Birches in Peatlands Park

Follow Dermot Cavanagh as he captures the atmosphere of this Irish woodland scene in watercolour…


Winsor & Newton Artists' Watercolour tubes

  • Winsor Yellow
  • Raw Sienna
  • Light red
  • French Ultramarine
  • Cerulean Blue
  • Windsor Blue
  • Alizarin Crimson


  • Saunders Waterford Paper 1/4 Imperial 140LB Rough

Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold 11 Brushes:

  • 19mm One Stroke (3/4" Flat brush)
  • No. 8 Round

Winsor & Newton Sable Brushes:

  • No.5 Round
  • No.2 Rigger


  • SAA Blue Mask

Close to my home, on the periphery of the large country estate where I hold my three-day watercolour courses, there's an area known as Peatlands Park.

It's a picturesque area of ancient peat bogs with fields of birch trees and native Irish woodlands. In January when I was just about to write this article the snow arrived and turned the area into a winter wonderland. During an afternoon walk in the park I was inspired to do this simple snow scene - I hope you enjoy trying your hand at it and I look forward to seeing your results. If you have had enough snow for this year, feel free to experiment replacing the snow with a simple green wash to create your own interpretation with a spring feel.

1 Do a simple outline sketch of the main trees and the horizon line, keeping this approximately one third of the way up the paper, then very lightly indicate the approximate height of the distant hazy trees. Apply masking fluid to the tree trunks and main branches. Tip: Wash the brush out in your water container every 30 to 45 seconds and the masking fluid won't damage the brush. While the masking fluid is drying mix the following five washes using the 3/4" brush:

  • Winsor Blue** and Cerulean Blue* with lots of water for the blue sky
  • For the backlight in the lower sky a wet wash of just Light Red**
  • For the distant hazy trees a dilute but slightly thicker blue/grey wash from French Ultramarine** and Light Red*
  • For the darker shadowy distant trees a thicker wash with French Ultramarine*** and Light Red**
  • A mossy green wash of the same consistency from Winsor Yellow *** and French Ultramarine*

2 To paint the sky and distant trees wet the paper down as far as the horizon line using horizontal strokes of the 3/4" brush, and going over the masked trees. When you are sure that the paper is equally and evenly wet start applying the backlight wash of Light Red to the lower sky area with horizontal strokes of the 3/4" brush covering up to 1" above the maximum height of the distant hazy trees. Then apply the blue sky wash with the same fully loaded brush, starting at the top with horizontal strokes running the full length of the paper. Your aim is to let the amount of wash in the brush diminish as you work your way down to the backlight wash allowing for a graded blend. As soon as the sky is blended and is still damp start bleeding in the background tree washes starting well below the treetop line with the lighter blue/grey wash then feed in some of the darker shadowy wash in the lower areas and then the green wash. Let these washes meld together and help them if need be using a dried off 3/4" brush. Before these washes are totally dry use a penknife to scratch out some sunlit branches and twigs in the distant woodland and the post and rail fencing.

3 While waiting for these washes to dry mix two snow washes: A very dilute pink wash using lots of water and Alizarin Crimson* for the sunlit snow and one with slightly less water and French Ultramarine** for shadowed snow. Try to keep these washes very subtle. Wet the paper using horizontal strokes of the 3/4" brush then apply the washes starting with the pink from the middle to background and then blue from middle to foreground, apply these washes with random horizontal strokes loosely following the contours of the flat ground. When all the washes are completely dry remove the masking fluid with your clean dry finger.

4 Now it's time to start painting the birch tree trunks and main branches.Mix three washes using the No. 8 Brush:

  • Use lots of water to make a dilute wash from Raw Sienna*
  • Less water to make a thicker wash from Light Red** and French Ultramarine*
  • A much thicker wash from Light Red*** and French Ultramarine**

It’s better not to attempt a whole tree at once, do it in sections half to a third of a tree at a time, and apply the tree washes in quick succession so as to allow bleeding to take place before any of the washes dry totally. How much you decide to do will depend on how fast you can paint. Apply the first wash with the No.8 brush to the entire width of the tree, then with the same brush apply the second wash to the left hand side of the tree and encourage this to bleed approximately half way across. While the underlying washes are still damp use a No.5 brush to apply the thicker and darkest third wash to the extreme left hand side letting it bleed naturally. Repeat this process on all the trees but don't take on too much at once. When finished paint in the smaller branches and twigs using the third wash and the rigger brush working in the same direction as the growth, lifting the pressure of the brush to create a natural taper towards the end of the twigs. When all the twigs are painted in, use the same technique to paint in some smaller background trees and saplings.

5 To paint the tree shadows mix a blue/grey wash from French Ultramarine** and Light Red* in a semi-dilute consistency and apply it with the No. 8 brush for the thicker shadows and a Rigger for the finer ones, making sure all the shadows fall in the same direction. For the grass growing through the snow around the bottom of the trees and in the bottom left and right hand corners use the point of a No.5 brush and a mid-bodied green wash made from Winsor Yellow**, Raw Sienna** and French Ultramarine**. Now add a few birds and all you have to do is sign it.