I used to think of all evergreen trees vaguely as “pine trees,” but since getting more into plants, and since starting to observe and paint them, I’ve come to realize how different they are!
You don’t need to have specific species in mind when you paint trees, but I think specificity is helpful even when you’re painting loose. Specific observations can create a sense of place even with simple shapes.
I thought I would take a look at some different types of evergreen trees in my natural environment, in the Northeast United States, and how to simplify them for loose watercolor.
Eastern White Pine: Perpendicular Lines & Blobs
The Eastern White Pine is the most common pine where I live, in the Northeast USA. It has distinct, straight branches in layers perpendicular from the trunk, and blobby clusters of needles along those lines. Perhaps a slight swoop up at the end of some of the branches.
How I painted this: First I painted the trunk, then I painted perpendicular branches. Along the branches, I painted blobs.
Balsam Fir: Diagonal Lines and “V”s
Branches point diagonally up from the trunk, and twigs and cones point diagonally up from the branches. Distinctive for its overall classic triangle shape with branches that go all the way (or nearly all the way) to the ground and keep getting bigger toward the bottom of tree. There is a single “leader” line at the top of the tree.
How I painted this: A series of diagonal lines at about 30 degree angles moving from outside in, down toward the trunk.
Northern White Cedar: Dots
Branches are perpendicular or slightly point up; close along the branches, there are small, scaly leaves/needles which resemble clusters of dots. There may be more dots toward the outside/further from the trunk. Branches get larger toward the bottom, then smaller again, with small leafless twigs down to the bottom of the trunk.
Keeping in mind a variety of tree shapes -whether you know them by the tree names or the painting techniques – can help you create forests with variety and visual interest, and lend a sense of specificity to your scenes that will enhance the realism. That magical ability to evoke realism with simple shapes is one of the magic tricks that I find so entrancing about watercolor!
What kinds of trees do you have in your area? Do you have favorite techniques for painting them?