Specific trees: painting Willow

My willow studies began well before I knew it. As children, my sisters and I spent countless hours entertaining imaginary friends with creek water “tea” and various mud pies and cakes.  Our creations were frequently embellished with willow leaves and catkins from the numerous varieties of willow thriving along the creek bank.  While scrambling for the brightest yellow-green buds or tiniest leaves for our treats, I came to know much about willows—where the softest grey “pussy” heads flourished, which would break from tight yellow-green heads into dangling tassels, and those with the sweetest fragrance.

As a third child is wont to do, I went to great lengths to find prize offerings to try and please my older sisters.  Who knew that my actions would have such wonderful pay-off these many years later! When trying to paint in the manner of Chinese brush masters, one needs to study subject material thoroughly.  With willow, my prior knowledge is of great benefit.

From gardening I’ve learned of the endless willow varieties in the genus “salix” and now know the American Pussy Willow, a shrub-like plant, is likely what grew along the creek banks of our childhood home. The red willows which contrasted brightly against snowy backdrops on the edges of the bush surrounding our farm were probably salix lasiandra (unless they were really a dogwood which also sports red bark!)  Landscape gardeners tend to prefer weeping varieties or those with brightly colored barks.  Many willow hybrids have “alba” in their name, referring to the “white-leafed” parent stock. Some are cousins to osiers and laurels.

As a young adult frequently driving the Yellowhead from Yorkton to Saskatoon midwinter, I looked forward to the sight of long rows of the bright orange-barked willow trees used as shelterbelts at a particular stretch of the highway. They were likely some variant of a popular hybrid called Golden Weeping Willow, salix Chrysicoma; too bad the word “Tristis” from one of the root stocks wasn’t retained as it is far more poetic. Another hybrid with a more fitting name is Prairie Cascade.  My local grocery chain includes in its spring horticultural offerings a miniature weeping pussy willow called “tree of enchantment.”  The name is lovely, but the specimens look oddly mis-proportioned with miniature trunks and many cascading branches bearing full-sized “pussies”.  Their enchantment is lost on me.

My neighborhood offers many willow displays for frequent studies, including this one photographed in early spring.

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The Willow in Chinese Brush Painting

I am not surprised to learn the Chinese favor willow as a symbol of  “hope for prosperity” and include it in paintings depicting spring.  Willow is often combined with cherry blossoms and other spring flowers; it is a staple context item for waterfowl or fish compositions, and a distinctive element in landscapes.


I nearly fell into the drink snapping this photo of an aged goldfish called Madonna; she lives in shadows cast by willows in the reflective pond at the Sun Yat Sen Garden in Vancouver.

Learning to paint willow is both elemental and all consuming. Where to start?

The other Barb (TOB) from my art group was formerly a Willoughby, and she says the surname derived from describing folks who lived ‘by the willow’.  Willows thrive near water where the soil stays moist.  The large tree variety with long graceful branches trailing over water or lifting gently in breezes across stately lawns form picturesque scenes throughout our home city of Victoria.

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Beacon Hill Park has several magnificent specimens surrounding the duck pond and stone bridge at its heart.  On visits to Vancouver I’ve often admired the mature specimens that grace Kitsilano Beach.


Painting willow branches being lifted by the wind is a common way to show movement in a brush painting. These magnificent trees at Kits Beach have no doubt been admired, photographed, and painted hundreds of times.

There are several along my daily walk and I examine them often for the way the buds form along the branches, the leaf colors and textures change with the seasons, the trees bend and sway in all sorts of weather.  And then I turn to my art table and try to use that knowledge as I paint.

Willow tree trunks:

As with all trees, you start willows with their trunks. Characteristically willow trees are quite twisted, and main branches sprawl away from the trunk.  They can extend horizontally for quite a distance.  Several of my art books suggest using a detail brush in dark ink and begin by establishing the “four directions”.  Leave main branch ends open, leave gaps for foliage to fill, and reinforce the “vees” of branches with a crotch stroke.

