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Trees - Part Two: Masses

I don’t generally paint tree “portraits”, per se. However, it is sometimes necessary to render individual trees as an integral part of a composition. When that arises, I usually follow the rules I outlined in the last newsletter (“Trees – Part One” July, 2010).

The following painting “Autumn in Rathmullen – Ireland (16x20 oil) would be a good example of individual trees as compositional elements.

Basically speaking, you will be dealing with one of three types of trees: deciduous, conifer or tropical. Each has a distinct, and recognizable profile.

Deciduous Conifer Tropical

 When I look out upon the landscape, I typically see trees as a mass, with a distinctive shape, size and value. And, because the tree mass is an upright plane, and receives less light than the flat ground, it is more often than not one of the darker values in the landscape (see “Back to the Basics: Simplifying the Masses” – October, 2008 newsletter). If I render the silhouette of the mass correctly, it is easy to identify the type of trees that make up the mass.

Here are three paintings, where the outline of the mass contributes to describing the type of tree involved:

“Tikal” – Guatemala 6x9 wc
“Tidal Flats” 15x22 wc


“Summer Along the Dart River” 24x36 oil


Before I get into the demonstration paintings, let me rehash a couple of points that are germane to landscape painting:

Any landscape painting is basically an arrangement of three or four large masses. If these masses are arranged in an interesting way, and their value relationship is correct, the painting will have a strong foundation, and a better than even chance of success. Any details, embellishments and highlights placed on these masses will be subordinate to the masses themselves.

It is important that each mass retain its integrity. Avoid introducing values from one mass area into another. Each mass has a light, middle and dark value that is peculiar to itself only, and won’t be shared by the other masses (this does not include one or two selected highlights to be used later as a points of interest in the painting). If you keep the value changes and details of a mass within the range of its general value, the area will have solidity.

A light squint at the landscape will help to consolidate the myriad of objects into identifiable masses.

Watercolor Demonstration

Without any reference matter, I’m making up some generic scene that you might see in the Pacific Northwest.

Step One:

I do a light pencil drawing, indicating a few general shapes – mostly for orientation purposes. Half of these will change and disappear during the execution of the painting.

Step Two:

Using light washes of blue, yellow and limited red, I scrub in the sky and some general ground tones.

Step Three:

With Cerulean Blue and a touch of Cadmium red, I indicate the distant shoreline and the water.

Step Four:

With darker values of Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre and Cadmium Red, I quickly and lightly overpaint my initial ground tones (I try to do each stroke in one pass, so as not to disturb the first layer of paint, which could result in undesirable mud). I take care not to cover all of my initial groundwork. This will later add texture and interest to this area.

Step Five:

Now I paint in my foreground area, using primarily Ultramarine Blue and New Gamboge. This is handled in one wet-into-wet application, from start to finish. I leave some white shapes that can later be used as rocks, or entirely painted out if needs be. I finish it off with a couple of splatters of Hansa Yellow Light and Venetian Red. This is purely instinctive, but it seems to add a little warmth to the near foreground.

Step Six:

Now this step is what the article is really all about. Working wet-into-wet, with a one-inch flat brush (using primarily Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge and a touch of Burnt Sienna), I paint two masses of pine trees, paying attention to the silhouettes that define them. You will notice that the interiors of these two masses have some variation in lights and darks, but those variations are well within the parameters of overall value of each mass. When the sheen of the water has just about left the wash, I take the chiseled edge of my brush handle and scrape in some vertical indications, for tree trunks. With a small, pointed brush, I paint some dark vertical trunks, and this area is complete. This is a small painting (8x11 inches), and this step only took about three minutes.

Step Seven:

Now I tone the boulders, to bring them more in line with the ground value.


Using mixtures of Naples Yellow, Cadmium Orange and Hansa Yellow Light, I spatter some faux flowers into the foreground, and Voila!, the painting is done. The total elapsed time, from start to finish, is about 35 minutes. 


Oil Painting Demonstration

Step One:

This demonstration is only about massing in trees. I’m not going to concern myself with composition, or creating some masterpiece, so I’m going to dispense with any initial drawing. I tack an 11x17” scrap of canvas to the easel, and begin by painting some sky tones at the top (Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Red, with a touch of Quinacridone Gold at the bottom edge). I move down to my foreground, and using thin combinations of Transparent Oxide Red, Quinacridone Gold and Viridian, I loosely scrub in, what I hope will be, an interesting mass of prairie grass. I don’t overwork this area. I want some of those brush strokes and scrapes to remain for a while. I can always go back and soften this area, if it’s too busy and distracting.

Note: The use of white paint in oil painting is a given, and I’m not    
          going to mention it in my mixtures.

Step Two:

This is where the fun begins. Using thin mixtures of Quinacridone Gold, Transparent Oxide Red and Ultramarine Blue (mixed with Cadmium Yellow for the greens), I mix my darker values and, following the same procedure I used in the foreground, I begin to mass in my forest. Note again that the paint is only slightly moister than dry brush. All of the paint that I have applied so far could be considered “under-painting”. It has a transparent, and translucent, quality, and I want to preserve some of that in the finished product. A direct application of paint is best at this stage. If you brush back and forth, and push it around too much, it loses its luster and freshness. Some of that dry brush, and those visible brush strokes, will ultimately register subliminally as foliage, branches and forest growth. If this seems a bit unplanned – it is! I want these masses to flow more from my unconsciousness than my feeble brain. It’s a bit like shooting from the hip. When you approach your subject this way, you discover that you are not the source of creativity, but rather a conduit for that source. I’m letting my forest mass give me instructions on how to proceed.

I do, however, know that I will ultimately need a focal point. So I instinctively leave a white, tree-type shape in the “sweet spot” on the canvas.

Step Three:  (Same mixtures)

I’m moving along quickly. I reinforce my darks. I’m finding branches and tree trunks in my original mass of forest. I paint some branches with a small round brush. I wipe out a couple of trunk indications with a towel. I blend with man’s first painting tool – my fingers, and I scrape some branches with the back of my brush and my fingernails (also some scraping in the foreground). I add some greens, which really make that warm forest pop.

Step Four:

I add more darks near the forest floor. With a soft brush, I blend areas of the forest so that it doesn’t seem so frenetic. I soften the transition between the forest and the foreground. The mass now has a more cohesive quality.

Step Five:

I add a small bush in the lower left, as a counterpoint to my main tree character in the upper right.

Step Six:

I further define the small bush, and then I finish off my main tree. It’s that one, old sentinel that not only provides a focal point for the painting, but give definition to the entire forest mass. Also note, that the foreground remained pretty much unchanged from the initial block-in.

One other note: The sky holes, where you can see light coming through the trees, are rarely of equal value. Smaller sky holes allow less light to pass – ergo; they will be a darker value than larger sky holes.

Life is short. Don’t over-complicate it. Think of your forests as masses with a particular shape, value and silhouette. Let your subconscious do some of the work. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Happy Painting!