Do you have that one scene in your head, that one half-remembered place where all was true and lovely? Perhaps it was a visit to the mountains or seaside, and you can’t easily get back there.
Maybe there’s a certain type of house during a certain kind of daylight that brings you back to your childhood, but you don’t remember it well. Or maybe your favourite place is where you are right now, but for some reason when you paint it just doesn’t have the same feeling.
A big motive behind a lot of art-making is the desire to capture the feeling behind a place, rather than only the technical likeness. This is not easy to do.
For the sake of discussion, I’m going to talk about my favourite elusive subject, which is trees at the beginning of May. As you read along, just consider all this in the framework of your elusive subject.
You will find that a big part of capturing the emotion of a place is just to get the colours perfectly exact instead of almost right and to start small with what you paint.
Look at the delicate beauty of these tiny new leaves. They haven’t been eaten by anything or buffeted by the wind. Observe how specific this shade of green is. This is already a very specific colour to try and match in a painting and we haven’t even looked at the entire landscape yet.
See how lovely all these leaves are from a distance? The tree is already light and delicate, so when the leaves are that way too, they compliment the tree.
This is a photograph I took last year. The sun was setting and it made the trees look particularly lovely. The photograph turned out very disappointing because it was on an older camera phone, but I tried to remember everything properly and then paint partly from the picture and partly from memory.
And this was the disappointment that ensued. I remember using watercolour, ink, gouache, anything and everything I could get my hands on to try and redeem this painting.
I do have to say I got the colour of the tree trunk quite right, and the leaves aren’t too far off. However, the sky turned out too dark because I was trying to make it as deep as I remembered and it ended up looking wrong.
Also, I was not using a small enough brush to add the leaves and so they ended up (quite predictably) looking like gouache spatters instead of leaf groups.
So, what’s to be learned from this? For one thing, before you even start it’s important to make sure you have the right brushes for the job. Not using the right brushes is like driving a car after a wheel has fallen off: It doesn’t work very well.
Please use the right brush. On the more specific topic of trying to do your painting subject justice, what I learned from a year of thinking about the first painting is that to do justice to the subject matter, colours and values have to be accurate before they can be enhanced with very careful judgement.
This year when the leaves were new again, I decided to try again. This time, instead of using the picture from before, I started by painting just a small section of a tree that’s right out my window.
I only painted a small section so that it wouldn’t be overwhelming, and I didn’t paint the sky either. It’s important to tackle a tricky painting in little warmup sketches before you do anything complicated because if you’re afraid of the painting you won’t do your best work.
Since I was drawing from life instead of a photograph this time, it was far easier to draw the branch growth pattern correctly. Always draw from life if possible, and if you can’t go back to the same place that inspired you, try to find a similar place.
Between my first and second attempts at painting these trees, I acquired a proper sable paintbrush. That made a big difference as I was painting the branches and details.
Also, I found a good mixture of colour to recreate the original trunk only better: Lemon yellow, cadmium orange, burnt umber, and ultramarine, mixed in different ways in various areas of the tree.
Now, the part I was frightened of due to past failures: Painting those little perfect leaves. I used a mixture of lemon yellow and Prussian blue for it.
I just painted from life each little leaf because I was close enough to the tree I painted this time that the leaves were more individually visible. I used some of the shadow mixtures from earlier along with the green to make the grass colour.
This image turned out so much better than the previous attempt because I focused only on a small section to get familiar with the details that make this subject special, used proper tools, and used colours from observation and memory rather than a badly taken cellphone picture.
This is hardly an entire scene that would make me feel properly nostalgic to look at, but drawing something partial and yet carefully accurate is better than diving into the whole scene when you’re not equipped well enough and you haven’t become familiar with the individual pieces that make that scene special to you.
The next time you try to paint something from the past that’s difficult to recreate, break it down into small pieces so you can see why that scene is so special to you, and then paint those little pieces to get them exactly right. Only move on to the whole scene when you are ready. And make sure to use good paper and brushes!
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.