Paint a be­liev­able wood nymph

Iris Com­piet takes in­spi­ra­tion from na­ture to ex­plore the world of fae, us­ing mixed me­dia and her in­stincts to cre­ate a be­ing that’s half hu­man and half tree

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For this work­shop I’ll be cre­at­ing a dryad, a fe­male spirit of na­ture, also known as a nymph. I’ve been ex­plor­ing the world of fae for quite a while now, work­ing steadily on a col­lec­tion of crea­tures of the Seelie and Unseelie Court for a per­sonal project.

The dryad has al­ways fas­ci­nated me. When­ever I strolled in the for­est as a young girl I al­ways felt watched, while the sounds the for­est made felt like breath­ing. So the ex­is­tence of dryads was a nat­u­ral known fact to me. They are the pro­tec­tors of the trees and would pun­ish any mor­tal who would harm one.

Over the course of this ar­ti­cle I want to ex­plore this theme and find a way to in­cor­po­rate a hu­man-like be­ing into a tree, in such a way that it would seem be­liev­able. The way I see th­ese crea­tures is the same way some trees look like they have hu­man fea­tures, in their gnarly branches, roots and bark.

I want my dryad to be beau­ti­ful as well as men­ac­ing. Some­thing I find in­ter­est­ing is the thin line be­tween good and evil. This crea­ture is all-know­ing, all-see­ing and has been around since the dawn of ages. Much like the an­cient trees, they seem to be un­moved by the world around them. But harm them or their kind and they will re­tal­i­ate. So I want to have an eerie vibe to the piece. Some­thing in the look of this crea­ture will give you the idea that you’d bet­ter not mess with her.

To add to her oth­er­worldly ap­pear­ance I want to give her gnarly branches, which act as limbs cov­ered in moss and fungus. For in­spi­ra­tion I’m look­ing to­wards na­ture and a folder filled with trees and roots in my Pin­ter­est board. I’ll use wa­ter­colour as my main medium, a Col-Erase brown pen­cil for de­tails and tex­ture, and some Holbein Acryla gouache to high­light cer­tain ar­eas.

As with most of my fae pieces I treat this as a sketch. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the world and ex­plore the crea­ture. I work in­stinc­tively, do­ing what feels right at that mo­ment in time. This ap­proach doesn’t al­ways have the de­sired ef­fect, but gives me the op­por­tu­nity to learn new tech­niques or so­lu­tions that I can bring to other pieces.

Iris is an artist liv­ing in the Nether­lands, where she paints fan­tasy and folk­lore im­ages of the weird and won­der­ful, ex­plor­ing the depths of dark­ness to find the light. Learn more at www.ey­e­

The ini­tial sketch

I rarely do thumb­nails. Most of my pieces are based on one sketch – the sin­gle idea that’s popped up and scream­ing at me from my sketch­book page. In that lone sketch I have ba­si­cally all the in­for­ma­tion I’m look­ing for. If it speaks to me, then it’s the one for me.

Bring to­gether my ref­er­ences

I’ve got fold­ers filled with pic­tures of trees, bark and fungus. A trip to Wist­man’s Woods in Devon, Eng­land, gave me plenty of ref­er­ence to work with. I some­times set up my com­puter in front of me while work­ing – that way I can switch be­tween ref­er­ences. If the com­puter isn’t an op­tion, I use my iPad or just plain-old printed photos.

Ap­ply­ing the ini­tial washes

I dampen my paper com­pletely us­ing an atom­iser. I let it dry a lit­tle and with a brush I add dabs of colour to cer­tain ar­eas, mainly the back­ground. But I’m not pay­ing at­ten­tion to bleed­ing colours – I want them to bleed and cre­ate tex­tures. I use a hairdryer on some of the ar­eas and add more colour to others. I’m build­ing up a base.

Sketch­ing some more ideas

How­ever, I feel that the ini­tial sketch misses some­thing, so I try to find what it is. I sketch some more, do­ing quick fa­cial stud­ies for the dryad and I de­cide that a mix be­tween the first and last sketch may have the de­sired out­come: a men­ac­ing death stare.

