Thursday, June 14, 2012

Painting Birch Trees lesson by Betsy Bear

Betsy Bear - Bear Paw Studio
Watercolor Workshops
June 9,  2012
Painting Birch Trees - Watercolor Workshop

Our workshop goal was to learn some basics about watercolor paints, papers, brushes, and materials, and a few techniques,  then begin a painting of birch trees.  This group of four wonderful ladies decided to use the watercolor painting below as a guide.  
I will step you though the process we used in the workshop so you can use this as a guide, if you choose.  I will also post a more in-depth tutorial on painting birch trees in a separate posting soon, so please check back for that, too.

©Betsy Bear 2008

Below is an excerpt from my workshop handout on materials.   Knowing your materials well will improve your painting success, and the best way to learn your materials is to dive right in and try a wide variety of papers, brushes, and paints for yourself to see what works for you.  Hopefully, this information can give some guidance in getting started.


©by Betsy Bear 2012

PAPER:   Quality matters!  The best papers are acid free, buffered, 100% cotton rag,  as opposed to pH neutral, high alpha cellulose" or wood pulp papers.  Arches, Fabriano Uno, Lanaquarelle, Kilimanjaro are excellent brands.  Canson has several lines of mid to less expensive paper.  Student-grade papers made by Strathmore, Daler-Rowney, Canson, etc. are suitable for practice, but always use the best paper you can afford.  With watercolor, you never know when a happy accident will occur, and you’ll want your masterpiece to look its best and last for years!
Paper Weights 
90 lb - light weight, buckles more, good for dryer techniques
140 lb - medium weight, some buckling, good for most painting techniques
300 lb -  heavy, stiff, textured, resists buckling
Paper Texture:  
Hot press - smooth surface, less absorbent, good for fine details, less forgiving
Cold press - slightly textured surface, good for most techniques
Rough - heavy texture, more absorbent, smoothest washes
BRUSHES for watercolor are generally short handle, and made of natural hair, synthetic material such as nylon, or a combination of the two.  The ideal brush will hold an incredible amount of water in the hairs, which should be flexible but snap back easily to their original shape after bending. Start with less expensive nylon or combination brushes instead of the more expensive natural hair brushes, and try a variety of brush types before shelling out $100. for a pure Kolinsky sable brush.  Some of the cheapest brushes can perform very well, and there are many to choose from.  Find the ones that work best for you.
PAINTS come with enticing names, and the array of types and colors can be overwhelming.   Entire books are devoted to analyzing the relative transparency, granulation, and staining qualities of watercolor pigments.  It’s like buying food:  more money usually equals better quality.  The most expensive, “artist quality” paint means fewer fillers and more pigment, resulting in more brilliant, lasting color.  A good way to start is to buy one artist grade 15 ml tube of cadmium red, Azo yellow, and Ultramarine blue.  Add more as you can afford, but in the meantime you can mix many beautiful colors from the three primary colors.  Artist grade paint brands include Winsor-Newton, M.Graham, Holbein, Daniel-Smith, some, and some student grade paints are Cotman (made by Winsor-Newton), Grumbacher Academy, Van-Gogh, Reeves.
PALETTE  A large, white china plate, enamel tray, or sectioned plastic bin with lid will all work well.  The important thing is to have plenty of room for mixing big amounts of juicy paint in the middle.  A water container or two (quart yogurt containers work well), an old cloth towel, paper towels, a box of tissue, and a sponge will also come in handy.

Now, back to the painting!
After covering materials and practicing a few wash and mixing techniques, we took a short break for a lunch of soup, salad, and bread before heading back to the studio.  Starving artists are not allowed in my studio.

Janis, Robin, Patty, Connie

The demo begins, with Betsy showing how to do negative painting and reminding everyone to use juicy mixtures of pigment to create those lovely, soft backgrounds.  We aren't using any masking fluid or tape on these tree trunks, so the trick is to carefully paint around each trunk shape with background colors, changing shades often, softening edges, leaving areas of white, and encouraging colors to mingle and blend.

Connie watches as Betsy does some negative painting.

First draw on a few simple trunk shapes, varying angles, size, shape, and space between the trunks.  Use the photo reference or a stand of real birch trees as a guide, or use your visual memory.  Keep it simple, and don't draw in any of the smaller branches or background details.

Patty drawing on the trunks before painting.

Paint a few of the background (negative) areas with clear water and let the water soak in for a few seconds or minutes, depending on the humidity and drying speed in your area.

Connie paints the background with clear water before adding pigment.

When there is only a damp sheen on the paper and no puddles of water,  drop or lightly brush in the pigment.  

Janis starts her negative background painting.

Be sure to change color often, and vary the strength of the pigment from pale to more intense to show depth of field.  A large area painted in a single shade will appear flat and two-dimensional.

Robin is varying the strength of her pigments, creating depth of field.

For tree trunks, start by painting the shaded side of the trunk with clear water.  Then lightly brush in irregular shapes in the wet area using a variety of warmer colors: rose, rust, brown; then add a few purples and cool blues to show contrast in the shadow areas.  Be sure to alternate between colors and leave a bit of white, too.   After it dries, use some dry brush technique to add the bark texture. The opposite side of the tree should be left mostly white.

Details have been added to the shaded side of trunks.

The final step is to add darker brown branches and darken some of the background if needed, to show good contrast between the back and foregrounds.  The focal area should usually have the darkest darks and lightest lights.  

Branches added and background darkened at focal point.

Our time ran out without finishing our paintings, but we took pictures of the remarkable progress everyone made during the workshop.  

Remember -- These are not finished paintings--but they are all excellent beginnings!

Thanks for tuning in and looking at our painting progress.  Good luck with your painting, and stay tuned for more tutorials on painting birch trees!


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