This, my Dear Readers, is Paulownia tree, of which there are many in bloom in Paris in May:


And this is the Paulownia tree in Monet’s garden at Giverny (back view):


And this is my study of the Paulownia tree in Monet’s garden at Giverny (front view):


Our Dear Reader Felicia mentioned in a Comment recently that she’s been working on trees, and how they give her fits — they give me fits, too — so I am dedicating this post to BARK for Felicia, and I hope that you’ll all paint along with us.


As much as it gives me fits to do trees (all those branches branching off in unpredictable ways) the one thing that I just love to paint is bark, because I know the secret! And the secret is that simply by letting watercolors do what they want to do naturally, you can let the paint do most of the work when it comes to painting bark! And it’s FUN!!

The key color when you are painting bark is gray. Bark is barely brown: it is mostly gray :


And the good news is that making gray from scratch is one of the most fun things to do with watercolor paint! Here’s how:

I start with this color, called “Flesh”, for reasons that I don’t want to get into:


Then I mix in some brown:


Next I mix in some blue — pretty much any hue from ultramarine to turquoise will do, whatever you have at hand or whatever blue is the one you prefer to work with:


I’m a big fan of my Grumbacher Prussian blue:


Then I add a tiny tiny bit of black:


I like to keep my grays on the blue-side, but that’s just me. You might have a totally different taste in gray:


And then I’m going to throw in some Burnt Sienna:


So now I have all the shades of gray that I’ll need for my bark — I will keep switching the palette ever so slightly, because the one thing you want when you paint bark is a lot of subtle gradations of color. I showed you my paint mix on paper so you can see the range of colors that will be possible, but in reality I will be working from a pan, in which I will have mixed all those flesh, brown, blue, and black paints to make an interesting gray:


And now, Let’s Paint!

First, lay down a few strips of color:


Vary the width of your strips by pressing down or lightening up on your paint brush. Do not paint them too close together, and vary the color of the strips (I’m working with browns and grays here):


The reason that you don’t want to paint your strips too close together is because this is the secret about watercolor:


When watercolor dries, you can stroke another strip of color right next to it and just because it’s watercolor, that edge of dry paint meeting the other edge of wet paint will form a nice texture, which in this case, looks exactly like bark — you don’t have to “paint” the texture at all..the texture IS THE PAINT!


Is that nifty or what?!?!

Once I have most of the strips painted in, I load my brush with just plain, clear water and I run it down one side (the right side) of the tree trunck, to blend and soften that one area just a bit:


And while the tree is still wet, I dab in some pure black paint:


Again, I’m not going to work it much — I’m just going to let it do what it wants to do, which is bleed and pool in interesting places. Then I’ll let it dry, and voila:


The bark practically painted itself!

Now, this is just a basic technique. If your tree has a different bark texture, or it has twists and burls in it, or it is smooth and kind of green, or  it is sun-dappled :


Well, that takes practice and variations…but this painting-in-strips-thing is the basic way that I paint bark.

Yes, I expect to have to re-paint the Paulownia tree that I showed you at the top of this post, or just to re-work some more darkness and girth into the trunk and branches, but to keep things interesting for me I have been taking a stab at painting Monet’s flowers lately…and next week I’ll show you how that’s coming along.


Have a great Super Bowl Weekend everybody! Go Peyton!

12 Comments, RSS

  1. Good morning, Vivian! Your bark is much nicer than my neighbor’s dog! (Though both are remarkably streaky!)

    A good tutorial. I’m having an art day today so who knows if Ï’ll bark or bite but it’ll feel good to get back to business! Have a great weekend!

  2. SusanA

    Wow, this is amazing. I tend to overwork my sketches (a control issue, I’m sure). More than one person has told me to just let watercolor “do its thing,” but none has shown me what that looks like in a practical application. I had such an a-ha moment reading your post today. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. ann

    Your Paulownia has such a beautiful form. The lavender for blooms makes it dreamy.

    I need to look for a beautifully formed tree and get busy with my brushes.

  4. Casey

    Sigh. Is there any chance you could make a YouTube of just you painting bark? As much as I love the photographic tutorials I would love to make a cup of tea, turn on your video, and watch you paint *something* from *nothing*. I would gladly watch your paint dry. Go Broncos.

  5. Oh Vivian, you are the best….flesh colored paint to start with, who knew?! I could have tried for a million years and never, never have thought to mix in a little flesh color. You are so wonderfully generous with the careful details and SPECIFIC about exactly what to do.

    We’ve just arrived for six weeks in winter quarters so I’m disconnected from my scanner. But I’ll be painting like crazy and will scan in some of the results when we return home and send them to you…..once I find the local art shop and locate some flesh colored paint.

    Which gives me an idea, some day maybe you could give us a tour of your palette? I’m curious about what your go-to colors are. I changed out my black after you showed us how, I think it was, lamp-post black worked in landscapes. It has a subtle green tint to it, which works much better than the black I was using.

    Really I just can’t tell you how grateful I am for you so generously sharing these tips!

  6. DeenaD

    I’ve never commented before, but, I’ve been a devoted dear reader for months, ever since I got your books for my birthday, last year. But this watercolor tutorial is so NIFTY!! I have been too timid to paint until now, and I am going to get your grumbacher paints and I am going to paint bark all weekend. THANK YOU!!!

  7. Marg-o

    “Making gray paint from scratch is one of the most fun things to do with watercolor.” I laughed out loud…only an artist, and only you, could make gray paint f-u-n. I’m with Casey. I would very happily watch you paint…every time you do a watercolor tutorial I wish I were there.

  8. Sandy Lane

    Happy Dance! Happy Dance!

    I just painted a tree! I took your tutorial step by step and I painted a tree! and I can’t even paint a straight line but a friend told me about this tutorial and I did it like you did step by step and it worked! OK< now please show me how to paint the rest of it and I will feel like Claude Monet himself.

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