UART Tip #43: “Loosening up Your Trees” with Barbara Jaenicke

One of the most important skills I’ve learned that has helped me achieve a loose appearance to my paintings, specifically tree subjects, is to start with a large mass, and gradually work my way to the linear elements. A loose, drippy pastel underpainting on a mounted sanded surface can work wonders for setting up this type of approach!

Okay, so you’ve heard it a million times…SQUINT! If you want to make yourself look past the details in your subject to see those initial masses, you gotta do it!!

Following below are a few examples of different types of tree subjects, showing the alcohol wash underpainting and the finished painting.

In this first example, I formed the thick tree trunk as a connected part of the ground mass, and only the thickest tree branches. But the rest of the tree elements—all those millions of wispy branches and bits of tiny leaves—are indicated only by a lighter-value mass with very gradually faded edges. In the finished painting, I created negative spaces for only the largest openings in the mass of branches, allowing for a few crisp edges. I also created just a few very thin branches by carving out negative spaces on each side of the skinny branch, and then lastly placed in only a limited amount of rendered linear marks with a sharp corner of a hard pastel.

Since this tree subject is much fuller, this example shows a more solid tree mass in the underpainting. The outermost edges are kept loose and somewhat faded, but the interior of the mass is solid. The underpainting allows some drips to loosen edges, but not quite as much as the other examples, especially for the tree mass itself, in order to maintain the overall shape of this fuller tree mass. In the finished painting, I created the varied negative spaces by carving out the shapes with the background sky color, sometimes with a slightly darker version of the sky color to capture the effect of some foliage interruption. Notice how I allowed for some skinny sections for a couple of branches, which creates some visual variety within the overall tree mass.

The trees in this example are less “tree mass” and more “tree trunks and bits and pieces of branches and foliage.” The tendency for these types of trees is to appear very stark with a cut-out-and-pasted-on look, since they often appear this way in a reference photo. But if you look for opportunities to connect values and allow for lost-and-found edges, the trees will appear more integral with the surrounding landscape. Notice how the underpainting allows parts of the tree trunks to disappear into the some of the background shapes, and the sparse foliage is set up simply as loose extensions from each tree trunk to allow for carving out negative spaces later in the process, as you see in the finished painting. Carefully placed highlights and slightly darker shadow accents in the finished painting also further define just enough of the tree trunks to the viewer.

In this last example, the underpainting sets things up using linear shapes for only the thickest tree trunks on the right. All other smaller linear shapes are set up as masses. You can see from the finished painting that the large mass of thin, wispy “stick” branches is sunlit, so I needed to set up the underpainted foundation with the darker shadow area in place in order to lay the sunlit mass overtop. That sunlit mass was placed in atop the underpainting with light-pressure pastel application using the broad side of a soft pastel. The background shapes were then carved out of that mass. The very last details of the limited fine, delicate lines were added last.

For all these examples, it was important to first address the accuracy of value, temperature and chroma for each massed area of the painting, before moving to smaller or linear details. This keeps the painting in what I call the “mushy” stage for quite a while. It’s tempting to get into the crisp edges and finer details early on in the process, but by first addressing accuracy of the larger masses and surrounding landscape, I can maintain the loose edges, and then use a selective approach for defining details little by little in the final stages.

Also important for creating a natural look for trees in general is to establish a variety of angles, spacing and widths for tree trunks (for clusters of trees) and branches (within a tree mass).  When the trunks or branches are thick enough to set up early in the process, these variations should be addressed in that early stage.

I offer online lessons for each of these examples, as well as many other painting subjects, which show each step with multiple progression photos, and thoroughly explain the process. Each lesson also includes a personalized critique of your painting based on the lesson. Visit my instructional website at www.paintingthepoeticlandscape for details.

Barbara Jaenicke, PSA-MP, IAPS-EP, AIS, OPA