Colin Steed advises on simplifying a photograph of a woodland scene for a watercolour landscape painting.

Reference photograph

I found this subject (above) while looking through some old photographs I took years ago. It’s always a good exercise, as you often find a subject you missed first time round. It was taken on one of many walks I took through a wooded area close to my home in Galleywood, Essex one summer. It’s the ideal subject to give us a lift from the winter blues.

The tones and colours are good, but, as so often is the case with woodland subjects, some parts are too busy to make a good watercolour. Most subjects need to be simplified and this one is no exception.


Before you start, answer the following questions:

  • Do you need to change the composition?
  • Is the large tree in the best position?
  • Are there too many trees and too much leaf area?
  • Do you need to include all the branches?
  • How can you create a distant area and where should it be?
  • Will I need to change colour or tone?

The composition

By and large, the composition looks right, but it’s always good practice to produce thumbnail sketches in pencil to help clarify any doubts you may have.

As always, you’ll need a distance, a middle distance and a foreground. The foreground is the large tree to the right and the undergrowth to the left. The many smaller trees and dense leaf and branches behind make up the middle distance, but there is no real depth or far distant area in this scene. An opening in the band of trees running across the back I think would do the trick. My advice would be to make thumbnail sketches to work this out. Use a soft lead pencil, 4B or 5B would be about right, and always use a good quality sketchbook.


Sketch 1 (above) shows my first thumbnail sketch. I moved the large tree to the centre and added more middle distant trees to the right. As you can see, the large tree, the focal point, is now in the centre and the composition is out of balance. We no longer want to look at anything else but the large tree.



In Sketch 2 (above) I moved the large tree well over to the right. This is a much more pleasing composition and this time the eye is drawn to an area to the right of the three small distant trees. This is the ideal place for the most distant area of the painting.

In my final thumbnail, Sketch 3 (above), I moved the large tree a touch towards the centre, added three trees to the right of it and, to balance the composition, took away a tree from the distant cluster to the left of the large tree. This will make the best composition.


Tone is more important than colour in any painting.  The chances of failure are considerably reduced if you achieve the right tonal values. The solution is to make a tonal sketch showing more detail (below).  A sketch like this shows the direction of light and how dark the trees and undergrowth in the foreground need to be.  The background must be lighter than the foreground otherwise they merge together and you would no longer achieve depth in the painting.  I shaded in the leaf work lightly behind the large tree, but left an area of white paper behind the pair of trees left of centre.  This will be the most distant area of the painting.


With composition and tone clear in your mind, you must now give some thought to the colours required.  Making a rough colour sketch before you start your final painting always makes sense.  Paint these sketches quickly and loosely, and don’t stop at just one, but paint as many as necessary.  This will give you confidence before you start the final painting.

Use only primary colours from your palette. For my sketch, I used cobalt blue, light red and cadmium yellow, and painted onto a small piece of watercolour paper, 6¾ x 9in (17 x 23cm).  The background should look out of focus, which will bring the foreground detail forward.  To achieve this, dampen the paper thoroughly with a large brush, and allow time for the paper to absorb the water.  While the paper is still damp, paint the sky to show through.  Next paint the ground and undergrowth, working quickly before the paper dries. Once dry, add the trees and shadows.  Use stronger, richer colours in the foreground and lighter, less intense colours in the distance.  Don’t try to paint a perfect watercolour, but enjoy experimenting with colour and tone.

You will need to use a few more colours in your final painting. Some dry-brush work may also be required to paint foreground leaves on your trees or you may wish to use another medium.