Saturday, February 11, 2012


(Thanks to The Pastel Journal, where this chapter was originally published, with additional information included here.)

Springtime Shade, 11" x 17"

Think back to when you were in first grade. Do you remember the landscape you made up, the one with the tree standing next to the house with the sun and cloud behind it? Your tree may have been a lollipop shape with a wavy edge or it could have had apples on it. Maybe it was the traditional Christmas tree shape, a large serrated triangle with a little square protruding from the bottom. That tree you remember is the shortcut you settled on a long time ago, the symbol for tree that you’ve had stored in your brain ever since. Maybe you’ve caught yourself using that symbol, or a version of it, when you paint a tree. It might pop out when you haven’t planned well and decided to add a tree to a painting. Your first grade tree, or an adult adaptation of it, that’s slightly more sophisticated but still fairly simple and symbolic, looks childish and oversimplified. This becomes a problem when you find yourself relying solely on the symbol. When you haven’t spent time studying trees, looking closely at the trunk and branches, foliage and bark, blossoms and fruit, you may too easily slip back to that elementary representation of a tree.

Trees come in an immense variety of shapes, sizes, colors and patterns. It’s difficult to know how to paint every kind of tree but as an artist you should develop a working knowledge of the general characteristics of trees so that you’re able to paint any you observe. You should study trees that are common to your area so that as you paint the landscape you can easily portray them, whether they’re to be the stars of the show or only appear in a supporting role.
The Light, 23" x 17"
First you must understand the anatomy of a tree in order to paint it properly. Just as a portrait painter must have knowledge of the bone structure underlying the face, you must understand the skeletal underpinnings of the tree. Think of the trunk and branches as the skeleton, the bones that frame the tree, on which the decorative clothing of the foliage is hung. Study deciduous trees in winter when the cold has removed the distracting cover of leaves, much the way the artist must paint the unclothed figure in order to come to understand the anatomy beneath the clothing. This way you can clearly see how the trunks relate to one another and how the branches spiral out in a loosely radial pattern along each trunk.

If you were able to look down on a tree from the top you’d notice this pattern repeated over and over, in the habit of trunks, branches, leaves, and blossoms. In order to picture this design, think of the barber pole where the spiral rises continuously. A tree rarely puts out branches at even and opposite intervals along the barber pole. One of the reasons an artificial Christmas tree looks fake is the intervals are too exact, with a branch sprouting out at perfectly opposing and predictable distances, unlike the real thing. On a real tree, the larger branches develop smaller branches in a roughly radial spiral pattern, as the tree grows taller. Leaves, buds and blossoms grow correspondingly. This corkscrew arrangement generally holds true for all trees from oak to pine, weeping willow to palm, with some obvious variations on the theme.

You can use this knowledge to your advantage in painting any tree. It’s one of the methods used to portray a three-dimensional tree instead of the flat, cutout shape of your first grade tree. Find branches that come toward you and go away, as well as those that grow side-to-side. Look for the balance, as branches shoot off one way and then, slightly higher up, in the other direction. Your first grade tree was probably fairly symmetrical and straight, drawn in a childish scrawl yet balanced and proportional. Now look for the way the tree leans and balances itself, how it puts out a root to hold itself upright or shoots a branch one way and then the other to maintain its equilibrium. This is often like a ballet, hard work that looks delicate and easy.

Remember that trees must be balanced to remain upright, although their tenacity is amazing. Once the root system is well established a tree can remain upright even when part of it is severely damaged. A lightning strike can destroy as much as half the tree and yet it can live on in its injured state because each trunk achieves a certain balance on its own. In the arid southwest near my home you can sometimes see a tree that’s growing along an arroyo, the bank of which has eroded away and left the tree growing horizontally out of the wall. The tree has righted itself and grows up toward the light with a 45 degree bend in the trunk. All of the other branches have arranged themselves to balance the tree in its upright growth.

Trees are competitive, though in slow motion, of course. Like any green plant, they need light to grow and survive. A mature stand of trees has fought the battle and each has established its little domain of available sunlight. Small trees may spring up in the shade of a larger one but won’t survive long for lack of sunlight. All of the branches on a tree need a certain amount of sunlight to thrive and the radial arrangement of branches, as well as the tapering habit of most trees, allows sunlight to reach all of the leaves. Branches inside a shade tree that don’t receive adequate light will die and eventually fall, so be sure to study the layout of branch and leaf patterns.

Blanco Grove, 11" x 23"
A mature grove of trees tends to interlace the finest branches at the outside edge of the foliage only, almost as if they’re at arm’s length. Younger stands may yet be battling for the light and can be more intertwined and closely related to one another, depending on the variety of tree. Sometimes these groves develop at the same rate, especially when there has been a fire and the seedlings have germinated simultaneously afterwards, in which case the trees may remain intertwined for life. When one is taken away, the remaining trees show evidence of the interrelationship that’s now gone, as they’re left bent and oddly balanced. Slowly the gap will become filled with foliage from neighboring trees that straighten up or lean into the breach, always maintaining their balance.


In order to become adept at painting trees, choose one tree to study closely. Spend time looking at the whole tree, its growth pattern and habits. To become acquainted with the tree you might resolve to draw part of it every day for some length of time, perhaps a particular branch, then the trunk and bark, then the blossoms or leaves. Observe your tree at different times of the day and in different seasons, recording the changes. This intimacy with one tree can enhance your perception of all trees as you begin to learn the habits and patterns of trees in general and is a sure cure for the artist who suffers from ‘elementary tree syndrome.’

