Start Simplifying with Painting Trees
“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”
– Khalil Gibran
There is a distinct difference between a painting that feels rich and one that is busy with detail. Monet, for example, used an incredible swath of color and brushstrokes when he was painting landscapes, even when painting trees–but his paintings don’t feel claustrophobic or overly busy. Take, for example, his depiction of the poplars of his beloved Giverny. In a lesser artist’s hand, there is a good chance that this painting, which perfectly captures the overall impression of the forest, would have devolved into an overly busy portrait of every bit of the landscape composition mapped out.
There’s hope though! The way Monet is painting trees is the way you can paint trees. Use the techniques imparted here to discover that path. You will train your eye to see differently and a few art project exercises will get you further along the path! Johannes Vloothuis is here to help too! Paint Along 38: Create Clutter-Free Landscape Paintings is a live webinar that is also recorded for your convenience. It covers all the ways you can paint to reduce “busy” and bump-up the power of your finished artwork. Enjoy!
Starts with the Eye
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who paint from life is to see and understand what is right before our eyes. This may sound simple, but it takes practice to get good at it. Why this is so has partly to do with the way our brains are wired, partly to do with our visual biases, and partly to do with the sheer complexity of the world. Learning to see the world in terms of paint requires the unlearning of some visual habits and the acquisition of a few new skills of observation.
Masses and Value
When painting trees, it is important and useful to learn to see masses and shape and to reduce the hundreds of smaller shapes into a few larger, simpler masses. Four value changes and massing forms in that many or less shape types is a goal worth shooting for as you take the visual information in front of you and turn it into a painting.
Trees are complex forms and at first glance may appear chaotic in their organization. The truth is, trees are highly organized in the way they grow and their leaf and branching structures can be easily identified from a distance. In your landscape art it is useful to learn more about the differences between tree species. The familiarity helps the painter to understand the trees’ growth habits and to see them as volumetric shapes in the landscape which reflect light in a predictable way. Spend time whenever you are out in the landscape making quick five-minute sketches of the trees you see. It will coordinate your hand and your eye for when it comes time for painting trees.
Our Mantra and Tree Holes
“See, Simplify, State” is our mantra when painting outdoors, and so we have to ignore leaf detail and texture to a certain extent in order to render the overall large shapes of the trees.
Employ the “squint” technique when trying to see a tree’s growth habit and form. Squinting-down consolidates detail and shapes into large masses making the big shapes more easily understood. Render only these large masses, making note of the shadows and where they occur.
Look for the negative spaces—the “tree-holes” where the sky or the background show through. These are as important as the positives.
Finally, let your artistic eye improve and idealize the subject, remodeling a bit here and there to make your picture more beautiful, perhaps heroic even. Once you get good at seeing and painting trees, the rest of the world will fall into place!
Give this exercise a try and let us know how it goes.
–John and Ann of The Artist’s Road