Master the Art of Drawing Trees 
A Step-by-Step Guide

Drawing trees and foliage appears to be something lots of beginning artists have difficulty with. They can either "do" trees, or if they can't, they shy away from coloured pencil landscapes altogether.  What works for one person can offer an impossible barrier to others. 

It is almost as if a 'recipe; for drawing trees is required.

However, trees and foliage differ not only across the world, but also in different areas of the same woodland! Describing a method for drawing each individual type of tree would not be possible. 

Perhaps we can consider the following questions...

  • What do we see when we look at something?
  • How do we interpret what we see?
  • How do we translate what we see in three dimensions into a two dimensional picture?

Let's see if we can make sense of this problem. 

The scene above the harbour in Polperro, Cornwall, UK

The reference photo above shows a hillside with trees and bushes in mixed vegetation. See how there are trees on the edge of the hill that are in silhouette and show sky through the branches? In these trees you can see the shape of the tree clearly. 

Coming down the hillside there are quite large trees on the left, and in the lower centre we have smaller vegetation and bushes. To the extreme right we have open ground which folds and shows shadow, and therefore shape. In bulk, trees show their shape only in the way the light catches the tops and the protruding branches. and resulting shadows show the undersides which gives form. 

The whole exercise of drawing trees and foliage is one in showing the shape of the trees through the shadows cast by light and the colours of the leaf cover.

Follow along as Peter draws the above picture, but first let's look at a close up, as this may make basic explanations easier. 

A close up of the hillside

What do we actually see? Areas of light and shade.

Where is the light coming from? Above, and slightly ahead and to the right. It picks out the protruding branches against the shadowed undersides to the leafed area.

There are more examples of this on the how to draw trees page of this site. 

Notice how the colour differs. Not all leaves are green. And green comes in a whole load of different shades! 

Leaves that are further away will also seem a different hue. 

The rule of aerial perspective means that the further away a subject is from you the more reds will disappear from the spectrum and the more blues will predominate. Similarly, distance adds dust to the atmosphere which blocks vision and tonal contrast decreases, making distant trees appear paler and bluer. 

This means that we can differentiate between nearby and distant trees by adding more warm tones and greater contrasts to foreground objects. Additionally we can reduce tonal contrast and add blues to distant tree colours. This may not be exactly how the reference shows it, but it makes a big difference to how the eye separates out the layers in your picture into foreground and distance and gives a more three dimensional look to a two dimensional image. 

Tree drawing tutorial

Now we can go ahead and see these principles in action!

For this particular picture a watercolour pencil base was used under the wax type coloured pencil which reduced the drawing time. 

Below is a scan of the final drawing, but we will tackle a small area of the whole on this page. 

The drawing was worked on cold pressed watercolour paper and measured 17 x 11 inches, pretty large for a coloured pencil artwork! The paper type was picked as it was the only one available at the time that was big enough! It turned out to have a lot of advantages in showing the harbour mud, but I will come back to that later. 

Peter made up a selection of thin watercolour pencil washes on a large white plate as described at the bottom of the underpainting page. 

He then put down a wash over the tree area as shown in the close up below. 

See how there are a number of layers added to the paper in the patches where shadow will be strongest.  The aim - as ever- is not to worry about detail, but to get a feeling for the lights and darks of the subject and apply the appropriate colour base to kill the white paper. This will give colour strength when we add coloured pencil later. 

The sky alongside the hillside is a basic watercolour sky wash laid down in a traditional way, wet on wet paper on a tilted board. The strongest pigment is at the top and clear water is added progressively to reduce the strength of colour as it nears the horizon. For more information on washes with watercolour pencils please see the Aquarelle section of this site.

The graphite or pencil drawing can now be erased from areas where it is not needed as we will work on the underpainting with reference to the photo. 

In the image above further drawing was added using Derwent Watercolour pencils. Several layers of colour were put in dry so that the pigment can then be manipulated with a damp brush. The relatively rough surfaced cold pressed paper gives a grainy effect to the new dry colour. This is not a problem.

Also note how there is quite a lot of sepia and lighter browns added to the green mixture in the layers of dry pigment. There is sky showing in the trees on the edge of the hill which we need to keep in place.

In this next photo you will see that the colours have been blended with a damp brush and in some cases have been shaped and lifted with kitchen tissue to reduce the colour levels. Some more dry colour has now been added to define edges and tree trunks. 

The overall colour level is now much greater with the addition of water to the dry watercolour pencil.

As a matter of interest, the treatment used for drawing trees has also been undertaken on the buildings, where dry colour has been added to show roof lines and windows more clearly. 

More dry point pencil is added to bring up those areas of deep shadow. More ochre shades were added in to the yellows and some white to pick out the light highlights such as on the bushes blow the top house. 

The amount of detail doesn't look great in the image above, but the actual area of the painting that we are looking at is about 6 inches wide by 5 inches high.

As far as colour balancing of the images these pictures have been taken by camera with available light, and quite long periods between photos (the drawing took 8 months in total). The sky will give you one idea of the constant as that remained unchanged from the start. 

Artistic license when drawing trees and landscapes

Colours (and definition) are quite strong - which you will get when you use watercolour pencils dry, and then dampened down and manipulated. That suits a cheerful image like this. 

The finished picture below is actually two reference photos amalgamated. The left hand house, hydrangeas and the three nearby boats are on one photo and the rest of the harbour are on another. You don't actually see the same view of the harbour and hillside from the slipway by the flowers. The slipway is actually about 100 yards nearer the hillside and you don't have this view of the left hand side building from it. 

The muddy floor of the harbour is exactly how it was left from the initial washes. Some of the boats on the right do not exist. The wall of the left house has had a light wash of pale blue on it (compare to the paper white around the windows). 

In the Aquarelle section of the site, I have included a demonstration of how to use watercolour pencils for another exercise on drawing trees. In fact, we complete a simple tree and foliage using entirely watercolour pencil techniques (putting down the dry colour on the paper and then working the pigment with a damp brush). That is another solution to drawing trees and foliage but the results and entirely different and no so 'controlled'. 

Magic bullet?

For those readers who were hoping that this page would offer a 'magic bullet' to solve all their problems with drawing trees and foliage in coloured pencil, I don't think it will. I don't believe there is a single technique that will do this.

There are a lot of instant solutions and special brushes to do foliage in watercolour, but I suspect that many are simply creative ways to generate art material sales. 

It all comes down to looking carefully and painting what is actually there. That applies to any medium not just drawing trees with coloured pencil. 

If you find a method, different to this, that works for you, please do share it. 

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