Watercolours: Birches in Autumn (demonstration)

I haven’t done much painting for a month or two since uni started up again, as I’ve been pretty busy with teaching and research. Now that I’m settling in for the semester and am waiting for the last touches on my system to be complete so I can start user testing, I decided I had the time and energy to attempt a watercolour of some birch trees in an autumn forest. It came out quite well and it gave me a chance to properly test the Arches watercolour paper I’ve been hoarding for a while (I was hesitant to use it because it’s more expensive than my other watercolour paper), and I thought it would also make a fun demo. As always, you don’t need to use the exact brands and colours I used; I’ve provided them as a guide so you can just find something similar in your preferred brand.

Schmincke Watercolours:
-Cadmium Orange Deep
-Ruby Red Deep
-Ultramarine Finest
-Burnt Umber

Daniel Smith Watercolours:
-Hansa Yellow Light
-Quinacridone Gold
-Burnt Sienna

Winsor & Newton Watercolours:
-Cobalt Blue
-Winsor Violet (Dioxazine Purple)

Daler-Rowney Watercolours:
-Cadmium Red Pale

Art Spectrum Gouache:

Princeton Neptune Quill size 6
Silver Black Velvet Round size 10
Creative Mark Rhapsody Kolinsky Sable Round size 4
Isabey Kolinsky Sable Round size 1
Isabey Kolinsky Sable Round size 3/0

Schmincke Masking Fluid (NB: masking fluid is a bugger to get off the paper if it’s left on for more than 24 hours, so if possible, make sure you don’t apply it until you know you’ll have enough uninterrupted time to finish all the background so you can remove it.)
Masking Tape

Arches Watercolour Paper – 300gsm Rough (180X260mm)

Step 1
After working out the composition, transfer the lines of the trees to your watercolour paper. Apply masking fluid to the tree trunks and branches and let it dry. Wet the whole surface of the paper, then wash in Hansa Yellow Light with a little Quinacridone Gold mixed in. Leave a patch in the mid right a bit lighter than the rest; this will represent the light showing through the trees in the background. While this is still wet, dilute a little Cadmium Orange Deep and lay this in along the other areas of the paper, leaving some of the yellow visible. Do the same with Burnt Sienna just on the outer edges of the paper and along the bottom to show the tree foliage and the forest floor, respectively. Allow this to dry completely.

Step 2
Carefully wet the whole surface again, being careful not to go over the same area with your brush too much (this could risk lifting or muddying some of your first layer). Using the same colours as in Step 1, build up another layer, keeping the colours darker towards the outer edge. Using sharp flicking motions with your brush, add hints of leaf and branch texture along the upper edge with Burnt Sienna. With a very diluted Burnt Sienna, put in a few curved horizontal strokes under the light patch to represent a rough path, making it darker as you get lower (ie. closer to the viewer). Create the floor shrubbery in the foreground with Burnt Umber, adding a little of this to the upper right and left corners. With a diluted mix of Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber, suggest the shapes of some distant tree trunks in the background. Make them slightly darker as you move from the patch of light towards the outer edges.

Step 3
Mix some Dioxazine Purple and Burnt Umber together to create a violet brown and lay in some more shrub texture along the bottom to create depth. You might want to build this up in a few layers, letting each layer dry and using a successively darker mixture. Use a small round brush to flick in some grass and a few little twiggy plants. Add another tree silhouette in the same colour on the right side of the page.

Now for the foliage. You want a variety of warm autumn colours, so make a few separate mixtures: a light yellow-orange from Quinacridone Gold and a hint of Cadmium Orange Deep; a reddish brown from Burnt Sienna and a bit of Cadmium Red Pale; a darker brown from Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber; and a more vibrant red from Cadmium Red Pale and Ruby Red Deep. Using a dabbing motion with your brush (and different brush sizes for variety), dot in some leaves along the top edge, bringing them down further at the outer edges of the page. While most of the leaves should for, the canopy at the top, it would be good to add a few randomly among the trees to give the impression of falling leaves. If you have any old brushes that are a bit ratty, they would be useful here as they will help you make different and random leaf shapes. Keep the darkest brown leaves mostly in the corners, and the pale yellow-orange leaves in the area where the light shows through to help create a sense of depth. The vibrant red should be used relatively sparingly. You can also use a spattering technique to create more foliage texture, but this should be done carefully; practice it on a bit of scrap paper first so you know what consistency to make the paint, and cover any parts of your painting you don’t want spatter on with bits of scrap paper.

Step 4
At this point I decided the darkest tree silhouette on the right wasn’t dark enough, so I went over it again with another layer of the violet brown from the previous step. Wait until the painting is completely dry, then remove the masking fluid from the trees and branches. Mix a dull greyed violet-blue from Cobalt Blue and a little Burnt Umber and Dioxazine Violet. Using an extremely watered down wash of this, lay in the shadows down the left sides of the tree trunks (cover roughly the left two thirds of the trunks) and the underside of the branches, adding a ‘stripe’ of clear water down the right edge of the shadow to help it blend smoothly into the lighter areas of the trees. Let this dry completely and then use a slightly stronger mix to add a darker shadow down the left of the trees, scuffing it across with your brush to create a slightly rough transition between the dark and medium shadows.

Make two mixtures of bluish-grey; one using Cobalt Blue and Burnt Sienna, and a darker one using Ultramarine Finest and Burnt Umber. With a small round brush (1 or smaller), draw in the dark textured lines of the tree bark, using both mixtures (try to use more of the darker mixture on the sides of the tree in shadow and the lighter grey on the highlighted side of the tree). Start at the base of the branches to show where they connect to the tree, then work your way along the branch, making sure the lines follow the contours and adding a few rough patches of ‘scribble’ for texture variety. With a strong mix of Ultramarine Finest and Burnt Umber, add a couple of thin, dark branches growing from the birch trunks, and a couple of little dark twigs on the end of some branches. Using a diluted White gouache, add in a few feathered highlights along the right side of these dark branches. Finally, use some of your red, orange and brown foliage mixtures from Step 3 (or mix up some more if you ran out) and dab in another few leaves at the top of the trunks. All that’s left to do now is sign your name in the corner, with a mix of Burnt Umber and a little White gouache.

Time for the best bit; removing the masking tape! Remember to do this slowly and carefully as otherwise you can risk tearing the paper, which is hard to cover up with paint. With the crisp white border revealed, the painting is now finished. Hope you enjoyed this demonstration 🙂

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