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Drawing TREES

Artists often ask me for assistance with the drawing of trees. As with
most subjects this one can be broken down into easy-to-manage
parts - as I shall explain...

Balance and Form

First find your tree. This is not as easy as it might appear... trees
have a habit of looking unbalanced, awkward or just plain crazy!
Despite Nature's best endeavours, not all trees make good subjects.
Finding one with the appearance of good balance can take some time.

Maybe you prefer to design your own? The same rules apply. Unless a
leaning or grossly unsymmetrical tree is going to be of some
advantage to your drawing, you would benefit from first studying
trees and their growth habits to learn the basic rules. Personally, I
nearly always work from photographs that I use as a base from which
to work. I might occasionally draw one just as I saw it but often I will
amalgamate elements from two or more trees into one. But,
whatever your approach, one aspect remains constant - trees posses
three-dimensional form. For simplicity I will concentrate on common
deciduous trees but similar rules and techniques will apply to

Overall Form and Structure

Trees are not flat structures of entwining

branches. Some branches will extend to each side, some will recede
beyond the trunk and yet other will be pointing straight at you. A
country walk in Winter offers a good opportunity to study this. Later,
when the trees are clothed in leaves, you can study the same ones
again but with a full knowledge of their internal skeleton.

Brought right down to basics, a tree in leaf is like a lollipop or

candyfloss on a stick - a round or conical shape on a long pole. You
will see that these basic, three-dimensional shapes conform to normal
lighting expectations. They posses a shaded side, a highlighted side
and a shadow beneath. You may also incorporate reflected light on
the dark side of the trunk if it will help you to better show it's edge.

Keep this basic shape in mind as you work, coupled with the chosen
direction of light, and the tree that you produce will possess an
overall reality of form.

Analysing what you see

There are, to my mind, three major aspects of a tree that make it
what it is. Surface texture and shape, internal bough structure and
gaps through which you can see through to the other side.

Texture and Shaping

These are two major topics that I will return to later. For now just be
aware that your tree must look as though it is clothed in believable
leaves. It's while you are drawing these "leaves", keeping the lighting
direction in mind, that you will introduce the external shaping.

Internal structure
Whether you are drawing hair or grass or the boughs of a tree one
important point extends to them all what you start you must finish.
Nothing looks more false to the eye than a bough that springs from
nowhere or one that simply disappears. Make your internal structure
believable and the eye will accept what you draw as reality.
Holes and gaps - negative areas
Holes through the foliage are a great boon as they enable you to
show the far side of the tree and add reality to your drawing. And
these holes and gaps often expose the hard edges of the boughs -
using these in stark silhouette (they rarely receive direct light)
contrasts well with the more enigmatic foliage and can be used to
impart a softer look to the leaves.

It is only by analysing what you see that you will gain the full
understanding that allows you to draw realistically. A tree is not an
amorphous collection of leaf-shaped items or random marks that, you
hope, will fool the viewer's brain into reading "tree". A tree is an
ordered, layered object with an outer covering (often partial) around
an inner armature or core. How you draw it, the technique you
choose to use, is determined largely by the position of the tree or
bush in your composition - foreground (where each leaf shape is
discernible), background (where the leaves form a mottled pattern
that describe the overall three-dimensionality) or midground
(somewhere in between the two). For the basis of this tutorial I'm
going to choose the midground scenario with illustrations of the other
two. So let's pick up a pencil and draw tree...

Let drawing commence...

Think of your tree not as a drawing but as a sculpture - a three-
dimensional surface wrapped around an internal armature. The first
job then is to create the armature with indications of where the major
masses of foliage will be appear.
This tree was photographed with
a 200mm zoom lens at a distance of about 150 metres. The lack of
detail is not important - indeed it is a bonus as it concentrates
attention on the forms within the tree.

The internal structure is nicely silhouetted allowing the eye to follow

the major limbs through the structure.

I incorporated this tree into the composition of my drawing Done

The internal structure has been
explored to some extent, the major holes through the foliage mapped
out and the main areas of shadow noted.

Note that the tree originally had two trunks. One has been removed
and the emphasis placed on the centre and right of the tree as the
composition requires other trees to overlap the left side.

This is not drawn on the final working surface but is a separate sketch
for later transferral. The benefit of this is that it allows unlimited
exploration of the form - in this case the masses of foliage tend to
have rounded tops when viewed straight on and others to the side
sweep downwards as they decrease in depth. We can put this
understanding to good use later.
The completed tree as it appears
in Done Balin'. Note that the left-hand side is invented, the right
hand side conforms only to the photograph's outline and some of the
holes through the foliage have been closed.

Only the "spirit" of the tree has been used to depict it - the actual
structure of the foliage masses has been altered to better suit my
requirements. Photographs can provide detail but they are better
used as compendiums of overall information - they give a "feel" for
the structure and add realism to your invention.

To make life easy the "clothing" of a tree can be broken down into a
collection of similar elements. Just experiment with small sections
until you arrive at a texture most resembling the effect you wish to
attain. In this case the tree is in the midground so the "leaves" only
need to appear as highlighted points where light reflects from their
variously angled surfaces.
The basic guidance drawing. This exercise measures 2"2" and was completed in just over 1

Here I'm establishing the darkest and lightest tones and beginning to get a feel for the form. Don't
add tone yet to the white, negative points.

When you've established and delineated the shadow and highlighted areas, add overall tone to
provide lighting that conforms to your chosen direction.

My technique (as shown above) involves three stages:

1. Map out a loose framework for the internal and external structures.

2. Working in random patterns, create a flat depiction of depth. By this I

mean vary the weight of your pencil marks, graduating from dark to
light, leaving more negative space between the marks as you
progress. This method involves a combination of negative and
positive drawing - the shadows rely on the positive, weighty pencil
marks and the highlighted areas are produced by drawing around the
white "leaves". More leaf, more highlight. Less leaf, more shadow.
Work quickly - speed fools the brain. Tap into your creative side by
working too quickly for your logical side to keep up.

3. Finally, reinforce your deepest shadows (leave no negative spaces)

then add overall tone as required to each area of foliage so it
possesses a roundness that conforms to your chosen direction of

Adjustments can be easily made with Blu-Tack, which is why I

advocate placing the final shaping-tone on top. Blu-Tack can lift this
off so gently that the detail below is left undisturbed and can be
continually adjusted and re-adjusted with little harm to the under-

With practice some of the early stages can be dispensed with. For
example, the trees to the left of our example tree (see below) merely
had their positions marked in my line drawing. The trees themselves
grew organically as I worked. I had only to decide where the sun
would catch their tops before starting out.

Done Balin' limited edition print

Trees and Foliage examples...



Don't get obsessive about the time taken to complete a drawing.
Taking longer doesn't necessarily mean "better". If the drawing took
three weeks to complete then that's what it required - it wouldn't be
any better for a month spent on it. In fact, taking too long may result
in the drawing being overworked. When you begin a drawing don't
have any preconceived ideas about how long it will take. It will take
as long as it requires.