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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

10 Minutes to Better Tree Paintings

'Beauty Lives Again'      12x24       pastel      ©Karen Margulis
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It's all about getting the shape correct. No matter what our subject,  we can tell a lot about it by looking at it's shape or silhouette. This is especially true for trees. If we see a silhouette of a palm tree there is no way we could confuse it for a fir tree.  The shape and the outside contours of the tree give us the information we need.

When I paint a tree I begin by looking at the overall shape of the tree. Then I block it in with one value making a flat positive shape. As I develop the tree and add the background, I make sure that the negative shapes (sky holes) that I paint continue to describe the shape of the tree.

It is very easy to make an interesting tree shape into a boring one if we aren't being good observers. This has to do with our thinking brain taking over and giving us the simple symbol for a tree.  This is why we sometimes end up with 'lollipop trees' ! We have to practice observing and blocking in our trees carefully.  Lots of practice will help!

I am always looking for a way to make practice fun so I came up with this exercise: 10 Minute Trees!

Massing in the shape of the tree
10 Minute Trees
  •  Begin with a piece of paper divide into quarters. Make sure that each section is no smaller than 5x7.
  • Have a selection of tree photos available. Try to have several variety of trees. It is best to have photos with  strong light and shadows. Don't worry about background.
  • Have your pastels ready. 
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes. The object of this exercise is to observe the tree and block it in using one value to start with. This is the positive shape. You then block in the background (negative shape) carving into the tree and creating skyholes.
  • Continue working on developing the tree from this block in stage until the timer goes off. Don't worry if you aren't finished. The goal is simply to get the shape correct. You should be able to tell what kind of tree you are painting by the shape!
  • You get bonus points if you do this exercise from life....either plein air or out the window of your studio!

A few of my 10 Minute Trees

  • Start with the big simple shape of the tree. Don't worry about details (or painting leaves)
  • Make sure the tree shape is a dark enough value and that it is flat...avoid spottiness.
  • Develop the tree by gradually layering color  (Save the highlights for last)
  • Carve into the tree with the background color to create interesting edges and sky holes.
  • If you have time to add details such as leaves....try to avoid putting in too many leaves. A few well placed leaves will allow the viewer to fill in the blanks.


Malia said...

Thanks for breaking the process down so clearly. I think that I will try the plein air tree project tomorrow!


I love your teaching today as it was timely. I have been attempting to paint a native NM juniper tree found in the Rio Grande valley I couldn't get it right. Yesterday I took my chair and sat in front of the tree and drew it. I didn't attempt to paint it yet because it totally mystified me. Finally I understood its shape. I believed there had to be one main trunk. Not true with this tree as it turns out it is really a bush; exactly as wide as it is tall with many small trunks. Today I will paint it in the manner in which you specify. Thank you so much.

Karen said...

Hi Carol, Thank you!! I hope your comment inspires others to do as you did! Go out and just observe and draw the tree...understand it! And as my friend Robert Sloan suggested.....look at the bare trees this winter to understand the tree's bones!

Karen said...

Thanks Malia! I look forward to seeing your trees!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tips. Wow, that is one gorgeous tree!

Brenda Stichter, artist said...

I really love this tree painting of yours!

robertsloan2art said...

I love this and have got to try it. Way to conquer my Sky Holes Problem, for sure - if I have to get them in during those ten minutes, I will actually start doing it and get past the "Where do they go" willies.

No ONE exercise has to be perfect. Timed drawing worked for me for so many things.

Alejandra Gos said...

Karen... When you carve with the sky color do you find you have to clean up the pastel after going in the tree color? This happens to me when I try to carve in the shape with the color of the sky

Karen said...

Ale, Yes! I always have a towel over my shoulder and wipe the pastel after each stroke.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this! I am newly addicted to working with pastels, and have benefited greatly from your website and youtube channel. Thanks for sharing your gift :)

Alta said...

This pine is beautiful. Before I learned about art a tree picture would not have been interesting. Now I look for color and shape and beauty in a single object. I especially love moss hanging from the limbs and the green and white things that grow on the trunk. So much to admire.