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How to paint trees with Julie Collins

Posted on Fri 06 Jul 2018

Trees are an important element in many landscape paintings, and it is tempting to think of trees as just green. Of course they are often green, but as soon as you begin to look closely you will find many other colours. If you work outdoors to observe and sketch trees you would have enough information about colours for trees to last a lifetime.

At this point it is well worth pointing out that trees can be quite difficult to draw and, rather than looking at the structure of the tree, it can be tempting to generalise and make squiggles and zig-zags. When my trees go wrong it is because I haven’t taken enough care over the drawing. If I’m in too much of a hurry I neglect this part of my work and inevitably this means I will end up producing an unconvincing tree – if the underlying drawing is weak or careless, it doesn’t matter how successful my colour is.

Traditional colours

In the first example (below) I’ve painted a silver birch with and without foliage. This is an excellent tree to start with as it has such an interesting structure and the colours are beautiful. I used only two colours and, although this sounds very simple, I still took quite some time planning and mixing my colours, paying particular attention to the different tones of light to dark in each tree.

Distant trees

It is so important to get the right colour and also the correct strength of colour for trees that are in the distance. Although we know that trees that are far away are green, they often appear grey or lilac grey depending on the time of year and the light conditions. In the example (below) I have painted trees that are up close in a definite style and the trees in the distance are painted as an impression. The trees in the foreground are very bold colours, the middle ground is much paler and in the distance I have used only a wash effect to suggest trees very far away. The tonal value here is crucial to indicate the space in the picture.

Colours for distant trees

The colours used were burnt sienna, French ultramarine blue and light red.

Strengthening the colours seen in trees

If you would like to get away from the colours of trees in nature the first step can be to exaggerate the colours that you see. For example, the leaves on a tree in my garden had a yellow tinge and I decided to use this as my inspiration. I spent most of my time thinking about and mixing my colours. The tree was painted freehand and only took me a few minutes to complete (below). Yet again I must emphasise how important your preparation is, as it only takes a short time to get the paint down.

Heightened colours

The colours were cadmium lemon, French ultramarine blue and burnt sienna.

The tree landscape (below) was also created using imaginative colours and a limited palette. The background is a simple flat wash but I used up to four layers of paint for the trees on the horizon line. The first was a pale wash to get the abstract shapes for the trees. When I added the next layers I made sure I had allowed the paint underneath to dry thoroughly. I also let some of the layer underneath show so it created some complexity and liveliness in the trees. The final layer is where I have painted the very dark areas. The two darks were firstly the three colours mixed together for a dark with 50 per cent perylene maroon and 25 per cent of each of the other colours. French ultramarine blue and burnt sienna were used to make the dark grey that looks almost black.

Imaginative colours

Perylene maroon, French ultramarine blue and burnt sienna were used for this tree landscape.

EXERCISE: Use imaginative colours for trees


  • Watercolours: aureolin, cobalt turquoise and light red
  • Support: Saunders Waterford HP 200lb size 7􀀀11in
  • Drawing board
  • Masking tape
  • Bushes: sizes 8 and 2
  • Mixing palette with plenty of space
  • Two water jars
  • HB pencil
  • Putty rubber to take off any unwanted pencil marks
  • Wax or masking fluid


Tape your paper carefully to your drawing board, on each side of the paper, with masking tape. Although a simple drawing, the spacing of the trees is very important because if they are too evenly spaced it will make a boring picture. Make your drawing as faint as possible and then it will look like you’ve painted the whole thing free hand


Mix plenty of paint as follows: aureolin, in pale and medium tones; cobalt turquoise in a medium tone; and aureolin with cobalt turquoise in a medium tone. You will need enough paint to cover the whole picture and there will be no time to stop to mix more when you’re painting. Add some masking fluid or wax to parts of the tree trunks. I’m not very keen on masking fluid, so instead I sometimes use a white wax candle as a resist for white areas in a painting. Have a rough idea of where you want the yellow, blue and green areas before you begin painting. When you’re ready, work wet-in-wet over the whole sheet as in my example. Please don’t worry about ‘blooms’ that will appear as they are part of the picture. Leave all to dry completely.


At this point you will need to prepare some stronger colours and also introduce some of the light red at the base of the trees. I used some very strong aureolin to indicate foliage, and strengthened some of the blue areas. I regularly stand well back from my paintings to see if they are working.


Again, the painting needs to be completely dry before you begin this step. The final stage is adding detail with your smaller brush and strengthening any darker areas of blue and yellow. Mix a dark and medium grey from the cobalt turquoise and light red and use to suggest the trees, but take care not to just outline them. If you look closely at my example it appears to be a very messy painting. Keep your marks both definite and lively, and try not to get too carried away with the detail.

Julie Collins studied painting at the University of Reading. Her work is exhibited widely in the UK and she has received numerous awards.

This feature is taken from the August 2018 issue of The Artist

Click here to purchase your copy

How to paint trees with Julie Collins


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