This is a lesson for complete beginners.
You need just one brush and one color.
And no drawing is required.
Below is a downloadable checklist of the materials you need.
In this lesson we will mostly focus upon:
How to paint hard and soft edges and you will see why they are important
But you’ll also learn:
How to paint a misty mountain.
How to paint a good fir tree.
How to paint convincing shadows.
And how to stop your objects looking like they are floating around.
You’ll also get 4 downloadable images of different shaped fir trees that you can print and use as a reference guide at the bottom.
And a downloadable image of the scene we will paint that you can print and use as a reference.
Before we start though, perhaps we should ask, why paint a snow scene?
In short, my answer is because they look really beautiful. They are also one of the easiest watercolor scenes to paint. And they make for lovely Christmas cards.
Let’s begin painting!
1 Let’s paint a mountain rising up out of the mist.
To paint this mountain we need to understand about edges.
Edges are so important in painting because if all your edges are hard then your painting will be boring. So it is important to have a mix of hard and some soft edges.
If you look at the misty mountain in the picture above you can see that the top of the mountain is hard and the bottom is soft.
I achieved this by painting wet on dry (that is putting paint directly on dry paper) and then I rinsed my brush, wiped it on the rag to remove excess water and then painted underneath the blue wet paint of the mountain – this creates that beautiful soft, misty effect.
2 The hill of fir trees
I used the same technique with the mountain on the hill of fir trees.
The important point here is to draw the ridge line as simply a line and then to go over the line again in an irregular zigzag fashion to create the suggestion of fir tree tops.
Note: be careful not to make all the trees look the same as this regularity will not look interesting or natural.
After that I once again rinsed my brush, dabbed it on a rag, and painted under the blue paint on the paper to soften it. My paint was drying very quickly, so you have to paint these objects fairly quickly.
Once again, if it is taking you a while to paint the line of fir tree tops then you can keep the paint moist by spraying it with water.
3 Indicating dips in the ground and blades of grass
You can also use the hard and soft edge technique for painting dips in the ground.
Firstly, I brushed pure water onto the paper. Then I mixed up some paint and added to the bottom of the pure water. This gives a soft upper edge and a hard lower edge. I tried to get a slight dry brush effect on the lower edge.
Note: the more tooth (rough textured) your paper has then the easier it is to get a dry brush effect. If possible always try to get watercolor paper with some tooth, rather than smooth paper, as it will help you to achieve the dry brush effect.
I waited for this wet paint to become drier (ideally moist) then, with a brush that had been rinsed clean and dried on the rag, I did thin, vertical strokes through these dips which look like blades of grass.
Note: It’s important that the hairs of your brush are like a knife blade to make these thin strokes. To do that you need to firstly rinse your brush, then dab a little on the rag, and then with a tissue press the hairs of the brush together into a blade shape – you want to make it as straight and blade like as possible. Then you slowly slide the brush across the dip area.
It’s important only to do a few blades of grass and make them irregularly space so it looks natural. And then I added shadows.
Note: be very careful to get all the shadows going in the same direction.
This dip and the blades of grass in the foreground helps increase the sense of perspective without being so powerful as to stop us going deeper into the picture.
The blades of grass also point (very roughly) towards the focal point area (the lower right hand corner) where we will paint our tree. The line of the hill of fir trees also points towards this focal point.
Note: always have as many lines as possible moving towards your focal point.
4 Dry brush lines
I also did some dry brush lines across the midground to give a little more interest to all that bland white space.
Note: this dry brush effect needs to be delicately done. If your mix is too strong it will not look natural. If it is too weak you’ll not see it when it dries. So get some scrap paper and practice on that until you get the desired strength.
5 Painting the fir tree
You might want to paint a lot of fir trees but I recommend just painting one. It will look far more dramatic and powerful as a painting.
Note: Always remember, in watercolor painting, less is more.
And before you paint your fir tree in your final picture, I recommend practicing painting the tree on some scrap paper.
In the video demo I practised three times on scrap paper before attempting my final one.
I used multi-media paper because it’s much cheaper than watercolor paper and it works really well.
Warning: Don’t get discouraged if your fir trees turn out really bad. Let me tell you a story. Last year, I must have painted fir trees over a hundred times and many of them were terrible.
