If you paint landscapes, trees are an essential element of your compositions. However, because there are so many different types, it can be tricky to learn how to paint watercolor trees. Especially if you’re just getting familiar with watercolor techniques, illustrating realistic, three-dimensional, vibrant trees can be challenging.
Fortunately, when you break it down into a few simple steps, painting trees with watercolors is pretty simple—and fun! In this guide, we’ll walk you through painting watercolor trees step by step.
How to Paint a Watercolor Tree
Painting watercolor trees can be simplified into three components: creating the base foliage layer, adding details like leaves, and painting the tree trunk. Within those three steps, you can use your creativity and different watercolor painting techniques to achieve a wide variety of styles and types of trees.
However, before you begin, make sure you have the following supplies:
- Watercolor paper
- A pencil
- A few different sizes of paintbrushes
- A sponge
- A cup of water
- Watercolor paint
- A palette for mixing colors
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Step 1: Find Your Inspiration and Create an Initial Sketch
The size, shape, and color of trees can vary widely, so the first step to learning how to paint watercolor trees is to look for inspiration. The easiest way to do this is to get out in nature and take pictures of trees you find visually interesting. No nearby green space? Look at books, magazines, or online images. As you examine trees, notice the shape of their trunks and branches, the texture of their foliage, and the overall shape of the tree.
To create your initial sketch, first look at the overall shape of the tree. Does it have a triangular shape, like a Christmas tree? Or is it more of an imperfect circle? Sketch that initial shape without adding any detail—right now, you’re just getting a feel for the tree’s general form.
Step 2: Paint the Foliage
Now, it’s time to get painting. The first step is to create the foliage. For this foundational layer, focus on painting the general shape and color of the tree. You can use a variety of different watercolor techniques to mimic the texture of your specific subject:
- Wet-on-wet with a sponge: Press a damp sponge lightly on your paper to form your general tree shape. Then, load your paintbrush with some green paint and add some curvy brushstrokes onto the wet area. You will see the paint begin to bleed and spread out, creating texture and dimension.
- Sponge and paint: Dip a damp sponge into some green paint, and then lightly dab it on the paper in the shape of the tree. This is a great way to add texture to your foliage.
- Light to dark: Load your paintbrush with your lightest shade of green, and use it to paint the top portion of the tree. Then, use a slightly darker green for the middle portion, and finish with the darkest green on the bottom. The change in hue can help convey volume.
- Mix colors directly on your paper: Instead of using a pre-mixed green color, layer your source colors—yellow and blue—onto the paper separately. Start by laying down a foundation of yellow, and then add a light wash of blue on top. As the watercolors mix, the tree will end up mostly green, with a bit of yellow at the very top and a hint of blue at the very bottom.
Step 3: Add Details
Once your foundational layer of foliage is dry, you can move on to the next step in painting trees in watercolor: Adding detail to create more texture and dimension.
To add volume and shadow, try adding curvy strokes of a darker green to your foliage, beginning in the middle and extending to the bottom of the tree shape.
For more texture, try using your sponge. Dip it in a darker green, and then dab it across the base layer of foliage to create the look of leaves.
You can also use a finer brush and a complementary color to add some depth and visual interest to your tree. For example, try painting some thin, curvy lines with brown or yellow on a few select areas of your foliage. Or, use a dark green color to paint some small dots—representing tiny leaves—on your tree. You may even choose to add white highlights to create a snowy tree or flowers for a springtime one.
Step 4: Paint the Trunk
The last step to painting trees with watercolors: adding the trunk. Again, there are a few different approaches you can use based on your subject and preferred style.
For a traditional look, choose a medium brush, and load it with some brown paint and water. Start at the top of the branches, using light pressure and the tip of your brush to create a fine line, adding more pressure and allowing it to get thicker as you transition the branch into the trunk of the tree. Once you have the basic shape, feel free to add more small branches at the top. The brown paint of the trunk may bleed into the green paint of the foliage, and that’s OK—it can actually produce an interesting shadow effect.
For a slightly different look, try the wet-on-wet technique. Using a brush loaded with just water, paint the basic shape of the tree trunk. Then, pick up some saturated brown paint and dab it along the right side of the trunk, followed by the left side. Because you’re adding the paint to a wet foundation, it will spread and create an interesting and dimensional texture. Or, try the opposite: First, paint the tree trunk a dark, saturated brown. Then, clean your brush and add a few drops of water to one side.
Also keep in mind that the tree trunk doesn’t have to be one solid shape. Try using a few separate brush strokes—with some white space in between—for a more abstract approach.
Ultimately, learning how to paint watercolor trees comes down to combining three elements: the foundational shape of the foliage, finer details like leaves and shadows, and a trunk and branches. With an understanding of those three elements, you can create a wide array of easy watercolor trees.
Experiment with different watercolor techniques, colors, and types of trees, and you’ll soon be able to illustrate landscapes of all kinds, from tropical beaches to snowy, tree-lined mountain ranges.
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