Watercolour is the perfect medium for painting dappled sunlight through trees, by Colin Steed

I was driving along a country lane near my home in Galleywood, Essex when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a leafy bridleway lit by the early afternoon sun. Although I had passed this scene many times before, the strong, early afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees appealed to me (above). I stopped the car and recorded the moment with my camera. I often take photographs when I don’t have art materials with me.

I encourage you to spend some time practising the following techniques this month and working on a tonal sketch of the scene. This will help you tackle the step-by- step painting in next month’s issue.

Main concerns:

• There is a wide variety of greens and tones within the green areas.
• How do we make the foliage look leafy and grass-like without painting individual leaves and grass stems?
• Trees and grass must come from the ground, not be placed on it.
• How do we achieve a feeling of depth in the distance, and bring the foreground forward?

The tonal sketchTonal sketch of a woodland scene

Always make a tonal sketch before you start to paint; you will learn more about the subject and, ultimately, that will improve your watercolours.

Although the photograph may look fine at first glance, the scene needs simplifying. As you see it now, it’s too busy for a watercolour painting.

Successful paintings require four main elements:

• Composition
• Perspective
• Tonal values
• Colour

Of the four, tone is the most important; it gives light, mood and atmosphere.

Step 1 Use a sharpened light wash HB pencil and start to draw the most distant area of the path, ensuring the path has a fast taper, narrow in the distance and wide in the foreground.

The positioning of the path is vital; it must lead from the bottom lefthand side of the paper to create a feeling of depth.

Step 2 The trees come next, starting with the cluster of trees in the foreground and the large tree on the left in the middle distance. Leave the leaf and ivy areas lighter.

Step 3 Move to the smaller, more distant trees, making sure they all sit in the right position and height on the bank. Draw the left-hand tree smaller than it is in the photograph to give more depth behind the large tree.

Step 4 Shade the leaf and grass bank in various tones: dark around the foreground trees and, to counterbalance this, include a dark area behind the ivy-clad tree and some shading across the path.

Step 5 Use a 4B medium wash pencil to darken the large trees and shaded areas.

Step 6 If you have used water-soluble pencils, soften some of the pencil work with a damp brush, spreading weak tones into lighter areas where necessary.

So now we have simplified the subject and have a clear idea of the dark and light areas. This is invaluable to the success of any woodland painting.



Wet-in-wet background

coloursI use three yellows, three reds and three blues (left) for most of my woodland paintings, which usually start with wet-in-wet backgrounds to create a blurred effect that gives depth to distance trees.

Try this warm-up exercise of a wet-in-wet sky. Keep in mind that strong sunlight is coming from the right.

1 Using masking tape, attach a small piece of 200lb Saunders Waterford watercolour paper to a board. Only tape the four corners as this allows the paper to expand.

2 With the board laid flat, dampen the paper thoroughly with a large flat brush, spreading the water evenly (as any dry patches will turn into hard edges).

3 Allow time for the water to soak into the paper.Background - wet-in-wet sky

4 With the board supported at a slight angle, apply a strong mix of cadmium lemon using diagonal brushstrokes. Start from the top right-hand corner.

5 Add a touch of rose madder to the lemon in your palette and apply to the paper, painting into the cadmium lemon to create a smooth transition from yellow to orange.

6 Now apply cobalt blue to the lefthand side, blending blue and orange together. The orange should be a barrier against the blue and yellow turning green.

Go immediately into the next stage of painting the background trees.


Background trees

1 While the background colours are still wet, work quickly with a No. 8 round brush to paint cobalt blue and a touch of raw sienna into a blue distance area (bottom centre). Leave space for the field at the bottom.

Paint Background trees2 Use raw sienna for the trees either side of the blue, applying the colour with the point of the brush. Notice he way the trees arch towards the centre.

3 Add a little cobalt blue to the raw sienna for the trees overhanging the sky, alternating from one side of the paper to the other, leaving plenty of gaps for the sky to show.

4 Finally, add cadmium yellow with a little more cobalt blue to the mix in your palette to create a darker, slightly more intense, green and paint the darker trees either side of the paper. Don’t forget to leave gaps for the sky or lighter greens to show through.

If you can create out-of-focus trees, you have the start of a good woodland painting.