Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial
Watercolor Sketching Tutorial

by Jennifer Branch
YouTube Watercolor Painting Tutorial

A very quick sketch of the salt marsh is a perfect way to make a lasting memory of a camping trip with my boys.

This sketch is a condensation of the photo and the video of the location. I'm capturing the idea of the scene, working out pigments and brush strokes. I'm not worried about exact tree locations, but moving them where they work in my painting. However, I am looking at the actual trees, not idealizations in my head. Sketching is all about observing what's around you (with some artistic license)!

Jennifer Branch sketching a salt marsh.

My watercolor painting set up for all day sketching. This photo was taken as I was packing up after an hour sketching so it's missing my umbrella. Photo by my son Owen Luallen.

I usually paint 2 or 3 sketches when I set up in a beautiful location like this. I also have a clip-on umbrella I use on hot days (over 100' F this day!). I can stuff everything in and on my backpack except my folding chair, which is a luxury since I'm within earshot of my campsite. The chair also functions as a dog leash tie - until I get up!

I usually wear a huge hat and long sleeve linen shirt when painting outside since I have very pale skin. The umbrella addition is for my painting!

My oldest boy is taking a nap in a hammock. My youngest, you will see hiking around my painting spot, being an explorer. It's the perfect time to take an hour to paint!

This sketch took about 20 minutes to paint, with no extra drying time needed.

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting tutorial

Sketching Tutorial Level


Skill Building


Mixing Greens

Art Supplies

9" x 12"
Saunders Waterford Rough Press

Isabey Pointed Round Sable, no.8
Isabey Mop, no.6
Isabey Rigger, no.1


M. Graham watercolors

Azo Yellow
Nickel Azo Yellow
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Quinacridone Rust

Painting Demonstration 1

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting Lesson 1

A squirrel mop brush makes a quick, loose sky easy. The sky is very simple and reflected in the dash of cobalt blue water.

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Reference Photo
Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Reference Photo

Painting Demonstration 2

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting Lesson 2

It's so hot that everything dries fast. I don't need to wait for the drying time so my sky doesn't turn green.

I'm using a mix of viridian, azo yellow and nickel azo yellow for the greens. I will also add touches of ultramarine blue and cobalt blue.

Painting Demonstration 3

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Painting Tutorial 3

I'm still working very quickly since paint dries fast out here. Dry brush really gives the perfect texture on the rough press paper. I leave many highlights of white paper to feel like the glaring sun.

I begin with just palmetto frond silhouettes. The silhouette is enough to tell you it's a palm tree. That's all you need to have.

Artist Tips

Keep your strokes very loose when sketching.
Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial watercolor painting tutorial by Jennifer Branch

Painting Demonstration 4

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Painting Tutorial 4

There are so many varying shades of greens in this scene. I'm simplifying but I still have a dozen shades and as many textures in this quick sketch.

The palm trees are a bright, reflective green in the sun, but change to deep brown blue in the shadows. They are strong, bold silhouettes.

There's some myrtle, which has small, shiny leaves and fuzzes a bit at the edges. Not a very strong shape unless I got closer.

The cedar is a very strong shape, but indistinct fuzz of leaves. A few layers of texture, and I leave it at that since it's not the central focus of the painting. I could easily make it the focus on another painting!

Dripping airy strands of grey green Spanish moss soften the live oak silhouette. Spanish moss completely changes color depending on season, recent rain or light play. Very interesting to paint!

Painting Demonstration 5

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Painting Tutorial 5

I add just a bit of detail to the palm and cypress. I'm trying to add just enough so they're recognizable, but not so much they're distracting. So difficult to simplify!

I keep the horizon line of distant land and marsh very dry brush so they shimmer in the heat.

Painting Demonstration 6

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting Tutorial 6

More deep greens in this layer direct the viewer's eyes where I want them to go. I remove interest from areas by lessening contrast. I add a bit more texture and in areas I want interest.

Keep the contrast at the edges of the live oak tree low.

Painting Demonstration 7

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting Tutorial 7

Even more direction in this layer. I continue darkening the cedar tree so it acts as a bold shape framing my center of interest.

Salt Marsh Sketch Tutorial Watercolor Painting tutorial

Final Watercolor Sketch!

I hope you learned as much as I did on this fun little sketch! Some of my favorite things to do in the world are sketching and hiking. Except for standing instead of sitting, this is an easy sketching setup for hiking a few miles. More than that and I scale down a bit more.

This painting is all about the texture and color variation of greens. Painting greens is hard.

Greens are usually the most difficult colors to paint for most artists. There is a reason you'll see more sweeping marsh views or long fields in green than underbrush and forest. Green forests, with their many layers of similar colors, are serenely beautiful, but so difficult to paint. You won't see many excellent paintings inside forests, temperate or tropical. It's easier to focus on a few leaves inside that forest.

That's one reason I sketch underbrush and trees every chance I get. I'm fascinated by the play of light and shadows and the slight variations of color that add up to so much.

Try sketching a forest near you this weekend. If you can throw in a distant vista, like the salt marsh in the distance, it gives a bit of scale and depth to your painting.

You can learn so much from sketching in a forest, whether temperate or tropical.

Happy Painting! Jennifer Branch

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