How to Paint a Realistic Tree

Lane Scene', 1851, (1935). From the collection of the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Bolton.

 Print Collector/Getty Images

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First Paint Individual Trees, Then Paint Forests

Size: 5x7" (12x18cm). Acrylic on board.
Marion Boddy-Evans

If you want to paint landscapes, it's worth spending some time painting studies of individual trees and various species of tree. It allows you to focus on one thing only, to become better acquainted with a tree's characteristic form, colors, and textures. It also builds up your visual memory, so when painting from your imagination you can add an oak, poplar, gum, etc, to a composition relatively easily.

Spend time observing different trees in real life, rather than only from photos, because you'll see far more. Sketch the pattern of branches and leaves, note where shadows fall within the tree itself on the leaves and branches as well as the shadow cast on the ground or nearby trees. You may find it easier to focus on the negative space between the branches (as we did in this potplant sketch).

Take an individual leaf and sketch both the front and back, which not only differ in texture but often color too. Note the overall shape of the leaf. When painting distant trees in a landscape this shape can be used as an outline for a small tree, as the overall shape of the leaf often echoes the overall shape of the species.

The first step is to select paint colors for a tree.

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Paint Colors for Trees

Opened tubes of paint.


Caspar Benson / Getty Images

To get realistic colors on a tree, you're going to need more than a tube of brown and green. Not only do leaves differ in color through age, but shadows within the tree and sunlight falling on it change the green too. At the very least, add a yellow and blue to your tube of brown and green, to create lighter and darker tones. Adding white will, obviously, also increase the range of colors and tones.

If your mixed colors are coming out too saturated and bright, try using earth colors such as yellow oxide or yellow ochre, rather than a bright yellow such as cadmium yellow. Experiment with mixing every blue you've got with every yellow you've got, to see which mixture(s) you like the best.

Once you've got your paints ready, it's time to paint the background.

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Painting the Background for a Tree

Step-by-Step Tree Painting Demo
Marion Boddy-Evans

Whether you paint the background before you paint the tree or afterward is a matter of personal preference. Neither is right or wrong. We prefer to paint a basic background first, then the tree, then refine the background. It avoids the need to later paint in the small bits of background or sky that show through a tree's branches.

Here we've painted the sky wet-on-wet, adding extra white directly onto the painting. If the blue of the sky is still wet, adding some yellow directly onto the painting will create a green for some grass.

It's by no means a detailed background, but it's got the fundamental colors and tones. The basic background painted, it's time to add the tree trunk and branches.

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Don't Paint Branches Like This!

Branches don't grow only on the left- and right-hand sides of a tree's trunk.
Marion Boddy-Evans

Paint a vertical line to position the trunk of the tree you're painting. Then widen it, using lighter and darker tones of your basic bark color to give form to the trunk, to make it appear 3D not flat. Remember to paint some roots too; large trees don't emerge from the ground in a straight line.

It's a common mistake to paint branches to the left and right of the trunk, in neatly aligned pairs, as shown in the photo. Trees don't have branches only on two sides of the trunk, there are branches from all sides.

If you make this mistake when painting a winter tree without leaves, or a small-leafed tree with an open structure, you'll need to scrape the branches off or paint over them, perhaps even start again. But if you're painting a tree with lots of dense foliage, you can hide the mistake by painting over it.

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Painting Leaves on the Tree

Step-by-Step Tree Painting Demo
Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

As I said, if you're painting a tree which will have lots of green foliage, it doesn't matter if you've painted the branches wrong because you'll cover over most of them. If you're wondering why you'd bother to paint the branches at all if they're going to be hidden, it's because you still see little bits of a branch between leaves. It's easier to paint the leaves on top than little bits of the brown branch between leaves. Also, the browns of the branches help create tonal and color variation in the greens if you're painting wet-on-wet and mix the colors together a bit or using transparent colors.

When painting leaves on a tree, use small short brush strokes. You want to create layers of mark-making which will create a sense of depth, not have large areas of smooth, flat color.

Keep going and soon you'll have your finished tree painting.

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Finishing the Tree Painting

Size: 5x7" (12x18cm). Acrylic on board.
Marion Boddy-Evans.

Keep going, doing more of what you've been doing. Add in more brown for branches or blue for the sky if you've filled it in too much. Add a touch of yellow on the side the sun is hitting the tree, and a touch of blue to darken the green on the shadow side. Don't forget to use a little of your leaf colors in the grass below the tree too.