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Sketching Trees


The type of sketch I do depends completely on my purpose for sketching that day, more than the subject. Here are two quick tree sketches I had completely different reasons for sketching.

Sourwood tree watercolor sketch
Quick Sourwood tree watercolor sketch in my Pentalic sketchbook.

Most of the time my journal sketches take about 15 minutes, tops. Since I like to paint about 3 washes, layering, slowly sketching for 15 minutes is about the minimum time needed for me to do a sketch. If it's very humid (almost all summer in the South), I'll do my last layer with ink. Otherwise it would take an hour or two for a sketch. If I have an hour or two, I want to paint a real painting!

This sourwood tree lives in my front yard. It has the most amazing twists and turns, doubling back on itself and looping around. It's an almost impossible tree to paint, so I have a go at sketching it pretty often!

I usually try to reproduce the twists precisely. This is a much looser sketch than normal - and I think it turned out a lot better than my usual sourwood sketches too!

How well that transfers to a painting, I don't know. I think I'll keep sketching it for a while.

It's so much easier to paint a subject without a background than an isolated subject, but skipping the background is like telling only half a story. It's great for a glance, but it's not a full story. The story includes the blue sky, the trees around it and the roots twisting into the steep bank.

I plan to eventually paint four seasons worth of the tree for a series. Sourwoods are wonderfully twisty in the winter, bright green leaves in the spring, gorgeous sweet smelling sprays of white flowers in the summer (makes yummy honey too), and bright red in the fall. Well worth a series when I've figured it out!

So this sketch is for planning a painting, getting the mood of the tree in late spring.

Red Oak Sketch

Red Oak Watercolor Sketch in Pentalic Sketchbook

This red oak sketch is very different. I can see this red oak tree from my deck. Birds and squirrels roam all over it, using it as a base for watching us sitting on the deck, I think.

I've always loved the loose nature study sketching style and I'm considering devoting a whole journal to just studies of woodpeckers in my yard since I've identified at least 12 different types just sitting on my deck. Don't you love those types of journals?

The nature journal type of sketch is great for improving observation of the subject. However, except for accuracy, it doesn't really do much to improve paintings of that subject. Still well worth doing, but a totally different purpose than a sketch to plan paintings.

Value Study for a Painting of a Cathedral

There are so many types of sketches to explore. Painting subject studies (like this sourwood sketch), nature studies (like this red oak sketch), value studies, sketches planning paintings. I've always particularly loved (but rarely done) the travel adventure type of sketch. Hmm, next trip? I love them all!

Whether you are sketching an isolated subject or planning a painting, always remember a isolated subject centered in the page surrounded by white space usually looks unbalanced. Even a little scribble of a sketch always looks better if you plan the composition a bit and have all the elements connected and balanced.

So the next time you start sketching, think about what the purpose of this sketch might be. Do you just want to remember a lovely cup of coffee? A beautiful walk in the woods? Maybe an exciting trip and what to do again next time you visit? Or maybe carefully planning your best painting yet?

Whatever you decide to sketch, have fun and remember it's only paint and paper. Sketch away!

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