Tree research

August 19, 2020 | 4 Comments

This week in the SketchingNow Watercolour On Location course we are looking at Lesson 3: Elements and Texture. Part of this is to do some research on a few individual elements (trees, skies, water etc) and to work out our own way to do them. This is not something that we can complete in a week or so, but one of the goals for the lesson is to share with the group a process for research and development.

When I’m out on location I find it’s quite hard to successfully incorporate new ideas but really easy to go back to my old ways of doing things! Have you ever experienced this?

So over the years I’ve thought a lot about how to actually make permanent change in our work. And in Lesson 3 I share my process of research and then how I incorporate these new discoveries into my sketching in my own style.

Another really common challenge is that most of the watercolour instruction available online (eg. YouTube videos) relate to watercolour painting done at home on good 100% cotton paper. This is often very different from our sketching both in terms of setting and materials so we often have to make some adjustment to painting techniques to suit sketching.

It can also be relatively easy to sketch when we’re following a demo, but it’s much harder to get results on our own with a different subject matter. This is because we are not only copying technique when we follow an instruction demo, we’re also copying someone else’s interpretation. So another challenge is learning to see and simplify in new ways!


This week I wanted to do some research on sketching trees in ink and wash. As most of the instructional material easily found online is of watercolour painting demonstrations I looked through the work of some of my Urban Sketching friends. I was looking for some more illustration style work and ended up being inspired by some of my Spanish friends. I also referred to a great Landscape Graphics book that I’ve had since my days of working as an architect.

I spent a little time copying and/or recording some different ideas  – the main goal is not just copying, but coming up with new ideas that I can use in my work. For example: what would happen if I tried to use Maru‘s lovely round gouache shapes in watercolour, or what happens if I add texture with pencil over the top of watercolour washes as Santi does?

Note: I have intentionally kept this image low res as I just want to give you an idea of what my research pages look like.



I then tried to incorporate some of the ideas in my own work –  modifying my usual way of sketching trees to see if the new concepts made a difference.



And then it was time to go out on location and see if I could do it on my own. I was happy with the result – success!

New ideas

I share much more about sketching trees inside the course but here are three tips from this week’s research:

  • start with the canopy and paint a fairly solid light green interesting shape (I normally start with the trunk and do a more textured shape)
  • add lines next (broken lines for the top of the canopy) and drawing trunks/branches from top to bottom
  • add as much texture as I like when adding the mid and dark values.

Note: None of these ideas are actually new for me … but sometimes our research reminds us of concepts and helps us put them together in a new way.

I also have a lot more details inside the Watercolour On Location course of how I go about this research process – in particular during the livestream which I hosted last night. For those of you who have enrolled in the course at some stage, it was Livestream 6 inside Lesson 3. Also just reminding you that there are still 6 more weeks of livestreams which you can join – whether you’re working through the course at the moment or not!

And if you are interested in joining in, you can sign up for Watercolour On Location now and be part of these livestreams.

Oh! I’m so pumped after my R&D this week. The group last night requested a number of elements for me to work on in the coming week…so I’d better get cracking!



  • Kate Powell says:

    This post cracked me up! I can spot an architect always from the trees! How is it we all do the same trees?

  • Charlotte DeVore says:

    Hi Liz,
    I am impressed with the loose style with trees in your landscapes. I recognize the sap green color but what do you use to make the darker green color in the tree not the church sketch? Do you neutralize sap? Thanks so much

    • Liz Steel says:

      Thanks Charlotte – yes I’m using DS Sap Green as the base colour – I just add DS Hansa Yellow Medium or SCH French Ultramarine to it. Sometime I add some transparent red oxide if I need to neutralise it, but generally I use fairly bright greens.

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