Paint Trees Like an Impressionist

To answer a student's question about painting trees I decided to research the Impressionists and apply their approach to a painting demonstration.

Painting trees is my constant source of joy and torment. I am paraphrasing Claude Monet slightly as he was referring to color when he said that. But Monet may well have included trees in his list of joys and torments. Trees are so varied that painting them is much like painting portraits. Always different.

In this article I answered a question from one of my students. She was faced with a bunch of spindly pine trees along a lake or river. These trees reminded me of similar subjects in Impressionist paintings. Sure enough there are many examples of spindly or atmospheric looking trees among their works.

Lessons from the Impressionists

I singled out Claude Monet and spent time looking through various books with examples of his works.

Boulevard de Capucines by Claude Monet
Boulevard des Capucines is an oil on canvas street scene painting of the famous Paris boulevard by French Impressionist artist Claude Monet created in 1873.

In Monet's painting of Boulevard de Capucines you can examples of these kind of trees. Monet does not attempt to paint leaves and twigs. The last thing he wants is a bunch of silhouetted lines looking tight and hard. Instead he suggests all of that fussy detail with a few loose strokes of the brush. 

The bulk of the trees are soft edged, scrubbed shapes of blues, violets and warm grays. It is the atmosphere enveloping the trees that Monet observed and painted. Monet was not illustrating a gardening book. He was painting a moment in life.

Poplars by Claude Monet
Poplars painted by Claude Monet

In this painting of poplars Monet has used blue and violet once again to soften edges. These colors also mimic the optical illusion we see around the edges of trees or through sky holes in trees. Particularly when the trees are some distance away and the effects of atmosphere are most apparent.

Most artists will ignore this phenomenon, but Monet understood that to get a true impression of the scene he had to use color and brushwork to create his work. Notice how all of those cool shadow colors create a shimmering sense of wholeness to the trees.

The Painting Demonstration

With these lessons in mind I set about painting the scene. You can see the full demonstration in the video below. The main idea was to avoid a hard clump of shapes. Also to avoid painting leaves and twigs. Suggest details, do not paint them. Then to use blue and violet as shadow colors to create warm and cool harmonies of color.

It is not easy, especially on a small canvas, but try this approach and you will quickly learn how to use warm and cool colors together to achieve a lovely atmospheric painting.

Watch the demo below and let me have your comments or questions too.

Happy painting!

Categories: Painting Tips