Willow tree branches:

Willow branches are depicted with fine lines, and hence you use a detail brush and dark ink. Each branch “cascades” fountain-like, up and out and then down, down, down from the main branches. This cascading stroke is repeated all over the tree. The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (MSM) has an excellent section on methods for painting willow.  Authors say there are four basic ways to proceed:

1.  Outline and fill in with green

2.  Use a light fresh green to draw new shoots, a fresh yellow for the tips of new leaves, and a dark green for shadows and accents

3.  Add a dark green dotting to the light green dotting first applied; add ink touch-ups

4.  Leave some parts left with fine ink strokes but add more dotting in dark green to others

They note that Tang period painters generally favored the outline method, Sung painters favored dotting in leaves, while those of the Yuan period drew foliage directly in color.  The MSM goes on to explain subtleties of strokes and color to suggest different seasons.


Willow tree leaves/foliage:

From among the many choices of “leaf-dotting” or “tien” covered by the MSM and mentioned in an earlier blog, there are several well-suited to portraying willow.  Interesting effects can be achieved with simple black dotting along the drooping branches or with varied shades of dotting to suggest depth.  Oval shapes that reflect the elongated almond shapes of willow leaves can be used. I find achieving a satisfying proportion of leaf to tree is challenging; the MSM translator comments that the resulting look can be stiff and unnatural. One artist in our Wednesday group who goes by the name Delightful Lotus, painted a solitary willow using this method for our December 2012 Art show.  (You may have to scroll up to view it.) I suspect her success comes after much practice at varying the color shading and tien placement.  You can also depict leaves with single, slightly curved, downward strokes emerging from the branches at intervals.  The following are some practice sheets experimenting with different leaf-dotting techniques.


My examination of real willow branches revealed a surprise: the leaves do not sprout alternating left, right, left from the branches, at 180 degrees apart.   Instead, they emerge in a spiraling pattern, each one about two-inches from the last, but at a point about 60 degrees around the circular branch from the last point of exit. (Every fourth one is aligned) That placement, coupled with the flat, slightly curved longish leaf shape explains why the slightest breeze can cause such a “stir” in a mature willow tree.


These leaves have just emerged; some tufts will expand into short branches.


Two weeks later and individual leaves are longer and more curved.

When leaves first emerge there is a little clump of them at each exit point. Some of those clumps, usually those nearest the main branch, grow into stems and sport leaves along them; others just push out a few leaves.  This growth pattern results in a thicker section at the top, gradually diminishing into a single long trailer at the bottom. Some new thin branch clumps do seem to emerge in a “spray” from older, thicker growth, creating the many thin branches often depicted with many thin trailing lines. Here are some of my practice sheets, trying different leaf styles.



Pussy Willows:

My discussion of painting willow started with childhood memories of pussy willow. My mother-in-law kept a dried bunch in her house year ‘round for much the same nostalgic reason.  Capturing the essence of the soft “pussy” catkins is demonstrated well in Japanese Ink Painting, the art of sumi-e by Naomi Okamoto.

With the palest of ink and a narrow brush held upright, outline the path for willow branches; consider where branching occurs, plan stem endings at various heights, note which branches are in front of others.  Then load a medium brush with a medium wash and “plant” the grey catkins at alternating intervals along the branch. To “plant” a catkin, touch the brush tip to the paper and then flatten the brush base down to the paper; lift off.  Create larger shapes nearer the base of the stem, and place the smaller ones closer together toward the branch tip.  Before the catkins have completely dried, use a drier brush with darker ink and dab in a sepal at the base of each catkin.


Okamoto describes painting in the willow branches after the catkins are done. I practiced with faint lines for branches first, then catkins, and enhanced the branches as needed last. Twigs and branches are done with medium ink and a round brush held upright, striving for that rounded “rat-tail” look.

This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, painting trees, painting willow. Bookmark the permalink.

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