Morning class, this week I’ve been in Mallorca soaking up the scenery and enjoying painting outside. I found this secluded tree within a lemon grove that I thought would work well as a little Plein air sketch with acrylics.
You can download a reference image below to follow along with the lesson.
Downloading the reference photograph
The photo below can be ‘right clicked’ and ‘Save image as’, so you can use it as a reference image, print it out and follow along with the video above.
You can download a larger version of the image here.
Whenever I’m sketching outside, I’m always looking for contrast and shapes that will translate well into a drawing as well as a painting…
With my first sketch, I wanted to incorporate the whole of the lemon tree but the sketch brought up a number of issues within the scene. There wasn’t nearly enough tonal contrast or space around the tree and the lemons weren’t prominent enough in the sketch as they had initially appeared, so I moved position, searching for an alternative close up view.
A closer view of the same tree but the mass of leaves meant there wasn’t enough separation between the background and main subject for the style of painting I was going for. I wanted a more contemporary composition.
For the drawings in my sketchbook above I used:
- Muji 0.5mm pen
- Pentel Brush Pen
- Lamy Fountain pen with Lamy water soluble Ink
- Pentel Aquash water brush Pen
A Plein Air Sketch of a Lemon Tree with Acrylics
I finally settled on this lemon tree as it had some lovely negative spaces in-between the branches and a great muted grey wall behind, that added a nice colour balance to all the ranges of greens in the tree.
Here’s a close up of the trunk, notice the lovely green hues on the edge of the branch and the warm stone colour on the bottom right of the wall. This helps to give a good indication of the colour ground that would work well for the study.
The canvas board I used (7 x 5 inch) had been pre-prepared with a colour ground of Yellow Ochre Acrylic paint. For the sketch, I used a Burnt Umber watercolour marker, as it’s water-soluble it allows me to blend sections using just a water brush pen to softly indicate the shadows.
- Winsor & Newton Watercolour Marker in Burnt Umber
- Pentel Aquash Waterbrush Pen
- Canvas Board, pre-primed with a coloured ground of Yellow Ochre
Acrylic Pochade Box Setup
Here I’m setting up a plastic craft box that can be used with acrylic paints when working in a hotter climate. I’ve cut small sections of a stay-wet palette to fit into the slots on the top row, and this will keep the mixes wetter for longer. I soak the absorbent paper underneath with water, then lay a greaseproof paper on top, which the paints sit upon.
I’m sat in the shade with the box on my knee, drawn out and ready to start painting.
I’ve also cut a grey tear-off palette to size and taped it onto a piece of card so it fits snugly on the bottom shelf of the box. This acts as a sturdy mixing palette when sketching but can store neatly within the box when travelling.
The colours for the painting are:
- Titanium White Heavy Body (Golden Acrylics Paints)
- Titanium White Galeria (Winsor & Newton)
- Azo Yellow Medium (Winsor Newton)
- Phthalo Green (Blue Shade) (Winsor Newton)
- Permanent Alizarin Crimson (Winsor Newton)
- Burnt Umber (Golden Acrylics Paints)
- Ultramarine Blue (Golden Acrylics Paints)
I use two whites, a student grade Galeria White from Winsor & Newton and an artist-grade Titanium White from Golden Paints. I predominantly used the Winsor and Newton white for this study as the consistency from the tube is a little more fluid.
Pro tip: You can read more about the differences between acrylic whites here
I use three brushes throughout the painting:
- Small Synthetic Round – Rosemary & Co, size 4, series 344
- Small synthetic Flat – Rosemary & Co, size 10, series 302
- Isabey Isacryl Filbert, size 6, series 6572
Shadow Pattern Block-in
The first colour I mix is a muted grey tone, using Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. I’m not using any water to dilute the paint but dipping the brush into the acrylic glazing liquid.
I use a small size 4 Round brush from Rosemary & Co and concentrate on the shadow shape being cast by the leaves and branches of the lemon tree. I then paint in this pattern around the drawing of the dark tree trunk on the bottom left.
Once I’ve got some of the darker greys in I start to add a lighter, slighter warmer grey to increase the tonal range and interest within the background. I’m still only looking for the spaces between and around the tree.
Balancing the vivid green
I swapped to a larger size 6 filbert brush. This is from Isabey called an Isacryl brush. Using a dark mix of the Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue I block in the tree trunk. Adding a little light gives a variation to indicate the direction of the light fall.
Using a small flat synthetic brush I begin to block in a base using Azo Yellow Medium. This colour isn’t as opaque a Cadmium Yellow but is a non-toxic version. You might notice some areas where the watercolour marker blends into the wet paint, giving a muted orange hue to the undertone.
I take a tiny touch of the Phthalo Green (blue shade) and mix with the yellow to get this vivid sap green. I then start to apply this colour to the top section of the painting and begin to vary the intensity and variety by altering the colour using yellow and white. Adding white will cool the yellow but allow us a greater tonal range.
Bringing the lemon forward
Now the block-in has dried, I start to judge my tones again.
At this stage, the light has also changed so there isn’t as much of the patterned contrast on the wall, but I’m trying to keep that colour effect in my mind’s eye until the cloud cover passes.
Just using the fine edge of the square brush I indicate the pattern of the branches.
I now mix a cooler blue to balance with the sap green for the top section of the painting. Now the sun has briefly come back into the scene, I try to get down the shadow pattern on the wall.
Here with the Yellow and Burnt Umber, I can mix darker, duller tones that can act as the shadow side of the lemon. When I look again at the tree, it feels as if my lemons are camouflaged too much next to the rest of the tree leaves – so I start to paint in some more refinement around them with a darker green to try and pull them forward
By painting in some darker green around the foliage at the top of the painting and then breaking that up with some of the muted blue colours, there are fewer colours to fight with the lemon.
As I continue to simplify the background I also accentuate the lemon by adding some thicker impasto onto the sides in the light. This impasto area is only on the lemons so it makes them stand out more from the background.
Here is the finished Plein air acrylic sketch, the total painting time was about 30 minutes with a 15-minute sketch.
This is Tom, a little friend who joined me by the trees.