Landscape Painting Essentials: How to Paint Trees

Painting Trees Means Knowing Their Anatomy

Plein air painting by Tom Brown
This plein air painting by Tom Brown is impressionistic, but gives you a distinct sense of the form and structure of the scrub tree he’s painting.

We often think of trees in a very human way—that they have personalities and traits that distinguish them from all the rest. Their symbolism can be powerful and moving, and they are definitely a landscape painting essential.

To better understand their structure and how to paint them realistically in an outdoor painting, you don’t want to just paint what a tree is in general or what you see in your mind when you think, “tree.” Instead, landscape painters paint the specifics. That is why you are painting outdoors, after all.

So study what kind of species it is, go up to the tree and get a look at its leaves, study the overall shape of the tree—is it round or conical, does it droop or is it more erect and broad? What about the angle of its branches and their connection to the trunk? What is the texture of the bark?

Grandfather Tree Before the Storms by Deb Kirkeeide.

Asking yourself these questions is not meant to force you to go detail crazy in your painting, but to sink into a familiarity with your subject—really see it—so that you can create a compelling, believable plein air landscape painting.

Here are some details to keep in mind when you turn your attention to a few species of leafy brethren.

Large and in charge—the Elm
-Grows to be 120 feet tall and 50 feet wide
-Vase-shaped with branches growing from the top of the trunk
-Gray-brown bark
-Flowers are reddish-brown
-Dense, overlapping foliage

Stands out from afar—the Sycamore
-Reaches 50 to 60 feet in height
-Pyramid-shaped form when young; grows to have a round or irregular shape
-Distinctive white bark that is smooth in texture
-Spiky, circular-shaped fruit
-As it ages, its branches droop.

Wild and unpredictable
—the Oak
-Branches come off the trunk nearly horizontal or parallel to the ground, and can grow in twisted, tangled ways
-Bark is crackled and rough
-Tubular or cone-shaped
-Produces acorns, which will often be littered at its base

What kind of trees did I miss and what can you tell us about their appearance that will help when it comes time to paint them? Let me know! And for more on the wonders and skills associated with landscape painting, consider this new resource bundle: Beautiful Watercolor Landscape. Enjoy!




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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

2 thoughts on “Landscape Painting Essentials: How to Paint Trees

  1. Painting trees seems like a very simple process after all we view them almost every day. But I think painting a great looking tree is very difficult.

    Shape is very essential to the believability of painting a tree. But also even more important is the shape of the shadow (of the leaves and branches) because this is what the highlight of the leaves plays against. Usually it is best to paint trees in early morning or late evening when there is a lot of shadow within the tree.
    In the Kirkeeide painting above, the tree appears to be lit from behind the viewer, thus there isn’t much shadow to help define the highlight areas. The shadows in the background are intense and although you know there in the background, they seem to be a part of the tree. I would suggest adding a light direction for the tree: either it is lit from the left or right, define some shadow areas, and lighten the shadow areas in the background to push them back to let the tree stand tall and strong. I would also like to suggest that most of the time leaves wrap around in front of tree trunks and branches, giving it more of a sense of “roundness”.