Common Mistakes When Painting Trees

Trees come in all shapes and sizes, colors and heights. Even two trees of the same species are not identical, although from a distance they may seem very similar. When you are painting trees it is important to envision branches of varying lengths growing in different directions. Think about the bumps and scars on the bark and the subtle variations of hues for the leaves.

When a tree is part of your landscape or even if it is the star of your painting, think about the changing light and shadow throughout the day caused by the sun's movement. Keep in mind the constantly changing weather conditions, and transitions through the seasons.

When done right, trees are an exciting, dynamic element. If you ignore these unique qualities of trees, then your trees may just ruin your paintings or give your work a non-realistic feel. Review some common mistakes you should avoid when including trees in your artwork.

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Use More Than One Green for the Leaves

Painting of birch trees using a variety of greens.
Vermont Birches, by Lisa Marder, acrylic, 8"x10", showing a variety of greens used in painting the trees. © Lisa Marder

The leaves on the tree you intend to paint may be green, but it can be a big mistake to use only one green for the landscaping and expect your painting to look realistic.

Sure, you may think that by adding a little white to create a lighter green or black to create a darker green, that you've handled shade or brightness, but that is inadequate.

You should dig into your paintbox for a yellow and a blue. Mix each of these in with your green to create variations. You can use the yellow/green mixes when the sunlight is falling, and the blue/green for shadowy parts. You can mix quite a variety of useful greens for the landscape by using blues and yellows. 

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Do Not Use One Brown For the Trunk

Tree painting mixtakes
Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans

Like the green for the landscape and leaves, the same applies to the brown of the tree trunk. It will not do to just have one brown for the whole trunk, mixed with white for lighter areas and black for darker. If you are struggling, you can use a recipe for painting a tree and its trunk. Part of the recipe calls for mixing some of your greens, blues, yellows, even red into your "tube brown" mixture to echo the variations in color and the tones from the bark.

Also important, check whether the bark on the species you are painting brown or not. Get outside. Look at the tree. Look at it from different angles and at different times of the day. You might find during personal observation that the bark doesn't even appear brown at all. 

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A Trunk Is Not a Stick Figure

Painting trees
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans

In reality, when you look at trees as they grow up and out of the ground, they actually do not appear as straight lines that emerge from the soil. Trees are not like a pole stuck into the ground.

Trunks widen somewhat at the base where the roots are spreading underground. Some tree species have dramatic roots that have undulating root veins that appear on the tree floor.

Some trees have contour lines that appear uneven. And, some grasses, fallen leaves, or plants may be growing along the base of the trunk. In most cases, the tree floor has a lot of texture.

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Trees Do Not Have Uniform Branches

Step-by-Step Tree Painting Demo
Don't paint branches like this!. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans

Humans may be symmetrical. You may have arms and legs neatly arranged in pairs, but on opposite sides of a trunk, tree branches follow a more complex arrangement.

Spend some time sketching various species, noting the characteristics of their branches. Or, if you cannot spare the time to hang out with a tree, then remember to randomly position the branches.  

Some trees have opposite branching systems that do incorporate some symmetry, like maple, ash, and dogwood trees, but even then, those branches are not like rows of soldiers. The other type of tree branching system, alternate branching, is more randomized.

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Remember the Shadows Within the Branches

Painting of autumn trees by Lisa Marder showing shadows and massing of leaves on trees.
Autumn Begins (Detail) by Lisa Marder, showing shadows and massing of leaves on trees. © Lisa Marder

You may have spent ages perfecting the shadow your tree is casting on the ground, but what about the shadows the branches and leaves cast on the tree itself?

Add shadow as you are painting the leaves, and not as an afterthought. Paint the leaves in layers, going back and forth between the shadow color and the lighter surface colors several times. This will help give depth to your trees and make them appear more realistic.

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Only Paint Some Individual Leaves

Painting of pine tree by Paul Cezanne showing massing of needles and leaves
Paul Cezanne, The Large Pine Tree, c. 1889, oil on canvas. DEA/Getty Images

To make your trees look more realistic, squint at them and see where the major shapes, or masses, are. Paint the masses, as Paul Cézanne did, using a bigger brush, capturing the modulations of light and dark. Then use smaller brushes if necessary to selectively paint a few foreground leaves to add more detail.

Add specificity to a tree as desired. And, if the tree is your focal point, then maybe then detail is necessary. But, in most cases, you do not have to paint each individual leaf.

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Can You See Sky Between Leaves?

Landscape painting by George Inness with sky showing through trees
George Inness, June 1882, oil on canvas. SuperStock/Getty Images

Trees are not solid blocks of material. They may be magnificent and strong, yet they can be delicate and porous living things through which light and air move. Make sure to see like an artist and observe the negative shapes of the sky that peak out between the leaves and branches.

Do not be afraid to go back and add touches of sky color when you have finished painting the leaves. This will open up the branches and let your tree breathe as it does in nature. Even evergreen trees have small patches of sky showing through some of the outer branches. Do not miss these important patches and specks of the sky in your trees.