How to Paint Green Trees Using Watercolors

A couple months ago one of my Vermont students asked me to teach her how to paint trees in summertime. Unfortunately, we weren't able to connect before I left to come back to Maine. So I told her I would write a blog post for the benefit of other readers and send her the link.

I was glad to teach a lesson a couple weeks ago with a student who was also struggling to paint green trees. This allowed me to do a demonstration and take some photos. Here is a green tree blog!

First, some history. When I was eleven and just starting to paint with watercolor, my palette consisted of twenty-four different colors. All were Windsor & Newton professional quality. That was a lot of colors for me to remember how to use! Each color had it's own qualities - some were staining colors, some were lifting colors, some were sedimentary...I also didn't really clearly grasp the idea of warm/cool colors yet.

My mom would attend my classes and take notes for me, while I painted. This was enormously helpful, as I didn't write very well or quickly at age eleven.

I limited my palette after returning to painting seriously around the age of twenty-two, after about a five-year period of doing other things. I can count the artworks I did during those five years on two hands...

Yet, I was really busy during those years of not painting much!

I read voraciously on many subjects (economics and health were favorites), learned to bake and cook fine confections, sewed lots of clothing, learned how to make and sell many different baskets, planted and harvested lots of vegetables from our organic garden, had a horse to ride and care for (not to mention a passel of cats, goats, geese, turkeys, chickens and the other horses!). I took classical guitar lessons and practiced two hours a day. And I helped paint the inside and outside of our house...toxifying my body in the process and thereby almost losing my life.

So, when I finally decided to re-gain my patience and painting ability, I completely eliminated green pigment from my now more basic twelve color palette. 

Viridian Green, Hooker's Green Dark and Sap Green - gone. They tended to look like very lurid, cool, fake-greens. Of course that could be helped with some red or yellow added, but I didn't like the way they stained my paper. I prefer to mix my own greens, using different yellows and blues.

Now I use Windsor or Lemon Yellow, Aureolin, or New Gamboge for yellows. For blues, I use a large number of colors - Antwerp, French Ultramarine are favorites because they are warm blues. They are also non-staining colors, allowing me to lift them to a large degree.

It is incredibly important to begin your painting with a CLEAN palette! Otherwise, the colors will not be clean and clear. You do not want to start with dull colors. Dulled or grayed colors are very important, but once you've grayed a color it's nearly impossible to go back, so preserve them carefully.

Here's what my palette looked like after painting this demo.:

I am expanding and experimenting with my palette now, returning to use Cobalt Blue, Cobalt Blue Deep, Cerulean Blue, Permanent Blue (from Rowney), and for a staining color, Windsor Blue (red shade).

One of the keys to painting a good green tree is to remember there are MANY colors of green! Yellow-green, blue-green, olive green, chartreuse, gray green, brownish-green, etc.

It is impossible to mix a light green if you are using a dark yellow, no matter what blue you add, so I usually do a little color study before I begin, to test what color/s yellow and blue I desire to use. I've chosen Windsor Lemon, New Gamboge, Antwerp Blue and Alizarin Crimson, which give me these greens:

Remember that when you add red -cool or warm - to green, it will cause it to darken and gray. It is a very good idea to use whatever colors in the rest of your painting in your trees, which causes the painting to appear cohesive to the viewer.

I learned a TON about painting trees from looking at a fabulous representational tree painting I once saw on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I wish I knew the name of the artist. He wasn't particularly famous, if I remember correctly. In this tree painting, I was able to see all the different shades of color and this taught me how to really make a tree look like a tree!

It is always important to observe your tree/s carefully, and see the direction of the sun.

Now, begin your painting with the lightest value - painting back to front. I wet the paper and then put in the sky, using the same blue I plan to use for my green trees, but not painting over the yellow-greens. Yellows must be saved! Paint them first. Put in the trees in the background using a lighter value as well as a bluer yellow.

This is a good rule to repeat: Purple recedes, yellow comes forward. It definitely applies to trees!

Then paint in the yellowest greens. Sometimes this means straight yellow which I will then partially paint over later. The paper is still wet. Plein air means the challenge of visiting bugs. Here is the first stage:


For the second stage, add in where you see darker greens and then let the painting dry:


Take a break!

Go back in using your same colors, just in different proportions, painting on top of what you painted originally. You will need to soften edges now, using a clean damp brush. Blot the brush on a paper towel so that you don't add extra water because this will cause blotches in the newly applied green. You're just wiping in softly to whatever side you see has a soft edge. Leaving a side with a hard edge creates depth.

Don't completely cover everything. Leave some lights on the leaves where you see them! This is the third stage of this demonstration:


Keep looking and painting negatively (painting AROUND leaves that are lighter and closer to you).

It is important to paint the value of the green as well as the color green, as best you can. Don't worry if you have trouble mixing the right shade to begin with, if you can get the values right, your painting will have strength.

I decided to go back at a similar time of day a few weeks later, and paint more darks and details into these trees. This is the fourth and final stage:


If you just look at a detail of this demo, it looks a lot like an abstract!:

Here is another example of green trees and grass. "Suspended Animation" is a 20x27 watercolor which I painted in about 25 hours many years ago. It depicts an Olympic Trial for Three-Day Eventing, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Our family attended and my dad and I took photos:

That's a start for mixing your own greens and painting trees in summer!

I hope this blog gives you some helpful advice.

Your painting friend, currently on the sublime Coast of Maine,

Wisdom is "a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is everyone that retaineth her." ~ Proverbs 3:18

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