper will allow a greater "window" of working time.

Step 5

I begin by mixing puddles of colour in the palette wells - ultramarine blue; rose madder genuine or alizarin crimson; burnt sienna. These puddles contain a fair amount of water, but still have enough pigment to be vivid on the palette. Remember, we are not trying to compete with nature. We haven't got a chance of coming out ahead. It is rather difficult to compete with a sunset or sunrise on a piece of paper 22" x 30", so we have to cheat a little by using colour to our advantage. Before I paint anything I always determine the colour and texture of the subject, then try to find the quickest way of getting the story told. If it is not life threatening - try it!

Step 6

I know there is colour in the birch. It has a rough texture and it has got a shape. we go. Pick up all three colours on a flat brush. I try to use the largest brush I have that will get the job done, and start applying a multicolour wash between the lines (if need be then also over the lines), then let all three colours mingle together on the paper.

Step 7

Vary the colour pattern from tree to tree by making one colour more dominant than the others. This will create a little more interest in the painting. Try and have fun with the colour patterns. You will be surprised how many different colours there are in a birch tree. As I said earlier, forget about staying between the lines. They are only a reference. The more relaxed you are with the brush, the better the results.

Step 8

This next step shows texture and roundness of the tree. Start by scraping or moving a puddle from one side of the tree to the other with a slight arc to the stroke. Clean the card or scraping tool after every stroke and start again. Begin your stroke outside the tree. Firmly pull the pigment to the other side. This is done while the paint is still wet. Results will vary depending on how wet or dry the paint is at this stage. You may need to practise on a scrap piece of paper a few times to get the pressure and timing right.

Step 9

Repeat Step #8, remembering to vary the width of your strokes (use cut up credit cards) and to leave some areas as originally painted. Refer to the photo of the finished painting. Where there are light/white areas, the paint has been scraped out by using the credit card technique.

Then, while the paint is still wet, flood in some darker and more intense colour (richer paint mixture - less water) to show the birch blisters.

Step 10

Pick a wet edge and deposit some pigment on the dry side of the edge. If you are touching both wet and dry areas simultaneously, you will get a hard edge on the outside of the tree and rich colour will bleed into your wet area giving a soft edge. An interesting combination.

Step 11

From these puddles on the paper..paint in some curved lines to show the roundness of the birch. We first identify the shape of the tree, determine the colour we choose to tell the story, then execute the texture.

Step 12

From either..the puddles on the paper...or from the palette..scrape/paint some branches in using a palette knife or a small brush. I prefer the knife as it gives a more "twiggy" natural look. The branches should really appear angular. After every growing season the branch takes off at a slightly different angle. The birch is a rather rugged, hearty tree and the angular strokes capture the character quite nicely.

Step 13

Now it is time for the finishing touches. This and the following steps require that you allow the paper to go have a cup of coffee...or use your blow drier if you are in a hurry.

Now, on dry paper, you can add more calligraphic marks - darker blisters - that will stay where you put them, instead of bleeding into other washes.

Step 14

After allowing your marks above to dry....

...mix a new clean puddle of ultramarine blue - lots of water. Then, using a flat brush, paint a stripe down the shadow side of each birch trunk (the side opposite the starting point of your scrape marks).

Step 15

With a fairly damp brush (not dripping) wet out (soften) the inside edge to show the gradual shadow. Let the painting dry once more.

Step 16

With a fairly strong mix of burnt sienna, glaze in a few areas for the final touch. These transparent brush strokes over the existing colours give quite an effect. We're not trying to compete with nature, just dress her up a bit.

And here it is! Enjoy!


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