Trees have always been a bit of a struggle for me to paint. Once I realized, through experimenting and looking enough, that a tree is recognizable with just a simple shape against the sky, then adding a little definition here and there is all thats needed in many cases. That's a simplification, of course, but its a good way to start and it works for most subjects- block-in the largest middle tone masses first, either opaquely or with solid washes- then reffine as you go. I usually start with shadows and then finish with highlights, then refine if needed overall.
Hair, fur, and other soft objects that are made up of multiple strands that form a shape from a short distance- all have the same soft look. Like leaves on a tree- they combine to form a difused edge, or softer focus plane. Our eyes only discern this when we focus in on individual leaves, but as a whole or in mass, they look soft and diffused. Also, the light is hitting all the leaves at different angles, so, from a distance, we see diffused reflections or highlights that further suggest an overall edge that is not at all hard or sharp.
In this piece, you will see how the softer focus masses quickly become the base for a few harder or sharper defining leaves or bushes. I simply paint as we see in nature- out of focus- with a few sharper areas in sharper focus. Think this way and its easier to break down most forms into a simplified, even more artistic interpretation.
Beginning of the block-in of middletone masses
I begin by doing a very loose pencil sketch, just a few outlines that indicate the oveall feeling and weight of the tree, the bushes and rocks. I know I will correct this as I work out the tree's perspective with the paint, so there is no sense in spending too much time on a refined drawing- I draw as I paint, since I am painting opaquely.
Below, you can see the quick blockin of the middle tones, the local color (generic color associated with the subject, tree is umber, an apple is red, sky blue etc) then I simply add a few shadows to strengthen and suggest forms. I know I am going to spend some time on the limbs, refining and editing as I go. Thats fun to paint, but takes a while. I don't like painting into thin slippery washes, there is no control since there is no pull to the paint. But I know its going to be a day before I get there and so I just let it dry to form a nice middle tone base to work over opaquely.
Continuing the block-in of the middle values
Close-up of the limbs blocked in
Foreground masses blocked in with local color
Here you can see the masses blocked in and below is a close-up of the same area. This is a good method for 'plein-aire' painting as it quickly allows for a look of fresh, lively paint that suggests the subject without overworking it. But my goal here is to refine and bring more realism to the piece. I don't want to overdo it, as is often expected in Illustration, but to keep the finish looking fresh without saying that I worked hard in getting there. Its a tricky thing and gets easier with experience. I see young painters who like this look and try to emulate it but it often looks fake, because the intent is the superficial fresh look, not the real handling of bravura strokes. I am convinced this is due to poor draftsmanship and lack of confidence, and again, I would suggest to any student, no matter how developed you think you are, to continue with drawing and sketching. There's nothing wrong in knowing if your work is good, but always shoot for higher standards and you should continue to improve, even daily.
My own heroes are not the painters of today, but the illustrators and painters of the past who could really put down the paint and draw anything with a feeling of sureness and accuracy. Its only in this ablility can you achieve that feeling of confidence and that shows in every aspect of art. I know I have a long way to go and always will strive for getting better- its in that effort that the work is fun and ongoing and makes me want to see just how far I can go, technically and with my design. I feel my strength is my freehand drawing and that gives me some confidence to work toward better painting as I define what I want to paint. I have seen this with some students who come into a room and know the other students respect them- simply because they have taken the time to become better draftsmen. They are the ones that continue to show up day after day and above all they know their own limitations and their goals, like mine and most professionals I know, are to aspire to a higher level.