I think the question I get most frequently
is, “How do I paint a tree?” For many artists it seems to be a difficult element
to paint, so I hope to take some of the difficulty out of it with this tutorial.
Today, I’m painting a beech tree. I’m working on Arches oil paper with a Blackwing
pencil, Charvin oil paints, and Winsor and Newton painting medium.
We begin by sketching the general idea of your tree…. The scope of it. Where you want
it to begin, where you think it should extend, and the most primary shape of the limbs. I
like to start with giving myself some boundaries – where the leaves will extend out to – because
I’m always getting carried away on leaves! So, here you see I’m just putting in a very
rough general shape, just to give myself a guideline to follow. There’s no need to
get too cute at this point. It’s all going to be covered up, so don’t worry about it
being messy or looking bad. For step two, it’s time to mix some paint.
For this tutorial I have chosen 6 colors which I’ll list at the side of the screen. On
my palette you see Titanium White, the tree’s base color Raw Umber, some Raw Umber and Titanium
White for the trunk highlight, some Raw Umber and Payne’s Gray for the trunk’s shadow,
Sap Green for a secondary leaf shadow color, Sap Green with Payne’s Gray for the dark
leaf shadow, Bamboo Green for a leafy mid-tone, Bamboo Green mixed with Cadmium Yellow Medium
for a highlight, and Bamboo Green with Cadmium Yellow Medium and Titanium White for the lightest
highlight. Now it’s time to mix the colors. Make sure to mix all the colors thoroughly
as we need defined colors for this project. Marbled colors will not help us. Also, make
sure to clean your palette knife after mixing each color. I love having a container of baby
wipes nearby whenever I paint. If you’re as prone to a painting mess as I am, they’re
a real life saver. Now we start to lay in the basic structure
of the tree. I’m starting with straight Raw Umber. It’s a good, cool-toned base
color that you can build on. I’m starting from the base of the tree and moving upwards.
The beech tree has a shorter trunk and long, tall limbs that reach upwards rather than
outwards like an oak tree would. As you can see here, painting with straight oil paint
made for a bit of drag on the paper. This does not happen on all surfaces, but oil paper
is prone to it. To fix this, I have mixed in some painting medium into the Raw Umber.
You’ll see me mix this into the colors frequently as it helps for a smooth application and to
achieve the fine lines necessary for the smaller branches and twigs. Start with just a little,
because you can always add more later, but subtracting would mean you would add more
paint, and thus, waste paint. Wasting paint, is never a good idea! Your consistency should
be thinner than the straight oil paint, but not too watery. I want the paint to remain
a little on the thick side. Later on, you’ll see that I mix more painting medium into the
highlight colors to really thin them out because thin paint will cover thick paint, but not
vice versa. Okay, let’s move on with the tree!
Just let go at this point and let the tree tell you what it wants to look like. However
odd that might sound to people, allowing your creativity to be in the driver’s seat is
really important, especially with trees. They come in all different shapes and sizes, so
you don’t want to get them to a point where they look repetitive, over balanced, or just
too perfect. Once in a while is fine, but it’s better to be a bit more free flowing
with them. It’s a really good idea to do some research
into types of trees to expand your tree vocabulary and get to know the basic shapes of each species.
Spend some time online, look at pictures and practice them, because if you’re a landscape
artist, you’ll do many in your time as an artist. This is why I love the Arches oil
paper. The commitment is very low as compared with canvas, so you can feel free to mess
around and practice new techniques any time you want to.
Here, I’m continuing on the tree by putting in some smaller branches and twigs. We don’t
need to get too crazy here, but some will show through after we put in the leaves. It’s
better to cover twigs than to have nothing there to cover at all. Those little bits showing
through add to the realism of the finished piece. At this point, if you need to thin
the paint down a little bit more to make it easier to get the finer lines, go for it.
We will not be requiring a thinner highlight color on the tiny branches.
After you’ve completed the basic structure, double check your work and make sure that
the trunk can support the limbs you’ve painted on it. Branches work from thick at their base
to thin at their tips, so make sure that you feel your tree’s trunk can support your
work. Branches also don’t jet out at 90 degree angles. There’s always a bit of a
curve between the branches that fork off. This, too, is all about support and will add
to the realism of your tree. This step is important, so take your time.
The next step is to bring your tree’s structure to life with some shadows and highlights.