I think there were several reasons that I struggled with painting them.
The first mistake was that I was not focusing on just one shape. So just focus on one type of fir tree shape that you really like and just keep painting it until you like the result. Some fir trees are much easier to paint than others. For this reason, there are some fir trees that I don’t paint – I’m talking about the really sparse looking ones.
The second mistake was that I wasn’t looking enough at the image of the fir tree, that I’d decided to focus upon, trying to really understand the shape and feel of the tree. I just kept relying on my imagination, feeling or other paintings. So really look carefully at the shape.
6 How I painted the fir tree
My approach to painting the fir tree is as follows.
First I determined where the top and bottom of the tree will be so that it will be the right size.
Then beginning at the top I drew a thin line down, which got slightly thicker at the bottom, to indicate the trunk.
For the top of the tree, I did thin dabs. As I came down I do Nike-like sweeps of the brush across the trunk. I tried to get a flick in these strokes as it creates a dry brush effect that gives a tree-ish effect. The stroke begins narrow and then gets wider. I added a few blobs at the end because that’s how fir trees look. I created the branches by just dabbing with my brush – the hairs of my brush had a knife-blade shape. Note, that the branches come downwards.
Be careful not to make your branches evenly spaced or the same size – for some reason the brain automatically want to do this. Resist! And make it look irregular. Although the branches will tend to get bigger as you go down the trunk you will still have one or two little branches too.
Look at how the branches have a sort of sweeping shape which starts narrow and get wider, that is to say, spread out at the ends and try to express that. It reminds me of the Nike logo. And if possible you want to do this stroke with a flick at the end as this will give it a more tree-ish look. Then I add little blobby bits on the ends of the strokes.
And be careful to avoid regularity e.g. regular spacing between branches. It seems to be built into us to paint things in a way that the branches are regularly spaced and you really have to fight against this tendency by consciously making your branches irregularly spaced – and the length and thickness of your branches – this will come with practice. It is important though because such regularity will kill your tree looking natural.
If you are having real trouble with painting your fir trees just remember this is not a talent issue but a practice issue. So just keep looking at the real thing and trying to capture it.
When you can paint a tree well it will mean you are actually a pretty good artist
7 Painting the fir tree shadow and the problem of floating objects
Sometimes trees and other objects can look like they are floating in the picture rather than being firmly fixed in the ground.
One way to solve this problem is to give them a good shadow. As you can see in my picture the trees and grass have shadows and this helps to make it look like they are fixed in the ground and not floating around.
When you do shadows though first think of the position of the sun. In my picture the sun is coming from the left – about 10 o’clock.
And make all your shadows pointing in the same direction – you really have to get that right. If your shadows don’t match it will really look wrong.
If you want to make it even more accurate remember that objects that are further away the shadow will move more and more up until it is horizontal, it will also get a little shorter.
And think about the height of your sun. The higher it is the shorter your shadows, the lower it is the longer your shadows. One reason why sunrises and sunsets are so good to paint is because of the long dramatic shadows.
If your shadows don’t all go in the same direction!
Don’t worry if your shadows go wrong. In my demo even my shadows went wrong.
But just use tissue to wipe them away. If you are quick you can remove nearly the whole paint. And if there is some slight staining this will be hidden when you repaint the shadows after the paper has dried.
Also if you don’t use the tissue quickly enough just let the shadows dry then re-wet the paper and brush over a few times and then wipe off the paint with a clean tissue – this works better the better your paper – so this is a time when good watercolor paper counts.
Further note on shadows
Often on snowy days it isn’t sunny but I will purposely paint the scene as though it is a sunny day because snow scenes nearly always look better with having shadows and it helps avoid the trees looking like they are floating.
One further note on shadows
Once you get comfortable with shadows you can start to do curving shadows that nicely show slight rises and dips in the ground. This can really add a lot of interest and excitement to your image.
Try this Experiment!
I would also recommend pretending to have a low sun and painting really long dramatic shadows.
So how did your painting go?
Ready for more?
And if you want some more practice at painting fir trees here are 4 samples that you can download.
And if that isn’t enough you can paint another snow scene and more fir trees in my One Brush Method course. The course includes 10 different scenes you can paint but you’ll find what you are looking for in lesson 5 and 11.