I recently bought a beautiful book called The Art of Watercolor, one of many art instruction books published by Walter Foster. It’s filled with gorgeous illustrations of watercolor paintings, and includes directions so that aspiring artists like me can follow along and create lovely works of our own.
When I looked at the first illustration and saw a forest of trees looming in the background, I groaned. I knew I was in trouble. I could draw a single tree, but putting an entire forest into a painting required skills I hadn’t yet developed.
Never fear. Just follow the directions, right?
I was ecstatic when I read what Kolan Peterson, the book’s author, had to say on the subject:
Large masses of trees are a problem for many students, but the procedure is actually quite simple.
Oh, yes! I was ready to learn. Unfortunately, my hopes sank a bit as I continued reading.
Paint the overall mass, then pull out trees in the shadowy back area, increasing intensity as you come forward.
I’m sure that makes perfect sense to real artists, but all I could do was stare at the words. “Just pull out the trees…? What is that supposed to mean?”
Needless to say, my attempt to copy “Misty River” left a lot to be desired. I liked a lot of my rocks, and the river doesn’t look too bad. But those trees? Sad, indeed.
Now, I’ll admit that as I worked on the painting, I did begin to grasp the concept of “pulling out trees”. But there’s a big difference between understanding a concept and being able to execute it.
I should point out that before I attempted the technique myself, I hurried to the computer to have a little chat with Cortana. “What does it mean to pull out trees when painting?” I asked. The ever-helpful computer assistant promptly linked me up with instructions from Yesterday’s Tractor on how to pull out trees, a WikiHow article on how to kill tree roots, and Garden Web’s tools for pulling out saplings. Thanks, Cortana.
On my own, I returned to my easel and picked up a paintbrush. What size brush was I supposed to use? I had no idea. I knew only that I was supposed to paint an overall mass and then, yes, just pull out the trees. I grabbed a medium-sized round brush.
Next question. How much water did this technique require? No idea. I mixed my colors, took a deep breath, and just did the best I could.
Immediately came a third question. Just where — exactly — was I supposed to paint this overall mass? Before getting out my paints, I’d lightly drawn the shapes of the various features — including the trees. Was all of that part of this great overall mass from which I was to simply pull out the trees?
This is the point at which being self-taught becomes frustrating. With no one to ask — other than Cortana, the Windows 10 know-it-all assistant — I was stuck, alone with a lot of helpless feelings. And a lot of doubts, too.
Just pull out the trees.
I recited those words over and over, finally put paint to paper, and made an attempt to create a forest in the background. Without knowing where to begin or exactly how to apply the technique, it became a trial-and-error process. That’s how self-teaching goes a lot of times. We learn by doing a lot of things wrong.
Although the trees in my forest weren’t too good, I did begin to sense what I was supposed to do. Put down a blob of paint, then flick the brush upward to pull out the trees. Well, all right. I can see how that could work.
It’s been several weeks now since I made that sorry-looking copy of Misty River. I’ve gained a bit of watercolor experience during that time, so perhaps I could do better if I once more attempted to paint a forest of trees. I gathered up my watercolors this morning and set to work, trying once more to just pull out those (expletive deleted) trees.
After filling up several sheets of watercolor paper, I finally did get something that vaguely resembles a forest at the edge of a lake, and I added a quick tree to the foreground to put things a bit into perspective. Here’s an enlargement. It’s very blurry, but maybe you can get the general idea.
I continually remind myself that art is an illusion. I’m not drawing every tree in the forest. I’m merely putting down an overall mass of color to suggest the shape of the forest, then using a brush to pull out the illusion of trees.
As I practiced, I tried different brushes, different ways to put down that overall mass of color, and different amounts of water in the brush. I’ve got a long way to go, but again, I’m gaining a better understanding of the concept, even though my execution needs a lot of work.
I wish it could be easier. I love trees, and I imagine myself painting gorgeous landscapes like those in my watercolor books. Maybe, as the old saying goes, I can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s all an illusion, and maybe if I keep practicing, I’ll eventually be able to just pull out the trees, and I won’t even need Yesterday’s Tractor or Garden Web to get it done.