How Keiko Tanabe Uses Trees in Her Watercolor Landscapes - Creative Catalyst Productions

How Keiko Tanabe Uses Trees in Her Watercolor Landscapes

July 31, 2019 5 min read

In celebration of Keiko Tanabe’s new video release, Storytelling in Watercolor, we’re taking a look at how Keiko Tanabe uses a beloved landscape element in her watercolor paintings: trees.



There’s a lot we can learn from how Keiko Tanabe uses trees. Trees offer a lot of great opportunities for a landscape painter. They offer value contrast and edge contrast. They can help move an eye around a painting and be a pop of interest and detail.



Keiko thinks about her trees from the very beginning. Off camera, Keiko works on her value and composition plan and trees are a vital part of this sketch. She asks herself questions about whether the leaves are small or big or dense. She also decides if she wants the edges to be hard or soft. She makes a lot of these decisions before she ever draws on her watercolor paper.



Once she gets to her watercolor paper, though, she doesn’t draw in every leaf. In fact, sometimes she’ll paint the trees without drawing them at all.

“All I have to do is understand the shape,” she says of trees. “I study how the branches come out of the trunk and the type of leaves.”  

But just because she doesn't draw in every leaf doesn't mean Keiko isn't thinking about her plan. Keiko definitely has a plan. Having a solid plan is part of what allows her to paint so quickly. Before brush touches paper, Keiko knows how she's going to add her trees to her painting.


How Keiko Tanabe Adds Trees to Her Watercolor Landscape

Now let’s explore how Keiko adds the trees into her first demo in Storytelling in Watercolor.  (Remember, you can sign up for her VIP Presale list for a chance at a discount and free domestic shipping.)



In her paintings, Keiko starts with her big shapes. You’ll notice that when she’s putting in her background sky, she isn’t worried about covering the area she’s going to later fill in with trees. Her painting style is fast and it isn’t precious. She doesn’t bother saving areas if she knows she doesn’t have to.

After she paints in her sky, she adds quinacridone gold to her turquoise sky mixture. With this color, she adds in grasses to her painting. She also begins to work up into the area of her future treeline.


Now she’s ready to officially begin her trees. But first, she stops and considers the moisture of her paper. Right now, the paper is too dry.


“My plan was to create a little more softness in this tree,” says Keiko. So she mists her watercolor paper with her small spritz bottle. (One of her most important tools.) She’s battling the wind and the heat and she’s constantly touching her paper to see how wet it is and calculating what kind of edge that level of wetness will create.



“If the trees have both hard and soft edges, that’s fine. They don’t have to be totally soft,” she says. In fact, Keiko wants this combination to bring contrast and interest to her painting.

She changes the color temperature of her trees as she paints them. She starts with a fairly blue-green hue. As she works, she greys her color and warms it a bit.  

She paints her trees quickly and intentionally. She uses her calligraphy brush, sometimes including the side, to paint trees that give a sense of the wind Keiko is experiencing during the video workshop’s filming.

“I'm making swirls to create the feel of the trees moving in a circular motion,” she says.



It’s at this point she realizes two things. First, she knows the trees in her composition sketch are darker than the ones currently in her painting. The paper is still a bit moist and she mixes a dark mixture of violet and cobalt to use as the undersides of her tree line.

It’s also at this point that she moves a bit more toward realism, “I’m trying to show a little more reality, bringing down the trunks and maybe even showing some branches here or there if I can.”


But she doesn’t do this through slow painting. There’s no slowing down. She does what she needs in the quickest way she can. In this case, that means a bit of dry brushwork and by scratching with a palette knife.

How to Scratch with a Palette Knife

Keiko uses scratching for more than just her trees. She also uses it to get some lights back in her work without having to slow down and paint negatively around her lights. Again, she’s always looking for methods to paint faster but still get necessary details where she wants them.

Scratching only works when your paint is still wet. It’s something Keiko acknowledges you’ll have to practice a bit. If you scratch into paint that’s too wet, the paint will seep back into the line and make it darker. If you scratch when the paint is too dry, you won’t get any line at all. If you scratch when the paint is just right, you’ll pull out a lighter line.



And that’s what Keiko wants for her trees in her first demo of her two-demo workshop. She scratches out some lines and gives the viewer a sense of trunks and branches without spending a ton of time painting every trunk and branch.

How Keiko Tanabe Uses Trees as Part of Her Composition

Keiko knows that for her as the painter, she gets to choose what she leaves in and what she takes out of her watercolor paintings. She uses trees as a way to take things out.

In her first demo painting, she takes a moment to survey her scene.


“There’s a lot of things I’m seeing over there,” she says of the right side of her painting scene, “but it’s not my intent to show them. Or paint them.” Her solution: “I’m just going to fill it with a tree.”



Keiko knows that she’s in control and gets to decide. Occasionally, in her video workshop painting, you’ll see her decision not to leave in a mass of details. Instead, she decides that it’d be better for the painting if those details weren’t included in the final painting. She uses a tree to cover the space.  

Keiko also uses trees as a way to emphasize other shapes.


“Trees are usually dark in value. So I can use this [the value] to show important shapes,” she says.

For example, on the left side of her first painting demo, she has a brown barn. She uses the dark tree line behind the barn to emphasize the barn’s shape. In her second painting, she uses her tree line to help emphasize cows in a pasture.



In both cases, it's is something she has figured out beforehand. She’s using trees to help make her painting better.


Plein air or in-studio, trees are a wonderful addition to any landscape painting. Watercolorist Keiko Tanabe is constantly using trees in her watercolor work. Sometimes they are more of the main attraction and sometimes she uses them as important background players. Either way, she plans how to use them and then dives into them confidently, using them to add interest and expression to her bold paintings.

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