Set­tling on the fi­nal lines

I sketch my fi­nal im­age di­rectly on to my stretch paper, us­ing the things I liked best from the dif­fer­ent sketches I made ear­lier and cre­at­ing an en­tirely new sketch right on the spot. I only do this when I’m work­ing on per­sonal art. I use an HB pen­cil, but not too hard or soft, so it doesn’t muddy up my colours too much.

Pick­ing up colour

With a rolled-up piece of paper towel, I pick up any pig­ments that have gone where I don’t want them. I clear up ar­eas I want to stay light for now, adding more clean wa­ter to th­ese ar­eas to pick up even more pig­ment as I re­peat the process. I want the face, chest and a cou­ple of branches twisted to­wards the viewer, to be lighter.

De­vel­op­ing tex­tures on the can­vas

At this stage I start adding tex­tures. I’m build­ing up lay­ers of tex­tures, which help me cre­ate the feel of the bark. I use my brush to paint swirly lines in a mix­ture of colours, from browns to greens and even turquoise. Th­ese lines are seem­ingly ran­dom and I try to fol­low the flow of the branch, but a nat­u­ral sponge is a help­ful tool as well.

Build­ing up the back­ground

I al­ter­nate be­tween work­ing on the main char­ac­ter and the back­ground for­est. Tack­ling the back­ground helps me to de­cide what colours to use in my step. I paint in the trees in a wet sur­face, leav­ing the edges of th­ese trees soft in con­trast to the edges of the dryad.

The ben­e­fits of a Rig­ger brush

I use a Rig­ger brush for the de­tails in the face, blend­ing the bark with the hu­man fea­tures. The long Rig­ger means I have a lit­tle less con­trol over the lines and I like the na­ture of them. I build up even more tex­ture and lines to cre­ate the bark.

Adding moss to as­pects of the dryad

I keep adding de­tail to the piece, in par­tic­u­lar tex­ture, which is very im­por­tant. I use sev­eral meth­ods to cre­ate the tex­ture in the moss. For ex­am­ple, there’s the wet-in-wet method, where I just let the paint do its thing. Just be­fore the sur­face is dry I drag a dry brush across the still-wet paint sur­face to cre­ate the hanging moss.

Bring­ing in more tex­ture

I like to work wet in wet, us­ing the prop­er­ties of wa­ter­colour to my ad­van­tage. I lightly dampen a small area and in­tro­duce more pig­ment to it. Then I wait for it to bleed and blend, us­ing clean wa­ter in my brush to pick up pig­ments where I feel there’s too much.

Fungus and gnarly de­tails

Adding de­tails such as fungus and bumpy holes en­hance the idea of the dryad grow­ing old. She’s be­com­ing a tree, leav­ing her hu­man side be­hind. Us­ing the Rig­ger, I de­fine the shapes, fol­low­ing the lines of a fic­ti­tious ribcage along which fungus is grow­ing. The red­dish and pur­ple fungus also adds a bit of con­trast to the green.

Paint in some gouache high­lights

Aside from dark­en­ing some branches to push them back, I go into the piece in some ar­eas with gouache. This makes cer­tain ar­eas pop a lit­tle more, adding lit­tle high­lights on the fungus and around the area of the face.

Pen­cilling in de­tails

I darken cer­tain ar­eas us­ing a Col-Erase brown pen­cil. The pen­cil on the paper gives an­other dif­fer­ent tex­ture to the piece, which is a lit­tle gift. Ac­cen­tu­at­ing and sharp­en­ing some lines in the branches.

Fix­ing the back­ground with a fi­nal wash

I think the back­ground is still too light, so I add a fi­nal wash of In­digo blue mixed with a lot of wa­ter to the ar­eas of the back­ground. This pushes it back and soft­ens the trees in the back­ground. Some branches of the dryad are cov­ered as well, so they fade into the back­ground, cre­at­ing a lit­tle more depth over­all. And now I call it fin­ished.

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