Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Painting grass in watercolour

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – August 2011.

Many landscapes in the countryside or even in the city will feature an area of grass. How do you go beyond the boring flat wash of pure green and create interest when painting grass?

Golden field - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

Talking of “grass” in general is misleading because its colour and texture will vary with the season and the location. Young shoots in spring are a tender green, when long grass scorched by the sun in summer takes an ochre or light brown shade. For green grass, the most common mistake is to go too bright too early. A wash of pure Phtalo green will look artificial. It is good to use strong colours as accents in the foreground, not as block of flat colours.

Let’s have a look at pure colours that are useful to paint grass, and then consider mixing your own colours.

What green colours should you have in your paint box? Sap green has a velvety quality and good transparency. It is a great colour to have in your palette to paint grass and trees. You need to be careful not to overuse it or you run the risk that all your paintings will look the same. Another great colour for grass and trees is Terre Verte. This is an opaque colour with a greyish tonality that makes it suitable for background expanses of grass. For dark areas, Phtalo Green is a deep green and is a solid base for mixing dark colours.

The first basic colour mix consist in taking a green colour from a tube and altering it. A drop of Vermilion in a pure green will remove any acidity from the original colour and bring it to a more neutral shade (because green and red are complimentary colours). Experiment with other red colours, like Alizarin Crimson, as well as pink or orange hues and discover the range of muted greens you can obtain. To lighten a green, try to add some Yellow Ochre to it – rather than a yellow hue – to obtain more natural greens.

River Kennet at Avebury (Detail) - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe

For a greater variety of shades, mix your own green colours. You can create a wide range of green shades with a small number of blue colours: I suggest Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue. Add some yellow or Yellow Ochre to them and discover a rich selection of greens. As for green colours out of the tube, a drop of red will tune down any green mixture.

Bring life to your areas of grass with shadows and highlights. As sun light is coming from above or from the side, the top of the grass will be lighter than the part close to the ground. The easiest way to get highlights in the grass is to reserve them with masking fluid (a liquid gum that dries to form a water and colour resistant film and can be removed without damaging the paper). Paint some grass blades with masking fluid using a nib or a fine colour shaper (a tool with a pointy silicone tip that is perfect to apply masking fluid). For a natural effect, make sure the lines are not all parallel but cross each other and go in different directions. Once the masking fluid is dry, wet the watercolour paper and lay down washes of different shades of green. Add some shadows in the area close to the roots, in particular in the foreground. Finally, remove the masking fluid and apply a wash of light green on highlights to blend them into the painting.

An area of grass is subject to the laws of perspective like any surface of land. Arial perspective means that grass in the background will appear as masses of a lighter tone with a blue bias. Foreground can be painted with stronger colours and with more details, although there is no need to paint every single blade of grass. It is much better to only detail some areas and let the viewers’ brain fill the gaps elsewhere.

In term of brushes, a pointed round brush is perfect to add fine details once the initial washes of colour are dry. You can also use the tip of the brush handle to drag the colour and draw some grass blades. An old and distressed flat brush with uneven hair is a good tool to suggest the texture of grass in the middle ground.

As you grow confident with colour mixing and techniques described in this article, you can become more experimental in your approach and introduce purple shadows, deep blue washes or hints of pure red on top of your green washes for more striking contrasts.

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