In my on-going quest to paint more realistic trees — meaning trees that actually look like trees — one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is drawing fine lines. You know, those lines that become limbs that become branches that become tiny little twigs. I’m getting better with drawing them, but painting fine lines has eluded me.
So I recently spent a morning practicing on that specific technique. I know the tree trunk is all out of proportion and I know I have branches sprouting out everywhere. That was the purpose of the practice session — just starting with a basic tree trunk shape and seeing how fine I could get my lines as I went from limb to branch to twig.
I used a small rigger, and while I succeeded in some places, I failed in others. My biggest problem, it seemed, was getting my oils to the right consistency. At times I had the paint much too thick. At other times, I had it far too thin and runny.
I practiced using a flicking motion here and there — I didn’t like the results. The lines I made were too straight. That technique, I decided, should be better left for grasses and tall reeds — at least, with the brush in my hand.
My branches and twigs looked better when I lightly dragged the brush over the canvas, giving the line a slight bit of squiggle now and then.
Another problem I have is judging how many — or how few — limbs, branches, and twigs I should add to a tree. The answer, of course, is it depends. What sort of tree am I attempting to paint? Am I capturing the proper shape for the tree?
I don’t know what type of tree this one is supposed to be. Maybe an oak. Maybe a sycamore. Either way, I know I don’t have nearly as many limbs, branches, and twigs as an actual tree. But I’m not really sure I should try putting in all those tiny, fine lines. A search for famous paintings of bare trees turned up very little, so I guess I’m left to figure it out on my own through practice, practice, practice.
Creating fine lines in oil is a challenge, not just for me, but for many artists, I’ve learned. Browsing a bit for advice led me to this information from John Lovett, who advocates using rigger brushes — and replacing them often:
“The secret to producing fine lines with our brand new rigger is to hold the brush perpendicular to the paper and allow just the tip to make contact. Brush movement should be deliberate and controlled. Long strokes are best made from the shoulder, not the wrist or fingers. Wrist and finger movement should only be used for the shortest strokes, and even then, a quick movement from the elbow will produce a nicer line.”
In the Wet Canvas forum, other artists suggested the edge of a credit card or palette knife — useful for some applications, I’m sure, but probably not good for making the many, many twigs of a tree — or the use of a “ruling pen” when working in watercolor.
Like so many other things in art, the real secret to painting fine lines — be they twigs on a tree, rigging on a ship, tiny fracture lines on rocks, or any other very thin line — is really no secret at all. It’s a matter of practice, persistence, patience, and perseverance. I will keep working on it. Of course, if you have helpful tips, please pass them along!