Exercise: Monochrome studies

The subject suggested is the outline of a winter tree, seen against the sky. As simple or as complex as you wish… Draw the main outline of the tree, including the main trunk and then roughly sketch in the diminishing outer branches and twigs.


Tree at Covehithe, Suffolk (A4) sketchbook – drawing pen and watercolour pencils

I chose to draw a skeletal tree on Covehithe Beach in Suffolk from a photograph. This sculptural tree has been blasted by wind and sea. It landed up in the middle of this sandy beach due to coastal erosion. How it has managed to remain bolt upright is a mystery to me. I was glad later that I’d chosen a relatively simple image, without too many branching twigs.

Prepare two sheets of paper one with a dark colour wash (I chose Payne’s grey and ultramarine) and another  with a light grey ground (I mixed this opaquely using white and Payne’s grey). 

Painting the positive shapes


Covehithe Tree (A3) acrylic – painting the positive image of the tree

Working on the light ground first I copied the image of my tree in charcoal and then used a fine hair brush to outline the positive shapes using the darker colour. I then filled in trunk and main branches, fading out the colour as the twigs narrowed. This resulted in a stark, wintry image with some fine details towards the end of the twigs / branches where the paint was diluted with water. A realistic but rather unexciting painting, lacking atmosphere.

Painting the negative shapes


Covehithe Tree (A3) acrylic – painting the negative shapes

negative-trunk detail

Detail of the dark wash, applied using vertical brush strokes, which forms the tree trunk and branches

Using the paper with the dark wash, I painted the negative shapes using the grey paint applied quite thickly. The paint completely covered the dark ground. I used a medium flat brush and the results were much less precise than above (I didn’t have as much control) but resulted in, for me, a pleasing almost print like image with some simplification of the twig shapes.I like the fact that the vertical lines of the wash underneath are visible and provide some additional visual interest.

I am fascinated by how different the results are when painting the positive and negative shapes. The combination of the opaque grey and the dark wash has worked well together. This is a particularly interesting discovery as I had previously thought of washes as being mainly useful for backgrounds, and now I can see that potential applications are much wider.

Further experiments
The positive image looked a bit dull and as I had photographed it for my blog I experimented further to try to give the painting more visual interest. First I sanded down the the paint to reveal the white gesso beneath. This required a bit of elbow grease and created areas of light on the trunk and broke up  the background colour, making it a bit more like a swirling snowstorm (1). Then I put a thin watery wash of the blue  over to see what impact that had. The wash was transparent so the detail continued to be visible. My picture went from snow to rain in a few brushstrokes (2).


Parts of the image sanded (1)


A wash of the dark blue applied (2)

Note down how you think you could exploit these effects again

  • When working on studies it will be useful to explore the positive and negative images in order to develop ideas to take forward.
  • As mentioned above, it’s interesting to think beyond backgrounds for transparent washes and consider how they might be used for the object of the painting as well as clothes, fabric, hair.
  • Mix transparent and opaque areas in to create a ‘patchwork quilt’ landscape of fields.
  • The way that transparent and opaque paints can be used in layers on top or or underneath each other and how they an alter an image is intriguing me and makes me want to experiment more.

I’ve learnt a great deal from this exercise and felt it was time well spent. The great thing about being a virtual beginner in acrylics is that there is everything to learn and a surprise around every corner.


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