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
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.eyeris.eu.
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.