Saturation Notation, Tree Technique, Atmosphere, and Perspective

There are two big things I’m consistently disappointed in when I look at my landscapes: trees and atmosphere.

Today, I set out to practice these. I grabbed some scrap paper (A.K.A. the back of a failed painting). I painted a very simple horizon and sky. The goal here was two-fold: practice painting atmosphere, and give me a background to see how the trees behave against it.

Saturation Notation

So, there are three ways to impact value in a painting.

1) The amount of water on the palette

2) The amount of water in the brush

3) The amount of water on the paper

These three things have to be monitored as I paint. Changing one will impact the value, changing two will impact the value and the action of the pigment. Because all three are important, I want to try to use a notation system to describe them, hoping this will keep me focused on all three as I paint. I’ll try using [Palette-Brush-Paper] to note water levels in all three. I’ll use a letter to abbreviate each one. Here are the letters I’ll use. (Each section is organized least water to most water.)


Cream [R]: Straight from the well/tube.

Milk [M]: Very thick pigment, I can’t see the color of the palette through the puddle unless I drag my brush through it.

Coffee [F]: More water than milk, less than tea. I can barely see the color of the palette through the puddle. Mostly from the well or tube,

Tea [T]: Small amount of pigment mixed with the water. I can see the color of the palette through the puddle easily.

Clean [C]: No pigment, just clean water.


[1] The brush is bone-dry.

[2] The brush is just barely damp. If I paint on the paper, I’ll get some skipping.

[3] The brush is wet. If I paint something I’ll get a bead.

[4] The brush is fully wet. Try to add any more water and the brush will start to drip. If I paint a 4 even on Bone-dry paper, the water will be hard to control and will tend to puddle or drip.

[5] The brush is dripping wet. Pretty much, don’t use this.


Puddled [p]: By this I mean the paper won’t take any more water. There are puddles of water on the paper.

Wet [w]: The paper is fully wet. There may be a bead of water where the wet paper meets the dry.

Shimmering [s]: There are no puddles of water on the paper. The paper clearly glistens under the light, but you can see some of the paper starting to dry.

Damp [d]: The paper is cool to the touch, but the shine is gone. Scraping with my fingernail will produce a dull scraping sound, and may disturb the paper fibers, depending on how hard I scrape.

Bone-Dry [b]: No water on the paper. If it was painted earlier, it’s been fully dried. Touching the paper with the back of my finger should feel room temperature, and it should make an audible scraping sound if I move a fingernail across it.

Putting it Together

Though many of these will result In similar values when I paint, they’ll have dramatically different results. For example: [T3b] means “Pigment at a Tea-like consistency with a wet brush, on bone-dry paper.” This would create a value similar to an [R4d] “Creamy pigment, with a fully saturated brush on damp paper.” However, The [T3b] will stay where I paint it because the paper is dry, whereas the [R4d] will feather, because the paper is damp. If I want the value of a [T3b] on damp paper but with reduced feathering, I might try an [M1d] “Milky pigment with a bone-dry brush on damp paper.” The bone dry brush should absorb some of the water on the damp paper while simultaneously depositing a relatively dark-valued pigment. The pigment would feather much less, and still create a [T3b] value.

Here, I have the three different categories separated in two columns. At the top, the least amount of water is added to that category, at the bottom the most water is added to that category. I tried to keep the other two categories the same in every swatch in the column. The second column in the category changes one of the two categories.

The left two columns increase the amount of water on the palette. At the top, both columns use creamy pigment straight from the well. Beneath that, a little water is added to the palette to paint a milky pigment. Then more water is added to create a coffee-like pigment, a little more to make tea, and more to make it clean. In the first column, each of these was painted on bone-dry paper. In the second column, each one was painted on wet paper.

You can see that adding water to the palette reduces the value of the pigment. And, it impacts how easy it is to paint brush strokes. Because these were all painted with a moderately wet brush, I get some brush strokes on the bone-dry paper, but they aren’t predictable or easy to control. You can also see the dramatic difference in how the pigments mix on dry paper vs wet paper. Both columns create similar values, but the way the paints behave change significantly.

The next two columns use no water in the brush at the top, and a waterlogged brush at the bottom. The left column does this on bone-dry paper, the right column on wet paper.

Here you can see that changing the amount of water in the brush has the most dramatic impact on the presence of brush strokes. Less water makes more brush strokes with crisper edges, but only on bone dry paper. This effect is all but lost on wet paper. Changing the amount of water in the brush has seems to have a minor impact on the overall value.

Finally, the last two columns feature bone-dry paper at the top, and puddles paper at the bottom. Though the amount of water on the paper does change the value of the pigment, the real difference is in how the pigment settles on the paper. I was surprised to see much more granulation on bone-dry paper than on puddled paper. I assumed puddled paper would lift the pigment particles and cause them to disperse unevenly, and cause a lot of granulation, but it seems the opposite is true.

