My recent attempt at painting trees — with a palette knife, no less — left me with a lot of angry emotions. I’d ruined what might have been a good painting. I’d failed once more at creating the fine branches and tree limbs I’ve struggled with over the past few years since I decided to try landscape oil painting. Yes, I accepted what I’d done, and I was pleased with the other aspects of that particular painting — Missouri River Sunset — but maybe that only heightened my disappointment. All the while I was casually “chalking it up to experience”, I was asking myself just how long I was going to go on putting ridiculously childish trees in my otherwise good landscape paintings. It’s absurd, really, when you think about it. I’ve been bemoaning the fact that I can’t create winter trees… for how long now? Wasn’t it time for me to wake up and figure out just what I’m doing wrong?
Well, yes. But, of course, I’ve tried before. I’ve scoured the internet looking for tree-painting tutorials, and I’ve watched more than a few. I’ve even followed along with a lot of them. I’ve read books, too — entire books dedicated to trees and how to draw them.
Why am I still struggling with this?
Enough of my rant. I’m going to change course here and take a kinder, gentler approach to this topic. I have problems with trees because — despite what anyone says — trees can be very challenging art subjects. The link I’ve included will take you back to a post I shared last April. It was about drawing and painting trees, and my experience was so painful that it led me to my own “personal” version of art therapy. Trees, my friends, are not simple to draw or paint.
It takes only a quick search online to realize this truth. For “how to draw trees”, Google comes up with a staggering 584 million possible links. “How to paint trees” returns about 520,000,000 results. Clearly, folks, I am not the only one who is looking for help here.
I have made a lot of progress when it comes to drawing trees — with graphite or ink. In fact, I’m actually quite proud of many of the drawings of trees I’ve made. What I’ve learned has come largely from Drawing Trees by Victor Perard and Drawing Landscapes with William F. Powell. Neither of these books were “quick fixes” for me. Drawing is not a natural ability I possess, so it required a lot of practice — and going through each of these books twice — before I learned the fundamentals. Today, with graphite or ink, I can draw “respectable trees”, trees that aren’t apt to elicit snickers and giggles when viewed. Below, as an example, is a plein air drawing I made of the “crooked tree” I love at our City Park.
It’s undeniably a tree. I got the right shape, added a bit of detail on the trunks, and more or less captured the essence of what this favorite tree looks like.
In October, 2019, I used “trees” as the subject of my “Inktober” drawings. Some were better than others, but for the most part, I was proud of all my trees, limbs, fruits, flowers, and roots. I liked my friendly squirrel too.
I’ve also learned to paint trees — birch trees, at least — fairly well with watercolor. So much so, that my mother-in-law recently asked me to paint a second “birch tree” painting to go with one I’d previously given her.
I can do distant trees and groves of trees in oil. In fact, the first-place prize award I received at a regional show was for a painting titled “The Grove Where We Played As Children” — showing a grove of trees. I also won a third-place prize for “Impressions of Autumn” — another painting showing a grove of trees.
The real problem for me comes with painting all those fine, delicate, limbs and branches we see in winter. I’ve tried a lot of different methods. I’ve tried carefully drawing the trees before painting. I’ve tried “winging it” and simply painting the limbs and branches directly on the canvas. I’ve tried a few different brushes, and I’ve tried palette knives. I’ve tried different paint consistencies, too. I have yet to come up with a reliable method, and so my search for “how to” information continues.
By the way, searching for “how to paint bare tree limbs” brings the number of results down a bit — only 14,000,000 for that query.
First, though, before I can make good use of any of those fourteen million links, I’ve had to step back and consider the reasons why I have such a struggle painting bare limbs, twigs, and branches. It’s not merely “a lack of talent”. Learning to draw doesn’t require talent. I’m living proof of that. Practice takes the place of talent, and goodness knows, haven’t I practiced drawing and painting enough trees by now? Shouldn’t I be getting better, not worse?
Yes. No. As I’ve pointed out above, I’m much better now with graphite and watercolor. I’ve improved a lot when it comes to leafy trees, and, I can paint decent pine trees, too. I can even add a bit of snow to the branches. The problems I’m having deal specifically with those bare branches I love and want so badly to paint! It’s all those slender limbs, those wispy twigs… why, why, why, oh, why can’t I figure out how to paint them?
