How to paint watercolor trees- the complete guide

Watercolor trees! If you’re struggling to paint trees with watercolor, then you’re not alone. This is something that many people, including myself, struggled with.

In this post, you’ll learn how you can approach this topic and of course, different techniques you can use to paint trees.

I’ve tried to include many different types of tree tutorials you may need: Autumn, summer, spring, winter trees, trees in the distance and misty trees.

Lets get started!

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Basics – How to approach this subject

Let’s start with how you can approach painting trees. There are so many different kinds of trees when painting a landscape that it can get confusing.

Therefore it helps to have a general guide or process to follow. I have broken down the process into these three simple steps:

  1. Basic shapes- When painting anything, it’s always good to simplify subject by breaking it down. You can start by noting the big shapes then the smaller shapes, saving the details for later.
  2. Values- Note down where the lightest, darkest and mid values are; this will give your tree the depth and dimension that it needs.
  3. Techniques-What techniques can you use to achieve the desired effect? For example, if your trees are farther away you’ll want to paint a loose version to avoid too much detail. So you can use the wet in wet technique. If the tree is closer to the viewer and needs to be more detailed you can use the dry brush technique. More on this later…

Pencil sketches, before you begin painting your trees in watercolor I would recommend making a few tree sketches in pencil.

Pencil sketches are important because they allow you to put your observations onto a piece of paper.

They also encourage you to explore different ideas and shape your final painting without the stress of mixing color.

watercolor tree study for watercolor trees

Techniques used

Now that we’ve covered shapes and values, its time to get out your paints and decide what techniques you can use.

Below I have named a range of techniques, you can choose to use one or more per painting. However, you don’t have to include every single one. I recommend practicing with each and deciding which you prefer the most.

  1. Dry brush This technique is where you hold the brush on its side with your thumb and forefinger and drag the side
  2. Dragging– Using a pointy tool such as a sharpened stick or a folded paperclip to drag out tree branches.
  3. Splattering– Splattering paint onto the tree painting to create little dots (this can be used after the first wash is applied.)
  4. Sponge– Applying paint using a sponge, you can create texture with this technique.
  5. Spraying– Using a spray bottle and spraying the paper so that the paint bleeds creating a fuzzy effect (foggy trees or trees in mist)
  6. Wet in wet- adding a wet paint onto already wet paper or before the first wash has begun to dry.
  7. Lifting– Using a damp brush or paper towel to lift some parts of the wash can create beautiful rough textures
  8. Wax resist/Masking fluid/Oil pastel- You can use these three tools to leave some areas white. Particularly useful when painting snow on winter trees.

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Watercolor trees- Step by step tutorial

Painting branches

Technique- dragging

For this technique you’ll need a pointy tool. You can sharpen your paint brush if it has a wooden handle, I prefer not to do this so instead you can use a stick from your garden and sharpen it with a knife or a folded paper clip.

Watercolor tools for dragging technique

Start by painting the main trunk using your brush, then using your stick or paper clip drag out the branches. Make sure not to apply too much pressure otherwise you’ll create unwanted scratch marks. Finally you can use a number 2 brush or a rigger to finish adding smaller branches.

How to paint the tree trunk step 1

Notice in the painting below how some of the branches are facing downwards, this gives the impression of the branches sticking out towards the viewer or behind the tree.

How to paint tree branches step 2

Summer and autumn trees

Colors used:

  • light green: lemon yellow + touch of prussian blue
  • Dark green: Gamboge + prussian blue+ touch of burnt sienna
  • brunt umber + paynes grey for the trunk

Summer- Here I’ll be using the dragging, sponge and splattering technique

Using a sponge is similar to using a brush, If the sponge is almost dry, you’ll create dry textures. If it is completely soaked it will create more of a loose watery wash. In this case you want it to be inbetween. What I did here is I dipped the sponge a quarter of the way in clean water before soaking up paint from the palette.

First step– Dip the sponge into clear water then squeeze out the excess, next soak up light green paint mixture and dab onto the paper like so, try to leave a few open spaces between the foliage:

How to paint a watercolor tree step 1

Second step– Next using the dry brush technique add in some darker textures. Make sure your brush is damp by dabbing out the excess water on a paper towel Hold the brush on its side with your index finger and thumb and paint with the belly of the brush as shown in the image below:

How to paint a watercolor tree step 2- painting the tree details

3rd step- After the paint has completely dried it’s time for some splattering. Make sure to cover surrounding areas with paper towel then splatter light and dark greens with your brush as shown below. You can try practicing on a scrap piece of paper first.

How to paint a watercolor tree step 3

4th step- Finally it’s time to paint the tree trunk. Start by painting the trunk, then using a stick or paperclip, drag out the branches. Remember to press gently otherwise you’ll scratch the paper. Remember you can always load the trunk with more paint then keep dragging.

How to paint a watercolor tree step 4

Final result: You can see how leaving some open spaces gave my tree more depth.

Summer tree painted with watercolor final result

Here’s another painting I made using the same techniques. I prefer the one below because the trunk isn’t too big like the first one.

Autumn step by step- Painting an autumn tree will be fairly similar to painting a summer tree with the colors being the main difference.

This time I decided to use the dry brush technique instead of a sponge then continue with splattering and dragging.

Step 1– Start with the dry brush technique, make sure to leave some open spaces between the foliage. Try to focus the light orange where the direction of light is coming from

Adjust your mixture to a slightly darker orange and start dry brushing the middle and bottom part of the tree.

step by step process of watercolor autumn tree

Adding some burnt sienna to your mixture, paint in the dark areas. Remember to leave some open spaces.

Finish off by painting the trunk then dragging out the smaller branches using a paperclip or garden stick.