Doing so will not only indicate where your light source is coming from, but it will also
give the feeling of texture and roundness to your tree’s trunk and limbs. Choose a
direction for your light source. I’m selecting a light source that is higher and a bit to
the left. Mix more painting medium into your shadow
and highlight colors. The consistency needs to be thinner than the consistency of the
tree’s raw umber base color. From here, you can dive in and have some fun. I don’t
find for this wet-on-wet technique that it matters if you begin with a shadow or a highlight.
I often go back and forth, intermingling them together to achieve the feeling of the bark.
Paint in some highlights and shadows where you anticipate the sun will be hitting the
limbs through the leaves. If you’re working on a smaller tree, the way I am, you don’t
need to do this for every single branch. The larger ones are good enough. If your tree
is much larger, however, do the same. As you’re painting, keep in mind the roundness of the
trunk and what area the sun will be hitting the strongest. If you need to add a little
more titanium white to lighten things up a bit more, that’s more than fine.
Try not to overwork this step. You could spend an entire day on it, but I find that it’s
best not to over think the process. Now it’s time to work in the shadowy leaves.
Picture the areas that have the highest concentration of leaves. Leaves over leaves over leaves.
You’re painting the leaves toward the back of that pile here where no sun is hitting.
Adding these layers of varying shadows and mid-tones help to indicate to the viewer that
the tree is full, lush, and leafy. Remember, there are 4 sides to a tree. Many
people make the mistake of visualizing their tree as having one flat planed side, which
will kill the realistic quality of your tree. Even if you’re not actually painting 4 complete
sides, keep them in mind anyway. Here you’ll also see that I’m painting in some leafy
shadows behind the branches. This indicates leaves in the back of the tree. This is important.
Make sure not to cover all of the branches with leaves. Throughout the process of leafing,
shall we say, also make sure to leave in areas of the background… which in this case is
just white, of course… but it is imperative. Moving on to the secondary shadow color, I’ll
mix some painting medium in and continue with the same concept. You want to layer the sap
green over the darker green so it begins to give the effect of leaves coming from the
back to the front. Don’t cover up all your darks. They’re really vital to making your
tree look good. At this point, a good 50/50 balance is great.
For the mid-tone leaf color and the first stage of highlights, more painting medium
goes in and the same technique continues. Use a smaller brush with less paint for the
outermost leaves. Keep many of them small to indicate new growth. Also, try not to paint
the tree’s canopy too rounded. Leave a lot of white space between the exterior branches.
I should note that this technique of small dots as leaves works well for a beech tree,
but other leaf clusters on different species of trees are different. It’s a good rule
of thumb to check and see what your tree’s leaves actually look like and shape your individual
leaves accordingly. And if a tiny fly happens upon your palette,
take a moment and chase him out of your paint. The highlight stage is when the tree begins
to come alive for me. You can really pull that canopy out towards the viewer. The highlighted
leaves come forward, while your shadowed leaves move backwards and your branches remain rooted
at the center. The beech tree’s limbs move upward and out,
unlike some other trees which can have heavier limbs and leaf clusters that sag downwards.
Keep that in mind as you work on the center. I’m working quite quickly for purposes of
this tutorial, but by all means, take your time on your own tree. Work to your own pace
and do what makes you feel comfortable. Most importantly, just have fun with it!
Time to let this dry. Where I live, this should be dry in about a day, but it will vary depending
on the weather. Since your palette is full of painting medium,
I’d recommend putting your palette in the freezer. The cold air will dramatically slow
down the drying time of your paints so you should still have very workable paint when
you come back to finish your tree. Back to it! I have mixed in some more painting
medium and a little more titanium white to our final highlight color. Unfortunately it’s
hanging slightly out of frame here, but you get the idea. Continue pulling that canopy
forward to the viewer while keeping in mind how far the light source has moved over your
tree. Okay, I think this is just about done. Remember
not to overwork your tree. Painting is so much about instinct, so let your intuition
tell you when it’s done. Overworking anything can totally ruin all the hard work you put
in. If you’re just not sure, step away for a little while. Grab a snack, go outside for
a bit, and come back in to reevaluate your work. You can also try to look at your work
in the mirror or even upside down to get a fresh perspective on the matter. I’m happy
with this one, so I’ll call it finished. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! If you have
any questions, please send me a message, and if there are tutorials you’d like to see,
definitely let me know. I will be doing a lot more of these so please subscribe! You
can also visit my Facebook page which will be below in the info along with my supplies.
Thanks for watching!! Happy painting!