Tree Study, 9" x 12"

Consider the roots. Although they’re hidden, remember that beneath the ground this structure of roots is vital to hold the tree in place through all but the fiercest of storms. Roots normally grow outward to about three times the spread of the branches and anchor the tree in the soil as they penetrate the earth in search of water and mineral nutrients. In some varieties you can see the larger twisted roots at the base of the tree as they travel along the surface for a distance before delving deep. As you paint your tree remember what is underground supporting the tree, in order to avoid making your tree look like a bottle sitting on a shelf or a lollipop stuck in the ground in a pretend world.

Now explore the trunk of the tree. Try to capture the gesture of the trunk as it emerges from the ground, preferably as it leans into the picture plane. Does it twist or bow? Is it round or oval? Does it bulge or rise quickly, perpendicular to the ground? There may be two or three major trunks in an established tree, each growing in a slightly different direction, related but separate from one another. Avoid making the trunks perfectly straight or parallel to one another. Don’t fall back on that lollipop stick, straight and tall. Instead, vary the directions of the trunks to divide the space in an interesting fashion. Notice that the angle created by the spaces between trunks is wider than the angles of the branches above. The trunk is holding a tremendous amount of weight, which causes the larger gap, so look for its strength and suppleness.

Take a close look at the bark of your tree. Is it craggy and gnarled, flat and smooth, crumbled and peeling, or some variation of these? Bark is a characteristic that identifies different species as surely as do the leaves. The bark is the tree's protection from the outside world, its skin. Young trees, and the younger branches on any tree, have smoother bark, so look for the smooth suppleness of the outer branches. The loosely organized ridges and fractures of bark, running in roughly vertical stripes up and down the length of the trunk and branches, can indicate to your viewer the direction the limbs move in space. To illustrate this idea, pull your sleeve down over your hand and grasp it firmly. Now twist and bend your arm and notice how the ‘bark’ shows the movement. Paint with this in mind.
Winter Juniper, 17" x 11"
As a child you colored the bark brown or gray but now you should look for the many color variations you can use to create a more interesting effect. Instead of using gray, layer complementary colors on top of one another or arrange them side by side to create a visual blending that suggests a lively gray. Instead of using brown, do the same with tertiary colors, putting together orange-green-purple, red-blue-yellow, or some interesting variation on this idea.

Shadows help show the shape of the trunk and branches and what directions they move in space. Where they cross the bark they can create a fascinating interplay of colors. The bark will be slightly darker and cooler in color in the shaded area, creating an interesting relationship to colors in the light. Technically you may approach shadows by feathering a light layer of soft charcoal or dark blue pastel pencil over the bark colors you’ve laid down, which darkens and blends the pastel slightly. Or you might reserve the shadow areas for entirely different colors, darker and slightly bluer, to contrast with the bark colors. There may be places where darkness creeps along the edge of a crevice in the bark as the light catches the rough edge of it. Touches such as these can make bark one of the most interesting parts of the painting.

Remember that branches grow thicker at the base and slimmer at the tips. Avoid ‘thigh’ shapes, thin, thick, thin, which can distract your viewer unless you’re focusing on painting a misshapen burl. One of the pleasing characteristics of trees can be the lithe growth, their lightness and airiness, almost as if they’re standing on tiptoe.

Evening Stand, 9" x 12"
Strive to make a three-dimensional tree, one that has depth as well as width and height. Some branches come toward you, while others lean away. If a branch is headed directly at the viewer it will be severely foreshortened or appear to be a mere spot, and can be somewhat difficult to see unless branches protrude from the sides in varying directions. A branch that’s moving backwards will be in perspective and the converging lines of bark can help achieve this illusion, as well as the lightening effect of distance. You can also indicate the depth of the tree by carefully rendering the light and shade on each branch, which will help to show its direction. Try not to make any branch perfectly cylindrical or it will look like a stovepipe. Branches have gesture and flow to them, much like arms or legs. Avoid ruler-straight lines that make your tree look stilted and unreal, back to the lollipop shape again. At the top the tree supports a multitude of small branches that hold the leaves, forming the canopy. Paint your tree with progressively smaller branches and avoid a heavy branch at the top or outside.

Trees are radially symmetrical, meaning both halves are roughly the same. You could place a mirror at the center of the tree and see a matching image. However, try to paint your tree so that it isn’t simply made up of two identical halves but has asymmetrical qualities that make it more interesting. Broken branches or ones that have been cut off can change the balance of the tree, often making it look oddly lopsided. Be sure not to return to the boring symmetry of your first grade tree once again.

When a branch is cut off at the trunk it leaves a rounded oval scar that heals over time, though it won’t re-grow bark. Instead, the knot develops a ridged callus that protects the tree from insect invasion or decay. Look for the pale oval of healed cuts on the trunk for color variation, shadows and texture.

Unlike the lollipop tree, now your tree should be a sophisticated study of the trunk and branch patterns that shows the asymmetrical balance and the agile movement of the branches, using bark details and shadows to show movement. This tree is alive and growing, moving in the breeze, as it holds its weight of branches and leaves easily.

(Next week: Foliage.)