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Treetops Against the Sky
Watercolor Sketching Tutorial

by Jennifer Branch
I love afternoon sketching! Lately, the weather has been freezing but the sky is bright blue and a wonderful contrast. Afternoon light starts early this time of year, with faint oranges tinging the trees from 3:00 on. It is a perfect time for a tree sketch!

I had about 15 minutes for this sketch. Sometimes at the end of the day, I'm exhausted and just don't feel like painting. But if I take just a few minutes and ignore everything else I have to do just steal a little time for a sketch, I always come back refreshed. Everything looks more beautiful and the joy of life is back!
Treetops Against the Sky Watercolor Painting tutorial

Sketching Tutorial Level


Skill Building



Art Supplies

5" x 8"
Pentalic Aqua Journal


M. Graham watercolors

Azo Yellow
Quinacridone Red
Quinacridone Gold
Pthalo Green
Pthalo Blue
Cobalt Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Burnt Sienna

Painting Demonstration 1

Treetops Against the Sky Watercolor Painting Lesson 1

Notice the photo has practically no warm colors, but just looks faded. The white glaring highlights of midday are gone, shadows are softer, but the photo really doesn't show much of any of that. It just looks faded. That's why we sketch in real life when we can!

Painting Demonstration 2

Treetops Against the Sky Watercolor Painting Lesson 2

Start with a very light pencil tree sketch. Focus on just a few trees. I sketch the big oak on the left and the huge tulip poplar on the right. I just lightly block in where the pines are. They're background, not the main subject.

Painting Demonstration 3

Treetops Against the Sky Painting Tutorial 3

I start with quinacridone gold on all the trees. I'm not worried about preserving whites much since the strong whites of midday are gone. But I don't want yellow in my underpainting since that would make the blue sky green, not a vivid blue. I want the gold to glow under the shadows on the trees. It's really the color tying this painting together!

Artist's Tips

Keep your brush very loose at first.

Don't feel like you have to cover the paper - leave lots of white space!

Painting Demonstration 4

Treetops Against the Sky Painting Tutorial 4

The gold dries quickly not so much the bright sunlight as the brisk wind! Brrr... I paint the sky blue. I use cobalt blue and a little dash of pthalo blue. Remember that pthalo blue is a strong pigment that you just need a touch of to change the color. I paint around a lot of the gold trees. I don't want them green either!

Painting Demonstration 5

Treetops Against the Sky Painting Tutorial 5

After the blues have dried a minute, I start adding shaping my subjects. Faded greens from quinacridone gold and cobalt blue in the pine tree background. I don't want the bright like midday, I want faded brownish greens. Cobalt is rather a chalky blue so it fades rather than brightens colors.

I start some purples (cobalt, quinacridone red and burnt sienna) on the tree shadows. I scuffle around with drybrush to get the rough bark texture.

Painting Demonstration 6

Treetops Against the Sky Watercolor Painting Tutorial 6

I pull out my rigger after the big trees are started. I'm just dashing tall trees in with purple and gold. Not much variations in color, but the colors mix together in interesting new combinations. I do leave some whites, but not too many. Layers of purples and golds start creating a forest, especially with the pines.

Treetops Against the Sky Watercolor Painting tutorial

Final Watercolor Sketch!

And here's my final tree sketch after it's dry. Lots of texture was created with rigger drybrush. Twiggy little bits are everywhere, disappearing into the background and appearing. A very few strong darks make the orange light bolder.

Whenever you have 15 minutes, take your sketchbook outside and play! Sometimes the results will be brilliant; sometimes just OK. But you'll learn something new every time. You'll see the world a little clearer and appreciate life just a little bit more.

I sketched this tree sketch at the end of a long day. My hands were red with cold at the end of this sketch (just 40' F, but I'm from the South). But I saw the trees outside my front door a little bit better. I appreciated their tall strength, their rough bark and the way they twist like muscles under skin a little bit more. And I felt energy returning to me after this simple little sketch.

So add a little joy in your life by stealing 15 minutes for a sketch today!
Happy Painting! Jennifer Branch

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