Monochrome Studies

This exercise explored two approaches to the same subject, a winter tree.  I based this exercise on an earlier drawing of a winter tree, seen from a second floor window, which I drew during the Landscape unit of Drawing 1.  The original sketchbook page is reproduced below. I chose this because I did not want to use a photograph and it is not yet winter (and have no time to hunt for one conveniently struck by lightning).


The first painting was to focus on the tree(s) as a positive shape(s), drawn onto a light transparent ground (A3) using charcoal. I used acrylics – a black wash diluted with a little ultramarine – to produce the wash.  The same mix but with titanium white was used for the trees. The ground should have been uniform but, having produced a smeared ground, I decided to use it, as it suggested a landscape.   The ground smeared partly due to too much water but I will also need to designate certain brushes for use with water-soluble oils and not use with acrylics.   A gesso undercoat could help with this and practice with speeed and the correct dilution would also help!

The group is a little central but animated and I like the contrast generated by transparent and opaque,which provides a sense of depth.  I decided to let some branches taper off to hint at twigs using a dry brush.


The second A3 painting began with a dark, opaque ground.  I omitted a branch from the central tree in order to clarify the tangle of branches – but they still appear too confusing at this stage – not enough contrast. I used a broadly similar paint mix as I had used for the trees in the first painting, although the ground appears slightly lighter and less blue than the one used in the first exercise.  (The pink tinge is due to the lighting.) This is exaggerated in the photographs. This time the focus was on bringing the tree out of the ground by focusing on negative shapes.  I decided to use a light grey WS oil for the negative spaces but initially diluted with too much water.  I then reinforced the negative space with thicker oil paint, a week later after the first oil layer was dry.  I used rather more ultramarine in this paint so it is warmer and bluer than the original layer.  This was deliberate as I felt the original pale grey to be rather flat.  However, it is the opacity more than the colour that creates the flatness.


I then modulated the darker tone of the trees from the base of the trunk upwards to the tips of the branches. I got in a mess with this initially because I tried to work my way up all of the trees simultaneously, trying to adjust the tone uniformly.  When I realised that this wasn’t necessary as long as the tone was modulated from ground upwards, the exercise became a bit easier.

The three central tree trunks are actually very close together but I chose to move the two either side of the central one back somewhat, darkened the central tree and lightened the others to create more of a sense of depth. I also extended branches in places. It is better but there is a feeling of the evil forest in which the trees walk at night.   The original drawing was made from above and so there is distortion in this image.  Eye level is a little way above the main trunk.


I had a failed transparent ground in my sketchbook, which I decided to use as the basis for a mixed-media tree group.  The wash incidentally creates a snowy landscape (with a bit of imagination).


What I have learned from this:

  • use gesso undercoat for all absorbent paper, and perhaps as good practice to prepare a surface so that I can predict how paint will behave.
  • Simplify complex images – do not need to reproduce reality.
  • Acrylic is tricky because it dries so quickly and mixing up a batch for uniformity’s sake can lead to waste. Some ways to deal with this include….

– using a “stay-wet” palette, using 10% retarder to 90% paint (tried this in a    recent workshop but have not purchased my own);

– using matt medium which thickens the paint and extends it with no loss of colour up to about 50% (have not tested this claim to the fullest extent).

– re-mix small batches as required and practise matching colours exactly.


2 thoughts on “Monochrome Studies

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