Let’s Paint a Savanna!

I have decided to join the group, Wilderness Painters of Chicago! It is a group of artists that meet at different locations once a month in the Chicago area, to do a little “en plein air” (in the open air) painting. How exciting!
Anybody can join, there are no fees, and the people are super friendly. Hot dog!

My first outing with the group was yesterday. We met at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, IL. What a beautiful place! A little bit of a road trip for me, but not too bad. I really need to practice my en pein air painting and wean myself away from being locked in the studio (my dining room) painting from a flat photo.

Here is what I chose to paint. I had many options: creek, forest, wetlands, building, garden, bridge, but I chose the savanna (field with few trees). You know how much I love the structure and character of a tree!

So let’s get going and learn how to paint a savanna with an oak tree in pastel paints!

Step 1: I am using a white  Pastelbord by Ampersand Art. I like to create a very wet underwash using watercolor paints before I apply pastels and the Pastelbord is perfect because it will never warp. With a piece of charcoal, make a loose sketch of the horizon line, tree and field. Next start with the sky. I use cerulean blue and painted diagonal strokes. For the furthest row of trees, I mixed indigo blue and a touch of sap green. The tree is a mixture of alizarin and indigo. I am not worried about getting the exact shape. That will come later with pastels. The field is a big mess of sap green, ocher, and alizarin. Remember, the pastel will cover most of this so I’m not stressed out about being perfect.

By the way, I LOVE drip marks. I love to not cover up the drip marks so that I can give the painting another bit of dimension…however you will see in the end I got carried away and covered these lovely marks. I will remember next time not to do so, painting is a process of learning. I will not develop as an artist if I do not recognize mistakes and remember not to repeat them. I will not know what my mistakes are unless I practice my painting on a regular basis. Practice, practice, practice…

Here is what my layout looked like. I have to thank my good friend Sharon, for letting me borrow her field easel. I don’t even have one!

Step 2: Let your watercolor wash completely dry. Now we are going to apply the pastels. I started with the tree using a sky blue for “tree holes”. A tree holes is the negative space of the tree, where you see the sky in between branches and leaves. Next I used the darkest unison blue pastel I had for the trunk, branches and deepest shadowed leaves.

Step 3: In this step I used the darkest unison green pastel I had and made leaves on the tree. I also used the same dark blue as in the trunk for the shadow of the oak tree. Maybe I should have used a dark purple…I’m not sure.
The one thing I learned about using pastels is that certain brands can get darker than others. I also have Rembrandt pastels, the majority of my pastel supply, but the darkest color is not really dark when you use it. Unisons get really dark and that’s what I need for contrast.

Step 4: Add a little highlight to the oak tree and work on the field. It is really hard for me to tell you why every color is in every spot. With a kaleidoscope of colors in a field, I grab what color I see and if I’m wrong I just work with it. If I try to be exact, I will pull all of my hair out until I am bald. I choose to keep my hair and not worry about the the small stuff.
From now on, I am using Rembrandt pastels. I see a lot of reds in my field scene so I work with it. There is also a tiny bit of a wetland spot in the foreground.

Step 5: Highlight the oak tree trunk, remember the morning sun is coming from the east (right side). Highlight the red grasses using a lighter red/yellow pastel.  All of the lightest colors are coming from the right side. We are almost done.

Here is the final layout. I love comparing the real thing to the painting on the spot. You can’t do that from your dining room table!

Step 6 final: Right now I am noticing a lot of purple/Burgundy weeds popping up. They are beautiful. When I have more time I will research what they are exactly. For now, I added just a few to the foreground.

Using watercolor as a wash and pastel paints on top, it makes it really easy to create an effortless 3D painting in a matter of a few hours.

Speaking of hours in the sun…I am supporting a really fashionable farmer’s tan right now!

I enjoyed my first road trip with the Wilderness Painters of Chicago and look forward to the next month outing! Why don’t you join us? Just keep checking their web site for the next date and location!

I hope you enjoyed this step by step en plein air painting of how to paint an oak tree in a savanna!


  1. NICE!!

    I am sorry for not commenting as often as I should. I do read every post through Google reader but fail to comment as much as I would like. I love your painting for today!

    Craig Glenn

  2. Love the WIP photos! Your first photo to your final is great inspiration to begin with big areas of color and move into your work step-by-step.

  3. Beautiful..as always! I love how u can show how what u are painting looks vs..what u are seeing!
    I am going to Tweet this post out to twitter so others can appreciate what u do!

  4. Seeing Anew: Thank you so much! I’m glad I found them 🙂

    Craig: Oh you never need to apologize for not commenting! No pressure! I’m so glad you enjoy the posts! Thank you!

    Chris: Hey, I like your name…lol! Thanks for the nice comment. Sometimes it is hard to know how to apply paint to such a vast area. It may feel overwhelming. I try to just throw down the paint and then work from there. You can always cover paint up, but starting is the hard part!
    PS Your paintings are terrific! Very beautiful!!!

    Dawn: You are such a sweetie! Thank you so much and for the support! 😀

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