Splattering is optional, I like the overall vibe that it brings to the painting so I go ahead and add it. You can choose to leave it out if you wish.

watercolor autumn tree painting

Loose summer and autumn trees

It’s always a good idea to practice a few loose versions of trees that you can add in the backgrounds of your paintings. Or perhaps you prefer painting in a loose style from time to time. Here we’re going to use the wet in wet technique, the splattering technique and finally the dragging technique for the branches.

Summer tree-

Colors used:

  • Lemon yellow + prussian blue: I adjusted the mixture depending on how dark or light I wanted the green to be.
  • Burnt umber+ touch of indigo or prussian blue: to paint the trunk.

Once again, you can use any color you prefer so long as the values remain the same.

To paint a loose watercolor tree, start by painting a first light green wash then, using the wet in wet technique you can add in the medium and darker values. Let it dry, continue by covering the surrounding areas with a paper towel then using your brush, splatter small dots of light green and dark green. Finally, you can paint the trunk then drag out the smaller branches.

diagram of how to paint a loose watercolor tree.
diagram part two of how to paint a loose watercolor tree

Below you can see the final result:

loose summer tree with watercolors


Colors used

  • gamboge + pyrrol scarlet (I adjusted the mixture depending on the lightness and darkness)
  • Brunt Umber+ prussian blue for the tree trunk

Similarly to a summer tree you can paint a loose autumn tree using the same technique but with different colors. Here you can begin with a very light orange wash and using the wet in wet technique add in the medium and dark values. After it dries you can cover the surrounding areas with a paper towel the splatter dark red and light orange. Careful not to get carried away. Finally you can paint the trunk and branches using the dragging technique.

diagram of how to paint a loose autumn tree step 1.
diagram of how to paint a loose watercolor autumn tree step two

Spring tree

In most cases I prefer to start with the foliage then move on to painting the branches. However, it depends on how dense the foliage, for the spring trees I decided to pant the trunk first. Only because there were fewer leaves. Here’s how its done:

In order to paint a watercolor spring tree, start by painting the trunk and the connecting branches. While the paint is still wet use a folded paper towel and lift some of the paint off. This should result in an uneven look, some branches lighter and some darker. After the trunk dries paint in the foliage using the dry brush technique.

Spring tree diagram,

After the paint had dried I used Lemon yellow to paint the foliage, then added yellow ochre for a slightly darker tone.

how to paint a spring tree with watercolors step 2

Finally I thought it would look more lively if I added a few flowers with rose madder:

how to paint a spring watercolor tree step 3

In the image below you can see the final result. To the right you’ll see another example where I used the same techniques. However, instead of adding flowers I splattered some green paint.

Watercolor spring tree

Winter trees

Winter trees are a lot more straight forward than you might think, I decided to use cooler colors to fit the cold atmosphere:

Colors used:

  • Prussian blue + lemon yellow(a touch) + Burnt sienna = dark bluish-green gray color
  • cobalt blue + burnt sienna = light grey for background trees
  • Viridian (for 2nd winter tree)

I used an oil pastel because I didn’t have masking fluid or wax on hand, however you can still use masking fluid if you soften the edges afterwards. If you are using an oil pastel make sure it’s white. You can also try these 8 alternatives to masking fluid for more options.

When painting winter trees in the distance, using a light grayish color will do the trick. You can see this in the pictures below:

To paint a loose version of a winter tree start with the first layer, use a muted greyish blue color . With a paper towel lift off some of the areas to create texture.

Next add a blue green layer on top to finish off the painting:

Tree’s in the mist/fog

Techniques used: Spraying, wet in wet, splattering

Colors used:

  • Lemon yellow+ Prussian blue+Burnt sienna= grayish green (For misty foliage)
  • cobalt blue+ burnt sienna= light gray for the trunk

Painting foggy or misty trees can be tricky before you get the hang of it, I would recommend practicing these techniques until you feel satisfied with the out come.

To get started, don’t pre-wet the paper with clear water. Instead begin with the light color as always and while it’s still wet add your other values (wet in wet). Before the first layer has dried, splatter tiny spots of clean water.

This time use a grayish color to paint the trunk. Remember when it’s fogging, the colors in the surroundings tend to be more grayish.

A different way to paint a misty tree is by first spraying the page with clean water first then painting in the foliage and allowing the paint to bleed, thus creating a fuzzy foggy effect.

Another tip you can try is to cover the area where the tree trunk is going to be while spraying the water in the beginning. This way you can prevent the trunk from looking too fuzzy.

You can also paint misty trees in the distance. Begin by painting the top half, then painting a wash across the bottom half and allowing the paint to bleed. You can see this being demonstrated in the diagrams below:

There you have it! Three ways to paint foggy or misty trees with watercolor, here are the final results:

Watercolor trees in the distance

As always the further away something is the less detailed it’s going to be, this is how depth can be created in a painting. (you can read more about that in my guide by signing up below). The trick is to paint the general shapes to get the impression of trees.

Instead of painting a long line of green there are ways you can make the foliage appear more interesting by creating variations. In the demonstration below I tried to include multiple techniques for one painting, however you don’t have to apply them all yourself. It depends on what you are painting.

To begin with I used the wet in wet technique and painted the over all shape:

To include more texture I used a paper towel to lift off some areas:

Now it’s time to add more definition. I used the dry brush technique to paint foliage of the taller trees sticking out then painted the branches. There are two ways to add the branches, you can drag out the green paint before it dries or you can wait for it to dry then paint brown trunks.

Finally I added some splattering to create more texture.

Thats it for this post on watercolor trees! I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, if you did make sure to subscribe to my email list and receive my free watercolor packages for beginners.

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