Tree Painting Step-by-Step Demo: Forest in the Style of Klimt

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The Inspiration for the Klimt-style Tree Painting

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
Starting with a sketch and blocking in background color. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

Mention the painter Gustav Klimt and people are more likely to think of paintings with gold leaf such as The Kiss or , rather than paintings of forests and trees. But Klimt was also a painter of landscapes. My favorites are his moody paintings of forests or groups of trees, such as these:

Klimt's forest paintings are done on a square canvas (which suggested a "sense of quiet" 1), with the tree trunks sharply cut off by the top of the canvas (leaving your imagination to allocate a final height to them). On closer inspection, you'll see that the trees in his later forest paintings are more distinctive or individual than in his earlier paintings. Klimt's passion was the "essence of things behind their mere physical appearance" 2, captured with very fine tonal gradations. Klimt is also known to have used a viewfinder or binoculars to select a part of a landscape to paint. 3

The painting in this step-by-step demo was inspired by Klimt's forest paintings and a pine forest in a nature reserve near to where I used to live. Although as this reference photo shows, it's dominated by dark tree trunks and a bright forest floor covered in dead pine needles, it was just a starting point, and the final painting ended up far more of an autumnal forest. The first step was to sketch in the composition...

1. Gustav Klimt Landscapes by Johannes Dobai (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1988), p11.
2. Ibid, p12.
3. Ibid, p28.

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Starting with a Sketch and the Basic Background Color

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
The first four stages of the painting, from sketch to background color. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

My starting point was to sketch the painting's composition in pencil onto the canvas, marking the horizon line and where the main tree trunks would be. Then I blocked in a background color with acrylic paints -- cerulean blue for the sky and Australian yellow green.

The latter was a new color I wanted to try, from Derivan Matisse, an Australian paint company. Looking at it though, it was a quite a bit greener than what I envisaged for the painting, so I then painted over it with a thin glaze of cadmium yellow, then a more opaque glaze of cadmium orange (except for the areas of the main tree trunks).

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Positioning the Trees

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
Deciding how many tree trunks there should be, and where they should go. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The first tree trunks to be painted in were the large ones from my sketched composition. Then I gradually added more and more, stepping back regularly to assess how it looked.

One major change from the sketched composition was the addition of two large tree trunks in the left-hand side of the painting at the front. (Later on I took one of these out again; see Step 5.)

The colors used for the tree trunks were raw umber, Prussian blue, and quinacridone burnt orange. In the last photo, you can see where I've started using the latter color on the forest floor too.

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Building Up Color in the Forest Floor

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
Getting the overall tone right, not too dark and not too light. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

These photos show how I built up color on the forest floor using various colors, painted in short lines. By working in a consistent direction, the lines give a feeling of direction and height to the forest floor, as if the trees go up a slight hill.

The colors used include a little of the cerulean blue used for the background of the sky, the green-gold, raw umber, and quinacridone burnt orange.

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Darkening and Brightening Colors

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

The colors felt too intense and bright, so I added quite a few more tree trunks, then applied a glaze of raw umber across the whole painting to dull it down (Photo 1). On assessment, I decided I'd overdone it, so tentatively added some cadmium orange and yellow green (Photo 2).

Then I decided to stop hedging around and just go for it, so got painting with the quinacridone burnt orange (Photos 3 and 4). I knew I would repaint the tree trunks somewhat, so wasn't overly careful not to paint over them with the orange. (Besides, having a background that appears painted around objects is one of the easiest ways to ruin a painting!)

This is also the stage where I changed the composition. I shortened the tree in the left-hand corner because the three tree trunks in a row felt wrong, too dominant. (It also meant that I had three tree trunks going off the bottom edge of the painting, fulfilling the composition 'rule' that odd numbers are better than even.

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The Final Painting

Tree Painting Step by Step Demo -- Tree Painting in the Style of Klimt
The finished painting has a distinctly autumnal feel to it. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

It can be hard to judge when to stop working on a painting, to decide that you're simply fiddling and not improving anything. The photo shows what the Klimt-style tree painting looked like when I stopped working on it. Judging it after a week or so, I think it could be developed further still, making the tree trunks more individual and the ones at the back narrower.

However, I'm not going to do anything to this particular painting. Instead I'm going to paint another version, using the same size canvas and colors, building on what I learned from this painting in the next. But first it's time for another trip to the forest with my sketchbook, time for observing and absorbing. Then it'll be back to the easel.