The big lesson here is changing the amount of water on the palette has the biggest impact on value, the brush has the most impact on the brush strokes, and the paper has the biggest impact on blending and granulation.

At any rate, that’s a description of my system. I don’t know if I’ll actually use it, but it’s a great exercise, and something I definitely need to keep in mind as I paint.


I was inspired by the hazy horizon on many of Joseph Zbukvic’s landscapes, as well as some of Dan Marshall’s. To get this effect, I painted a thick line of an M3b Blue at the top of the paper, Then, I painted a F3b grey line beneath it. Then I painted a C3b line beneath that to the horizon, and below. I then finished up with an R3b neutral earthy green. This created an even variegated wash from blue to white to neutral earthy green. Then, I let it dry completely.

Once it was dry, I wetted the top of the painting down to the horizon and just a millimeter or so below with C3b. I then charged my brush (smaller round) with T3d blue and dabbed it at the base of the wet paper. The pigment feathered and bled up, creating the impression of distant trees.

I waited a bit for the paper to dry a bit more, and dabbed a thin line of a slightly warmer T3b just under the wet horizon line, and let it touch the horizon. This created a crisp edge on the interior and a soft feathering where the pigment bled into the wet above the horizon. I dabbed a bit more color to deepen the value, and bring them forward a bit. Then, I repeated this with an even warmer F3b below those trees to make that row a little closer.

You can see the effect here:

I then tried painting individual trees. I noticed two mistakes I make here:

1) I tend to paint individual trees as chunks of texture and tone.

2) I neglect to account properly for perspective when I paint trees.

Take a look at these two trees:

The canopy of both trees is almost solid. There is very little light coming through the leaves.

I started looking more closely at trees in nature, and I noticed that trees tend to look like this only when they are in groups. If a tree is isolated from other trees, it’s largely transparent. The leaves don’t block out that much sky. Nor are the leaves so concentrated at the trunk. Here’s an example:

The leaves on that tree are concentrated at the tips of the branches, and almost completely vacant near the trunk. As a result, you can see a lot of the sky through the canopy. This lead me to realize that I’ve been painting trees like a kindergartener.

Instead, I should paint the leaves clustered around the outside of the tree, leaving more sky in the center of the tree. I should also discard the childish notion that trunks and branches are brown. They can be. They can also be red, orange, beige, or purple. The color of the trunk and branches should depend on where the light is hitting it, and how that light has reached it. If yellow sunlight hits a tree trunk dead on, the trunk should be close to yellow or white. If that same light filters through green leaves or bounces off of green grass before it hits the branches the wood can appear the same color as the leaves, then darkened selectively where dappled shadows strike it.

To accomplish this, it took an old, cheap brush and cut into the bristles at random to give it a shaggy random tip. Then, I used a cool T3d to dab randomly spaced leaves. Then, I used a small rigger, and painted beaches and a trunk in the same color.

I repeated this for trees further from the horizon, as I moved from the horizon I decreased the water content to sharpen the edges and deepen the values. I used a T3d near the horizon, an F4b wcloser, and an M5b in the foreground, also trying to warm the color as I neared the foreground.

This technique produced a more realistic single tree. It won’t work when trees are in a group, in which case they should be painted as more solid shapes because the trees behind will block the light that would otherwise appear through the boughs of an isolated tree.

The other thing I tried to pay attention to was the distance of the base of the tree from the horizon. When I paint perspective, I usually think about how diagonal lines approach the vanishing point, but I don’t think about the spacing of horizontal lines.

I tried to take that into account here. First, I cut the ground (from the horizon to the bottom of the painting) in half. Then, I cut the top half in half. Then I cut that top half in half, until I got to the horizon. This helped me better represent the planes of the composition, as object get nearer the horizon, they get smaller. Halfway to the horizon, and objects are half the size.

This assumes that the viewer’s height is just above the horizon. As the viewer’s eyes move below the horizon, the lowest line should move closer to the horizon, and the others should halve the remaining space.

I like the effect I got by painting these trees this way, and I think focusing on perspective this way will help add depth to my compositions. But, this technique doesn’t make a very interesting tree in the foreground.

To get that, I figured I would use several glazes. First, I masked off the places where the light would shine through, and then dappled in a T3b warm green. When that dried, I masked out some more areas sort of at random, and painted an F3b of slightly cooler green. When that dried, I masked again and laid down less M4b. More masking and I finished with some cool thin lines of M5b for the trunk and a couple of branches. Then, I removed the masking fluid, and this was the result. I tried to gradually paint the darker cooler colors nearer the trunk and bottom of the canopy as I went.

I really like this effect, but the proportions are wrong. The branchless part of the trunk should be about 1/4 the height of the entire tree, not 1/2. I want to play around with this effect more.

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