To paint realistic landscape scenes, you will have to learn to paint trees sooner or later. Many beginners become frustrated painting trees because it’s difficult to translate the image in the mind’s eye onto the paper.

The reason for this is that we see many trees every day, but don’t take the time to consciously process what they look like up close. Our brains use general, symbolic representations of objects to remember what they look like, and the way they represent a deciduous tree is generally as a brown post with a fuzzy green circle on the top.

Other times, we will go to the other extreme: Thinking that to draw a realistic tree, we have to draw every single twig and leaf. This isn’t realistic either, because our brains don’t register that level of detail when we glance at something.

Neither the oversimplified symbol of a tree nor the overly detailed tree will look real to a viewer. We have to paint a tree with realistic forms, but not so detailed that it looks obviously like a drawing.

With that in mind, let us begin today’s painting of a deciduous forest in the early summer. I will not be naming any colours specifically, in case you have different ones than I do at home. Just use the colours you think will be the most harmonious equivalents to what I use.

To get a clean edge on your painting, block off the shape of the painting with washi tape or some other gentle tape. Next, do a faint line drawing in pencil.

Don’t put leaves on the trees or any detail other than the outlines of the biggest shapes. Bushes can have very faint leafy outlines but no hints of leaves within the outline. Keep it super simple.

To achieve our desired organic effect, wet the path and bushes before putting masking fluid on the areas meant to stay light when we do the next few steps. This lets the masking fluid feather out and not have such a harsh edge that’s visible in the final work.

Wet the entire paper thoroughly. Start with a wash of a bright, cool yellow straight from the pan, but keep it thin. While that’s still wet, use a light yet slightly muted green mixture to suggest the foliage of trees in the distance.

Use a blue-green mixture for the foliage that’s in shadow. Finally, for the very dark and very close foliage, mix some cool brown into that blue-green.

This must all be done before the paper begins to dry. You will be surprised at how good blue by itself looks when added to some shadow areas for some richness.

Make sure the first layer of paint has dried completely and isn’t cold to the touch any longer before you move along. Once it’s fully dry, take some of your lighter green mixture and apply it with a drier brush to make it more concentrated than the layer underneath.

These will be some of the leaves that are directly visible from the path. Doing these rough shapes instead of painting individual leaves makes the trees look more convincingly real at their distance from the viewer.

Use all your darker mixtures in the same order as you did for the first layer, this time with that slightly drier technique. You will want to blend some of them, but don’t overwork them.

Time to paint the trees in! Use a mixture of cool brown, blue, and any yellows or greens that would tie it in with the established colour palette. The furthest away trees should be done in light layers, and the closer trees can be built up with a few layers to show that they’re nearer in the atmosphere.

Pay attention to the way the branches grow in your reference photo because not all trees have the same growth pattern, and one of the most common failures when drawing trees is to forget the natural direction branches grow and how often they fork.

Time to take off the masking fluid! The tops of the shrubs will be light yellow like the very first layer, and you may need to use some white gouache in the mixture to blend it in with the darker layers on the shrubs.

Then it’s time to add the grassy path! Start with the lightest yellow wash as always, adding the other colours as you progress to the shadows. Keep the shadows jagged and don’t overwork them. Overly blended shadows won’t look real.

Now, mix some white gouache with yellow and light green to make an opaque leaf colour. Use this to finalize the edges of the bushes, and then use the tip of a round brush to create suggestions of leaves in the foreground.

Overlap the tree trunks to create dimension. Never draw realistic leaf shapes, just suggest where the leaves are. At this distance, nobody is perceiving leaf shape at a glance.

And there you have it! A deciduous forest in watercolour with gouache highlights. Use these techniques on a variety of reference photos and Plein air sessions to make sure you are confident before you try it from imagination.

Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator and graphic novelist based in Minnesota. She specializes in all things cozy and calm, but adds humor where she can. When she isn’t drawing, she enjoys playing musical instruments, but you’re more likely to see her staring at some silly tree or something. 

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