Monthly Archives: April 2014


Trees are diverse — their trunks, limbs and branches, foliage are all dependent on their type.  The best way to learn how to draw trees is to draw trees, especially bare trees in the winter.  Learn the skeletons first.  It takes a lot of observation and practice.  Begin to examine how branches grow out of the trunks. Where is the widest part of the trunk? The trunk of a tree is not straight up and down; many are distorted by the wind and natural elements.  It’s much more interesting when the shape of the trunk changes direction.  Trunks are not always larger at the base either, unless they are cypress trees.  Roots serve to pull in food and give support. They get thinner as the tree grows taller and leaves congregate toward the outside air and light. But they don’t get thinner until they begin to branch.  the branches follow the same pattern.  Each year is a different growth spurt, so branches and limbs grow at angles and not as ribbons or curves.

It’s useful to use varied pressures while drawing tree trunks with a pencil.  Use the pencil on point and on the edge to simulate the rough texture of the bark.  Start from the ground up and “grow” the tree. Watch the direction of the light. Use light limbs against dark foliage and vice versa. Always look for the sky holes.  The value of the sky is darker inside the sky holes than the rest of the sky behind the tree.  It’s a good idea to draw/paint a branch or limb inside the sky holes — it says “tree” effectively.

Think in terms of gesture drawing. What is the action of the tree? This is the axis.  If it has leaves, think of it as a solid shape.  Which side of the tree is the darkest? As a solid object, it has form and value.  It’s darker where you can see through to the trunk, and the trunk darkens as it moves up.  The most important detail is the negative space.

For foliage, always think in terms of masses.  TDo not, I repeat, do not start with little leaf-life strokes before you’ve defined the clumps of foliage.  IF YOU CAN’T COUNT THE LEAVES, DON’T DRAW THEM INDIVIDUALLY.  SUGGEST THEM INSTEAD.    Always place some foliage in front of the trunk, not always behind.  The only places that you can suggest leaf shapes are on the edge of the tree facing the light, or in the negative spaces of the sky holes.

Warm light bounces from the ground to the underneath planes of the tree.  Trunks are cooler where they face a clearing and warmer when they reflect a forest bed. Use yellows and pale greens for sun-struck foliage and vary the hues in the foliage shadows.

Summer on the Lake




Painting a realistic landscape and trying to give the illusion of 3-dimensions depends on your use of atmospheric perspective.  As Richard McKinley says, “It’s all a magic show!”  First of all, it’s better to have a foreground, a middle ground, and a background in your scene whether from a photograph or in plein air.  Then knowledge of atmospheric (or aerial) perspective will help.   This is not the same as linear perspective;  it is a phenomenon seen in nature because of the atmosphere that gets between the viewer and the view.  This type of perspective can even be found in shallow subjects such as still life.  We use the principles of atmospheric perspective when we make distant mountains grayish, blue, or purple and soft-edged, sometimes even fading off into the sky area.  In a flower painting, for instance, the flowers that are the farthest from the picture plan are duller and out of focus when compared to the ones in front.  There is more contrast in value, color, and detail when objects are closer than when they are farther away.  The principles of atmospheric perspective are:

1.  OVERLAPPING SHAPES- Shapes that are in front are seen  in their entirety — those behind are not.

2.  SIZE –  Shapes that are the same size are seen larger when closer, and smaller when farther away from the viewer.

3.  POSITION – Shapes that are closer to the viewer are farther down on the paper/canvas.  Objects farther away are higher.

4.  DETAIL – Shapes that are closer to the viewer are seen in more detail than those behind.

5.  INTENSITY, TEMPERATURE, AND VALUE – Shapes that are farther away from the viewer are less intense (are grayed down), are cooler in temperature (blues, purples), and are lighter in value than those close up.

6.  BANDS OF LIGHT AND DARK – Some artists such as Corot have used horizontal bands alternating light and dark to lead the eye back into the distance.  Check out some landscape paintings to see if this works or not.

These are the principles but not rules — sometimes you just want to break the principles or rules and try something more imaginative!






Whether painting in plein air (outside in nature) or painting from a photograph, it is always best to make thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook.  Planning ahead reduces the number of mistakes you can make!  Plan out several compositions so that you may choose the best one (think of movement, balance, center of interest, focal points, contrast, etc.) Try different formats:  vertical, high horizon, low horizon, square, oblong, panoramic.  Paintings with high horizons are more grounded and introspective, but you’ve got a lot of foreground to contend with.  Low horizons are more spiritual, because the sky can give you mood and movement.  You will need clouds, probably. Rectangular compositions are calming.

Try to limit your shapes to only a basic 4-6 by pulling together areas that are close in value.   Basic shapes are the most important at this stage.  When you think you have a good composition, begin a value sketch.  Keep your values to only 4-5:  usually the sky is the lightest (value 1) because it’s lit by the sun; the ground plane is the next value (value 2), since it gets reflections from the sky;  any slanted shapes are the next lowest value (value 3) because they get partial sunlight, and the upright planes are the darkest value (value 4) because they get little light from the sun.

If you’re working from a photograph, remember that, in a photo all the shadows look black, and sometimes the sky is bleached out.  You must lighten up the shadows to be more natural.  Try putting together two or more photos to make a good composition.  Keep to more medium values and don’t put a lot of dark darks.  Refer back to the post of December 28 for information on different value schemes.   Also, refer to the post of December 18 for a review.

Here is an example of some of my thumbnail sketches. These were all from the same photo.