Painting Fall and the Nambe Cottonwood

The Nambe Cottonwood tree in fall.

The Nambe Cottonwood tree in fall.

When I lived in northern New Mexico (1993 – 2008) I always looked forward to fall when the glorious cottonwoods showed themselves off in their finest colors! Golds and yellows and deep oranges with some lovely reds and purples lurking in the shadows!  The village of Nambe was just minutes from my home in Española. And just by the side of the highway was an old cottonwood that still sat next to a less used dirt road. This was the cottonwood I painted at least thirty times!

And these are the steps I took for this one.

Sketch, underwash and initial strokes.  On the 1/2 sheet of 140# cold pressed paper, I sketched the basic shapes and gestures and did an overall Aureolin yellow under wash. As soon as it was dry – I dove in, fast and loose with my 3/4″ flat wash brush, getting in the main branch cluster shapes with the most lighted yellows on top and then the oranges and deeper colors on the undersides of the branch clusters and in the spaces between. I let the paint run – as if imaging the drooping leaves, about to fall…..  The paints I used initially?  Quinacridone (Quin) Gold, Aureolin yellow, Quin Siena, Quin Magenta and probably just a touch or two of Quin Violet at the bottom…..  I don’t worry much about paper buckling in a landscape. If it was a portrait, I would take more care to keep it flat.

Initial brush work

Initial brush work

Working fast, loose and wet into wet

Working fast, loose and wet into wet







Adding in some DARKS and connecting shapes

Fall Tree 4

Fast and loose and saturated, shape by shape…..

Still working fast and loose  – and still with my favorite flat wash brush, I added in the shaded darks of the trunk and shaded ground and bush shapes beyond the tree. I am sure I added in some Ultramarine Blue – and some Quin magenta and violet for the darks. It is a good idea to get some darkest darks in fairly soon in order to see the entire value range. I used the tip and edge of my flat brush to create uneven grass like shapes and used the dark to negatively paint the drooping leaf shapes of the tree (left). Where the paint ran, I simply connected it up with other shadow shapes.

Sky and Cast Shadows

Fall Tree 6

Sky and cast shadows help define the background and subject edges.

Time to fill in the supporting shapes that help define the tree form. I painted in the sky with cobalt blue leaving an uneven and ragged edge of ‘white’ paper as the tips of the sun-lighted upper leaves. The sky also defined the smoother hill beyond. Some of the cast shadows from the tree were added in – mostly in horizontal strokes to help define the topography using both cobalt blue and ultramarine.

Finishing Touches….

Nambe Cottonwood, jh.

Finish takes some time and attention.

Always the finishing takes the most time and attention. Yellow was used to create the back lighted lower leaves of the cottonwood and some of their edges were softened for variety.  Now they stand out strongly against the dark beyond. The blue cast shadows were intensified and play beautifully against the complementary warm yellows. Some of the crevices and undersides of the branch clusters are intensified with more color. Care was  taken not to over paint and darken the sun-lighted tops of the tree. The white edges remained. And I always prefer to just leave alone those white shapes that show up when I paint fast.

Then I simply pronounced it done.  How do I know when it is finished? Best answer I ever heard was  ‘It is finished ten minutes before you stop.’

I’d love to hear from you if you decide to paint the cottonwood – and if you email me I will send you a jpeg to paint from.

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