Here is how it usually goes. I choose a scene that includes bare trees, and I confidently pick up my brushes. I paint everything except the trees, then take a deep breath and start with the trunks. And then it all goes wrong. My branches are too thick. My paint doesn’t cover. The shapes of the branches and limbs are all wrong. My bare winter trees might as well have been added on by a kindergartener. That’s how bad they are.
In the past, my course of action was to wipe out the whole tree and try again, but that led nowhere. I finally forced myself to stop doing that. So, then I began just adding bits of foliage to my trees — which really doesn’t work very well when I’m doing a winter scene, right? Adding foliage means changing everything, and, well, yep, I’ve failed again at what I set out to do.
Not to change the subject here, but just to provide a quick “breather”, take a look at this little “oil paint doodle” I did this morning.
I call this a “doodle” for several reasons. First, it’s on a very small canvas panel — only 4″ x 6″ — and it began as nothing more than a way of using up a bit of paint that was left on my palette after another project. It was also intended as an opportunity for practicing fine lines. I’d just watched part of a video:
Now, back to my “doodle”. I enjoyed using very small brushes — much smaller than I usually use — to paint the trunks, and I used a small “angled” brush to add limbs, and while they were somewhat better than most of my winter branches, I still wasn’t happy. I tweaked and tweaked, finally started adding foliage, and so instead of two bare trees I have too not-very-pretty trees dressed in summer or autumn garb. Once again, I’ve let my frustrations get the best of me.
So, about that video. “How to Paint Delicate Winter Trees” — sounds perfect, doesn’t it? I watched part of it and found myself — yes, once again — frustrated. I did, however, realize the single most important thing about painting bare tree limbs. You have to have the right brush.
I’ve tried a lot of brushes in a lot of sizes. Today I went with the smallest angled brush I have, and certainly it did help. From the video I also picked up the trick of painting downward, not upward. This was a technique I tried while “doodling” with my oil paints.
It was at this point, though, that I realized what’s held me back in the past. It’s my lack of patience. I’m more inclined to grab the biggest brushes I can find and slap paint on in (what I think of as) brilliant impressionistic strokes.
Thin, fine, delicate limbs and twigs are detailed elements of a landscape, and while I want to maintain an overall “loose” approach, I also want to develop the ability to use smaller brushes, to paint more detailed tree trunks, to add more detailed foreground areas.
I enjoyed my morning practice time working with several very small “detail” brushes, and sure enough, I’ve already been to Amazon to order specific “dagger brushes” similar to the ones Michael James Smith uses in his paintings — and which he also sells.
Part of me is shaking my head, telling myself that a paintbrush alone isn’t going to make me the sort of artist I want to be. It’s foolish, perhaps, to think that just buying a different brush will solve my problems. Yet, as my husband points out often, a worker is only as good as his/her tools, and there’s also the truth that you have to have the right tool for the job. I’m sure that using “dagger” brushes — also known as “stripers” or “liners” — in very small sizes will help me improve my oil painting.
But then again, I’ll still have to deal with my lack of patience. That comes, I know, from my negative beliefs about myself as an artist. In the back of my mind, there’s always a question lurking there: Why bother spending so much time on something you can’t really do?
I’ve learned to be more patient with graphite, and even with watercolor. Maybe I can learn to develop more patience with oil painting, too.
Meanwhile, as I await the arrival of my new brushes, I’ll continue browsing, watching videos, and making practice doodles, drawings, and paintings of bare winter trees. Here are a few tutorials I’ve found:
Another site with a LOT of good information is How To Paint Thin Tree Branches for Beginners from a site called “Squishing Paint”. This link is intended for those who paint with acrylics, but there’s good information there for oil painters, too.
If you follow these links, what you’ll find is that every artist has his or her own tips, tricks, and techniques. Again, it’s not simply a matter of having the right brush or using one specific technique. It’s mostly a matter of practicing, trying different methods, and using a lot of the suggestions these artists are sharing in their videos.
That’s where I am today, only now, instead of being discouraged and frustrated, I’m excited again and eager to get to my easel. I want to take all I’ve learned this morning and put it to use as I figure out what’s the best method for ME to use in painting those fine, wispy, oh-so-delicate tree branches I want to include in my landscape art.
Of course, I’m open to any suggestions you might have, as well!