Winter to me is the most exciting of the seasons, and the most varied, with snow completely transforming the landscape. Gone are all those greens: we can see more of the features no longer hidden behind foliage, and although daylight hours are fewer, the low-angled sunshine creates evocative cast shadows to highlight features in a more dramatic way. Fields take on a greater range of colours and textures; tree trunks and branches display interesting and surprising colours. When seen as a mass, the branches of birch trees, for example, can take on a striking wine colour, especially useful if you wish to bring warmth into a cold snow scene. Dead leaves in trees and hedgerows and littered on the ground can be included even if they are not present, as their reds and oranges enliven the landscape and break up the masses of twigs and branches.

Bare branches and trunks

Winter trees and bushes have a charm and attraction that can enhance any landscape painting, and it is worth spending some time studying their characteristics. Tree trunks can be full of exciting and unexpected colours: reds, pinks, yellows, greens and blues, as well as the more common greys. The closer the tree stands, the more scope you have for including colour. Note, too, how branches hang, droop, curve or entwine themselves into amazing contortions. Here we look at a few examples.

Negative tree trunks

An effective method with winter trees and bushes is to create a mass of branches and vegetation, apply negative painting into it to suggest trunks, then bring out the massed branchwork at the top. In this example, I started with a small wash of yellow ochre heightened with a touch of cadmium yellow pale, and immediately dropped in some weak Indian red above this, then a little burnt umber and French ultramarine above that, using the side of a no. 6 brush to suggest a mass of branches and letting all the washes intermingle. This gradual change of colour is a simple but effective technique. When the combined wash had dried, I described more branches with a rigger, over the upper burnt umber and French ultramarine wash. This gave a sense of depth to the branch structure. Finally I painted in the negative shapes between the trunks with a darker version of the French ultramarine and burnt umber mix.

Angular, sweeping or drooping branches

When you paint bare trees, note how the branches form as they leave the trunk: some shoot straight out, while others, such as thorn trees, are extremely angular. Others change direction dramatically or flow downwards in a graceful curve, like larch branches.

Choosing those special trees

Tree shapes make a fascinating study, and it is of great value to identify really good specimens and sketch and photograph them to keep as a reference for when you need that special tree. Sometimes the sub-branches leave the main branch in one direction only, as is mainly the case on the far left-hand trunk shown.

Painting light trees against dark skies and backgrounds

Light-coloured trees set against a dark, angry sky or sombre mountain can conjure up real drama, but they are not easy to paint in watercolour. You may be able to see every single branch strongly etched against the darkness, but try to avoid any attempt at putting them all in. Negative painting techniques are almost impossible to render convincingly if you try to emulate a great mass of branches. In these examples I show how masking fluid can work well for this effect.

Light tree against a dark sky

In this example I have resorted to masking fluid for the main branches, applied with a size 0 rigger with most of the masking fluid removed from the brush, so that a fine line was achieved for the outer branches. You have to waste some masking fluid on scrap paper first to check that it is fine enough for your needs. After the dark sky was painted over the light trees, I removed the masking fluid, then scrubbed the top mass of branches with a small, damp, flat brush. This suggests the mass of light twigs and branches. It also leaves a pleasing fuzzy edge to the extremities. I laid a weak glaze of French ultramarine and cadmium red over the righthand (shadow) side of the tree, and this also helped to prevent it looking like a cut-out.

Light trees against a mountainside

In this example, I again used masking fluid for the trunks and main branches, but this time I painted the mass of twigs and smaller branches with white gouache, using a size 0 rigger.