Masking Tape Birches: (Springtime, Step-By-Step!)

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This watercolor painting technique which utilizes masking tape to “draw” birch trees is super fun and yields beautiful results. I have adapted this method to create seasonal birch tree paintings for fall, winter and spring.  (See my post entitled Masking Tape Birch Tree Paintings for winter and fall versions!). By the way, there are loads of video tutorials for this on Youtube, but I’ve chosen to show you some step-by-step pictures for this post.

For this spring version, We used this painting by watercolorist Dean Crouser as inspiration:

Spring_Trees Dean Crouser

I love his loose layered technique and the light spring-like colors!  My student examples were done on 8.5” by 11” Arnhem paper. (Pricey!) Most student-grade watercolor paper works fine, but test it out first! Also important to note: This is somewhat of a “directed drawing” type of project… (Think Bob Ross!) Each class begins with a demo, and then the kids go and do that step. There will sometimes be a little waiting time for quick workers, and the slower students might need to retain the directions for several steps at a time. This lesson can be done in 4 to 5 sequential class periods of 45-50 minutes each. Results do look somewhat similar across the board, but hey: parents are *wowed* by this and sometimes you just need one of those crowd pleasers in your students’ portfolios! 🙂

Day 1:

Using masking tape, create one to three birch trees on your paper. I tell the kids they must disguise straight edges with torn pieces, overlapping as necessary.  A few small side branches should be added as well, and it is OK to use scissors to cut the tape thinner for this step. NOTE: Use only your finger tips to firmly press the tape down. Do not burnish it with anything hard like a ruler or scissor handles, or it will be difficult to remove later. 

Be sure to make sure your trees GO OFF THE TOP OF THE PAGE. You can choose to have them go off the bottom as well, or see the trunk bases in the bottom 1/3 of the picture. Have reference pictures of birch trees handy for the kids to look at!

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My finished trees for this example:

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Day 2:

Lightly draw a line that falls above the base of your highest tree trunk, somewhere in the bottom 1/3 of your paper. Above this line, wet the whole paper quickly, going right over the tape. Use a wet-into-wet blending technique to quickly mix splotches of green, yellow-green, and yellow here and there, again, working right over the tape. Add a few splotches of yellow-orange if you wish. Lastly, use a blue-violet or blue to create a dark, concentrated edge of color at the ground line. Blend up into the lighter green with water to fade it out, using some dotted strokes to mottle the dark paint where it mixes into the light green area.

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To paint the ground, wet the remaining area below the line and use darker green tones with some optional browns or blue-greens added to create a shadow effect around the base of the trees. Go back to the upper part of the painting, now that it’s dried a bit, and add some green splotches to create a “dappled” effect. If this area is still wet and the splotches bleed a bit, that’s fine!

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If you have liquid watercolors and misting bottles, this is the time to spritz a little color here and there. I have a station set up for this to keep messes to a minimum!

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Students in the “Misting Station:

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Student work drying after the first day of painting:

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Day 3:

Carefully peel away the tape from your dried painting to reveal the white birch tree shapes! Don’t worry if a little color seeped underneath here and there. Do this step slowly to avoid ripping the paper, but a little peeling where the tape was is to be expected.

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VERY IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: My art classes meet daily for a trimester. If your classes meet weekly, You should try to create the tape trees AND paint the background in one class. You’ll also need to remove the tape after one or two days. The longer the tape stays on the paper, the more likely it will rip the paper when you try to remove it. 

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Now, use an Ebony pencil, (or a black colored pencil,) to add the distinctive birch bark pattern as well as extending side branches to create even lengthier, delicate branches. Any side branches that have a “chopped off” look when the tape is removed can be made more natural by extending it with the ebony pencil. Again, have tree reference pictures available for this step!

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Visuals always help:

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This is a handout I made to help with this step when we did the winter version of this project:

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Day 4 (and probably 5!)

These last details will likely take two class periods. 

First, mix a very pale blue-green or grey-green in your mixing tray and use this tint to add soft shadows on either the right or left side of your tree trunks. Also add this shadow color to the undersides of all your side branches. Then, mix a more concentrated dark green and use a small brush to add grass blades to the ground. I do one complete layer of grass with green, then another layer with brown, and another layer with yellow-green, always overlapping blades as I go, and working right off the edges of the paper. (Demo these 2 things and send the kids off for ten minutes or so!)

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Second demo: Mix a concentrated yellow-green or dark green for the leaves. Paint the leaves by angling your brush so the flat side leaves an oblong mark, turning your brush in different directions, so the leaves seem to cluster around the tips of your branches. I tell the kids to not worry about making the leaves “connect” to the branches— just keep them loose and suggestive! Lastly, bright colored tempera dots can suggest flowers over your dried painted grasses. You can pre-set a central area with small paint cups and brushes and have the kids cycle through as needed, OR use good quality tempera cakes if you have them.

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A final spritz of liquid watercolor is optional and it’s complete!

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Students at work:

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Have Fun trying this lesson yourself!

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