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Painting Demo: Leafy Tree Canopies

July 12, 2016


One thing about living in a four season climate – you get to rotate through your colors! Montreal has two distinct red/brown seasons. Fall of course can be beautiful, and very early spring has a red-brown look that can be calm and restful in its own way. But when the leaves first burst out on the scene, they are a special kind of green/gold.

I’ve had to go and get another color: DS Green Gold (PY150/PY3/PG36). In the past I’ve based my green foliage mixes on Sap Green, but I find lately it’s too dull for these fresh spring greens.

I’m still following my own advice of course and injecting color variation (<click over for a more complete demo) into wet areas as I go, so there are no boring passages. I think of it as having a ‘home color’ which I’m adjusting with every stroke to be slightly towards its neighbors or its complements.

14Feb09_Snow Angels_Sketch Swap_Pines

Of course there is the grey winter season as well. This is a bit of a romantic color scheme based on blue grey, using DS Perylene Green (PBk31). A favorite color I really couldn’t live without when it comes to pine trees.


To be honest, most of the time the winters here are really an overcast brown, rather than the prettified snowy blue.

In this case you just mix some dirt using a bit of everything. Quin Gold Deep and Ultramarine Blue, or some Bloodstone Genuine and Raw Umber Violet, 0r whatever random pigment is accumulated in the corner of your palette. Perhaps in winter it would be good to add Sepia to my color choices?

With leafless trees, you can see how point work is the main issue. Taking your time and drawing twigs. This is when the sharp sable quills earn their high salary.

Though I’ve done a few clusters with an improvised ‘rake’ – that is, a sable brush splayed out like your fingers spread wide. (You just mash the brush into your palette and twist it to splay it out). Just use the very tips of the resulting fan to get parallel strokes.

Another important trick, is not to worry about connecting every twig to the trunk. Some of them can just be a cloud of floating marks.

When you look at a distant leafless tree, you get an impression of branches. You can’t really see specific twigs – (once you move down from actual branches of course). So I think about the muscularity and the rhythm of the main branches – and then I surround them with a kind of loose net of mark making.


That’s what I wanted to talk about today – the idea of painting foliage with broken brush strokes.

I am *usually* trying to make solid shapes. A human figure, or a shape like a sky, or the roof of a building – this might be done in a single solid wash. One wet puddle that goes on in a continuous motion with no gaps. Or at least, with carefully placed gaps. Well, the trunks of the trees are examples of this solidity.

But for leafy foliage on the other hand – I might use a net of small strokes. Little dabs, like what the impressionists called broken brush strokes. I have seen Stapleton Kearns use the term ‘colored rice‘. Many small dashes and dots and placed brush points that accumulate into a cloud.

16June03_Process (1)

So I might start with a drawing of the tree trunks, then make a pale, cloudy green background that will show through where want it later.

16June03_Process (3)

Then I begin building the tree canopy with these dabs of color. Placing them next to each other, like small tiles in a mosaic. I let a few of them touch so the colors intermingle. You want to work with fairly rich paint so you are putting enough pigment down in these touches.

16June03_Process (4)

After enough of these dabs, your tree trunks have been clothed with foliage!

I think this is a kind of painting best suited to a beautiful day in the park. This is not for rushing around getting multiple sketches in a day. I suppose you could sketch the trunks, and finish the foliage at home (if you run out of time). But I was painting these from a very comfortable Adirondack chair under a shade tree in Montreal’s botanical garden. So I was perfectly willing to spend a lazy afternoon enjoying myself!

Hopefully this summer you’ll get a few beautiful days like this for your own sketching!


16June03_Process (5)


10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2016 9:10 AM


  2. July 12, 2016 9:52 AM

    I am going to come back later for the tutorial thank you..I bet you make it look doable:)
    just had to comment on the 2 winter scenes..just gorgeous.

  3. Julia Blackbourn permalink
    July 12, 2016 10:00 AM

    So helpful! I took your Craftsy course too, and your demonstrations have helped me to forward my own ability to sketch better. I appreciate your efforts!

  4. July 12, 2016 1:04 PM

    Thank you for this lesson. I love the painting about winter as well as the trees. We lived in North Dakota -about an hour from the Canadian border–so I understand all about winters. I also grew up in Cleveland, Ohio –so I do know gray winters skies. But I love your rendition.

  5. July 12, 2016 2:29 PM

    Very helpful!!!! And perfect timing. Heading out to Riverdale Farm with the lovely Toronto Watercolour Society painters tomorrow. Also, I’ve been struggling with green lately, not because it’s a difficult colour but just because there’s so much of it!!
    Thanks so much Marc!

  6. Martha Haley permalink
    July 12, 2016 7:11 PM

    thank you so much for all the instructions. I study at home, on my own, and all the pointers are so valuable.

  7. Ivana Bowes permalink
    July 13, 2016 2:20 AM

    Thank you, this is so helpful as I have been struggling to get an impression of trees rather than fiddly detail when there are so many greens about now.

  8. Oliver permalink
    July 13, 2016 2:24 AM

    Interesting, you are more and more moving to classic water color technique instead of drawing contour lines.

  9. July 15, 2016 5:19 AM

    Wow! Amazing work.


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