Hi friends! I’m Jenni from @secondjenletters here to give you step-by-step instructions for how I create a watercolor night sky silhouetted by a layered forest. I could paint moons and skies for daaaaaays, so when Peggy asked if I would share my process for this type of piece I was just thrilled.
Tape your paper down on the edges to keep it from buckling too much with how wet it will become. Using your larger brush, lightly dampen your entire piece of paper. Just a light wash here works well – try to avoid soaking it. This will help your gradient blend, but also allow you to maintain darkly saturated paint at the top.
Using a wet brush, take some of your darkest color of paint (here I’m using indigo) and begin your background wash gradient at the top of your page. Keep the color heavily saturated near the top but allow the paint to thin as you pull it down the top third of the page, so it is ready to blend with your next color in a moment. You want to work relatively quickly so that the edge of each area of color stays wet and can blend with the next color smoothly. (Pre-wetting the paper like we did can help with this. I’ve also seen people lightly wet the *back* of their paper before creating a gradient… feel free to try that too before you tape your paper down if your colors dry too quickly!)
Rinse your brush but leave it slightly wet. Using your next paint color choice (Winsor Blue for me), cover the middle third of your paper, blending up into your dark paint using horizontal strokes that gradually rise higher up your painting. Blending the middle of your gradient up into the dark paint will help keep this color nice and bright, while also blending it into the darker one. This technique also helps keep the darker colors from “muddying” the lighter colors as you add them.
Rinse your brush again, still leaving it slightly wet. Add your lightest paint choice (Winsor green for me) to fill the bottom section of your painting, again blending it up into the darker color with horizontal strokes. You may have more or less than a third of your paper left at this point to fill with color (I ended up with less), but the general idea is to have each color blending across a third of the page to get a nice, continuous gradient. Sometimes smoothing the entire gradient helps to add a little more of your lightest paint at the bottom and use smooth horizontal strokes to blend all the way up the entire painting.
Let the gradient layer dry completely. Here it can come in handy to use a hair dryer or heat tool to speed up the process. Mine is from the embossing section of the craft store. Just be careful – I burned a painting or two and melted a precious TPL paint brush with this before I got used to always keeping it moving over the page and making sure my brushes are always out of the way of the heat.
I felt like the colors in my gradient weren’t quite saturated enough once they dried. I repeated steps 2-5 to add another layer to the gradient and make it more vivid once dry.
Once your gradient layer(s) completely dries, lay your scrap paper across the bottom half of your painting (Mine is an extra sample card from the paint section of the hardware store. Any type of scrap will work). This protects the bottom of the painting from the “star spatter” we are about to create.
Using your smaller brush now, mix a small amount of water with your white paint. Hold your larger brush up as a support with your non-painting hand and gently tap the brush with white paint onto the support brush while holding both brushes a few inches above the “starry” area of your painting. Your brush needs to be full of paint, but not so wet that huge drops fall off. I highly suggest practicing with a few taps on your scrap paper before you commit your stars to the sky in your painting.
Alternatively, some artists choose to use a toothbrush dipped in white paint to spray stars on the sky, or use a white gel ink pen to dot them all by hand. Also great options if my method isn’t for you!.
Once the splatter is satisfactory, I usually go back in with my small brush to set down a few larger stars in places to give the sky some depth.
Now it’s forest time! Choose a light color to paint your first group of trees. You want to use a shade that will stand out on your gradient background, but not be as dark as the top of your sky. I am using Winsor Green with a tiny bit of Winsor Blue mixed in. I have also added enough water to my paint here that the trees will seem a little “ghost-like”. This will be the back row of trees that is farthest away, so a lighter shade is helpful.
For the shape of the trees, I use the “one horizontal line with alternating branches” method, and then fill in each branch by “dotting” more paint onto the branch. I have found that leaving space for the background to show through behind each branch is key to being happy with my trees.
For this composition, you want to turn the angle of the trees to point towards the middle of the page when you get to the corners and sides of your painting. I’ve used the first layer of trees to space out 6-7 trees of varying sizes/heights across the bottom and sides of my page, making sure they point towards the middle once they start spreading onto the corners.
Allow the first layer of trees to dry. For the second layer of trees, choose a darker color (I used my Winsor Blue), Paint a few trees with slightly more water added to your paint and some trees with very little water added to your paint. We want these trees to seem closer to the foreground of the composition. Using the same technique for the shape of trees, fill in about half of the space between the background trees with more trees of varying sizes/heights that point towards the middle of the page. You want these to also overlap with your background trees in places to give the illusion of being closer to the foreground, and you’ll notice my trees tend to get smaller as they go up the sides of the painting to give more depth.
For the third layer of trees, repeat the same tree-layering process using your darkest color (I’m using Indigo with very little water added). This is the layer that will be most vivid in your composition, so it usually ends up being the one with the most trees to fill all the spaces that are left.
If you want to add a moon to your night sky, start by using a clean small brush to paint a circle using your white paint.
Rinse your brush and use a wet brush to pull the inner edge of the paint circle into the space to fill the moon. This fills the shape while also giving the illusion of craters and shadows inside the moon based on the flow of the paint.
For bolder variations in your moon, rinse the white off your brush and pick up a bit of dark paint to lay down some tiny drops of dark color into one side of the moon while the white is still wet.
Allow your painting to completely dry before removing the tape from the edges. This will do the paper a huge favor and it is more likely to dry nice and flat for you. When you are ready to remove the tape, pull it off slooooowly and at an angle. And there you have it – a beautiful layered forest moonscape!
I'm Jenni, I'm a self-taught left-handed artist who loves watercolors and digital calligraphy most of all. My mom was a professional calligrapher all my life, so I grew up immersed in art, but it wasn't until a few years ago (into my 30s) that I found my own skills in lettering and painting and quickly fell in love with creating. My husband and I have two awesome little girls, I love coffee (like, a lot), and I love using pop culture, music, literature, & silly pun references in my art. I hold a Ph.D. in Education Research and Policy and have a small academic editing business that allows me to flex my nerdy muscles while also raising my kids. And I have an Etsy shop with my best friend who is a genius of crafting and transforming my lettering into gorgeous gifts and accessories.
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