Last Saturday I joined a group of art students on a guided walk through High Park to sketch trees. One of the students asked me about the tools I was using, so I’m sharing what I told her (plus a few extra tips), because I know there are other students who read this blog and the information might be helpful. I also wrote this post in 2018: 5 Tree Sketching Tips.
1. Pen & Wash Technique
I made the above tree sketch using a rollerball pen. This is not to be mistaken with a ballpoint pen which uses an entirely different type of ink. My pen is a Pentel Hybrid Technica - the ink is lightfast (fade resistant) and flows smoothly without any skips. A fountain pen would also work fine.
Rollerballs are sold with ink that’s either waterproof or non-waterproof. Because the ink in my Pentel pen can be partially dissolved with water, there’s an opportunity for creating wash effects. You can create washes by running a wet brush over the pen lines to spread the ink around.
I also carry a portable water brush when I’m out sketching. The handle of the water brush is hollow and acts as a self-contained reservoir. Just give the handle a little squeeze to get the water moving through to the tip of the brush.
I first sketched the entire tree with the pen before bringing out the water brush, but there’s no right or wrong order; experiment to find a method that works for you. The effect of the brush is pretty subtle here, which was deliberate on my part. You can create a bolder wash by laying down a lot of ink and using a real wet brush.
2. Line Drawing Technique
Once the sketch was finished in pen and wash, I punched up the line work by varying its thickness. A uniform pen line is fine for a descriptive illustration (i.e. Ikea instruction manual), but what I’m seeking is a line that flows and is more expressive like calligraphy.
I kept the lines thin for the parts of the tree that were furthest away, while I thickened up the lines on the closer sections. This is how you create the illusion of depth since thin lines recede and thick lines jump forwards. Thick lines can also suggest weight or be used emphasize a certain area of the sketch.
You can build up the line thickness by repeatedly drawing over the same spot with a pen, but it’s much quicker to use a brush pen. Brush pens are filled with ink and similar to rollerballs except that they have a nylon tip which mimics the handling properties of a paint brush. Press down firmly for a thick line, ease up when you need the line to thin out.
Some brush pens have a very soft tip while others are blunt like a felt tipped marker. You’ll need to compare different pens to find the one most suitable for your style. I use a Pentel Pocket Brush which uses waterproof ink and is refillable.
3. Sketchbook Paper
Not to be overlooked is the type of paper you’re using. Select a paper with a smooth surface if you plan to sketch with pen and ink. If you’re going to use a water brush, you’ll need paper that’s thick so it won’t buckle when wet. On the cover of most sketchbooks you’ll find the paper weight listed. A paper that weighs 110 lbs can handle light washes, while anything thinner (like 70 lbs) won’t fare so well.
4. Look Deeper
Before you put pen to paper, it helps to remember that trees are alive and uniquely individual. Your aim is to portray the character of that individual tree.
What initially attracted me to this Japanese cherry tree was the surface texture of its weathered trunk. This is possibly one of the original 1959 Sakura trees that were presented to the City of Toronto by the citizens of Tokyo. In any case, this appears to be a mature tree that’s endured many harsh Canadian winters. It grows at the bottom of a hill next to Grenadier Pond.
Walk around the tree and consider its stance. A tree that’s growing straight like a lamp post is far less interesting to sketch than one that’s twisted or misshapen due to strong winds. I think of these twists and turns as the tree’s underlying rhythms.
In the case of this cherry tree, I made a decision sketch from a spot where these underlying rhythms were most apparent. Here the rhythms are a series of C-shaped and reverse C-shaped curves which flow into one another and give the tree a sense of energy and implied movement.
While the idea of looking for rhythms and implied movement may seem nebulous, at least at first, these are forces not to be ignored. Your art will improve by looking deeper.
Happy Tree Sketching.