Woodland scenes are enchanting and really difficult to sort out. You sit to sketch, full of enthusiasm, and you quickly realise that there are far more trees than you can possibly cope with, and the undergrowth is horribly complicated. There are leaves everywhere, too. This all sounds rather obvious, but somehow the way we imagine woodland scenes, and what we actually find when we come to paint them, seem to be two different things. Painting a woodland scene isn’t quite as straightforward as a landscape which splits up the rectangle into nice, understandable sections of foreground, middle ground, distance and sky.

Remains of Autumn. Pastel on paper, (55.8 x 66cm).

Woodland scenes can be extremely intimate, as in this wintry image. Look hard in the background. The distant trees are a simple colour area. The foreground, since it is so close to the viewer, is much more literally described and yet, nevertheless, the foliage is still understated. I enjoyed the rhythms of the curving elements in the scene and I tried to create a sense of flow from left to right.

Let’s think about what we might find if we look through a viewing rectangle, or the viewfinder of a camera. The top half of the picture is likely to be a tangly mass of branches and foliage; the bottom half of the picture a tangly mass of tree trunks, branches and undergrowth foliage.

Use a viewfinder

The first step has to be to sort all this out, and the best way to do this is to find a way of forcing the tangle into a cohesive design. Spend some time looking at the scene through a viewfinder. Try it both vertically and horizontally. Squeeze your eyes together and squint as you look through at the scene. Try to squint so much that it is impossible to discern individual leaves. If you do this properly, the whole scene should dissolve into simple shapes and masses. Try holding the viewfinder close to your eye and then further away. After a few minutes squinting like mad you may begin to see some possible compositions. At this point, try a few little thumbnail sketches.

Charcoal sketches

To stop yourself from getting too involved with twigs and leaves. I suggest you use a broad medium like charcoal for your thumbnail sketches. If you use a pencil, its point will encourage you to be fiddly; charcoal is terrific for simplification.

Give yourself a time limit of, say, five minutes for a thumbnail sketch. This will force you to simplify, too.

Used on its side, a piece of charcoal stroked across the paper will give you a really good starting point. Have a look at my example below. The top sketch is simply charcoal spread across the paper, using the side of a short piece. Even though I used cartridge paper, there is some texture showing through, which you can leave if you wish.

For the bottom sketch, however, I softened some of the texture by rubbing gently with a finger. Then I worked over the top, both with the edge of the charcoal for the dark trees, and with a putty rubber, picking out light shapes. I began to exaggerate shapes – the zigzag shape of the path, for instance, echoed in some of the tree branches. I also liked the element of counterchange – some trees dark against light, others light against dark.

I suggested the ground plane lightly, with marks to show that the ground sloped down towards the path, again emphasising the diagonal element, which nicely balances the vertical forms of the trees.

There was lots of undergrowth in the scene, and masses of leaves – and yet, although I haven’t created one obvious leaf, or fern, it is perfectly clear that this is a woodland scene.

Trying out thumbnail sketches in this way is invaluable. In them, you can try to discern not only the main shapes and masses within the scene, but also rhythms, movement and echoes. A curving pool of light on the ground, for instance, might be echoed in the sweeping arc of a large branch. A pathway of some kind, moving into and through a wooded area towards, perhaps, a bright shape representing a sunlit clearing, or a dark shape representing a mysterious and interesting copse, will encourage the eye of the viewer to move into the picture, rather than come up against an impenetrable wall of foliage.  Finding patterns, and abstract shapes, in your charcoal sketch will give your painting strength; having a well-designed, underlying geometric pattern will always reinforce a painting.

Here is a checklist which you might like to copy into your sketchbook:

1.  Sort out the scene into its simplest light, medium and dark tones.
2.  Group closely toned areas together to create a pattern of fairly large abstract shapes.
3.  Aim for no more than five main, large shapes in your picture.
4.  Try to find echoing shapes – if they aren’t obvious, consider some shapes to create echoes.
5.  Look at rhythms. Branches will create patterns not only in the way they grow, but also in the spaces that you can see between them, for instance. You may find similarities in the shapes and lines in the image which act like a repeating chord in a piece of music.
6.  Try to create a focal point in your picture – a main tree, or group of trees, or a pool of light, or an area of counterchange, light against dark, dark against light, for instance.
7.  Consider the underlying geometry of the scene. Does it consist largely of vertical elements?  Diagonal elements? Curving forms? Make one of these ideas dominate.
8.  Always work from the general to the particular. Work broadly without detail in the early stages, and add details last.

Tackling foliage

It is perfectly possible to create the impression of foliage masses without even hinting at a leaf. In the little coloured example above, my marks are simply blocks of colour, and yet the addition of a few simple lines makes us understand that we are looking at trees. Of course, there is no need to feel that you must simplify to this extent; it is simply that the viewer is quite able to work out what the painting is about, even if you leave areas suggested. I enjoy a painting which allows my imagination to work when I look at it. If I see a picture where every leaf and blade of grass is painted, I can admire the patience of the painter, but I often wonder why he felt he had to paint in this way when a camera would have done just as good a job. Abstract shapes depicting clumps of foliage can be perfectly convincing – and often very exciting. If, however, you feel you want to include more information, I suggest you use some sharp accents to describe the construction of the main trees in the scene and some hints as to the nature of the foliage, since trees differ greatly in their foliage types. But don’t overdo it, it isn’t necessary.

Painting effective woodland scenes does not depend on your attention to detail. Many non-painters who look at paintings will, more often than not, be fascinated and impressed by the detail. But if you concentrate solely on depicting hundreds of leaves and branches in a woodland scene you will fail to capture the magic and intimacy of the scene.

Bluebell Walk, pastel on paper, (35.6 x 55.8cm).

In this image only the tree trunks and the people are depicted literally; the undergrowth and leaves are simply suggested with dots and dashes. However, it is perfectly clear what this picture is all about.  The picture is divided into three main areas:  dark top area, a lighter centre section, and a dark bottom area. This is the way to think about composition, rather than thinking only about trees, people, bluebells.