Here are some tips on how to paint trees which can be applied broadly to your paintings (rather than specific tips only useful in special circumstances).
Trees form part of pretty much any landscape composition and are a subject which painters need to become familiar with.
Most beginners paint trees in a very refined and rigid manner, often giving an unnatural feel to the painting. These tips should help you learn how to paint trees which appear natural and compliment your painting.
The Illusion Of Numbers
Rarely will you need to paint every single tree in your scene. It is much more effective to just give an illusion of trees by generalizing colors and shapes.
If you try and paint every detail of your trees, you are only going to end up getting very frustrated and your painting will most likely look very tight and overly refined.
Many beginners will go straight for the small liner brushes to add every detail they can. But you should do the opposite. Go grab your large brushes and start blocking in the general shapes and colors of the trees.
Above is a part of one of my paintings. As you can see, the trees are very loosely defined. There are many trees in that scene, but they are not all clearly identifiable.
Instead, only a few of the nearest trees can be identified. The rest just blend in.
The trees in this scene are defined using very moderate changes in value to indicate light. As this is a sunset scene, there are very few sharp edges.
Hitting The Right Greens (Or Whatever Color The Trees Are)
The key challenge of painting trees is to hitting the correct greens (or whatever color the foliage is).
When painting trees, I rarely use a green straight from the tube. Those greens are often very bright and rarely suitable, especially when I am painting the dry Australian landscape.
One of my favorite colors for painting foliage in trees is yellow ochre. It is a dirty yellow and can be easily mixed with some blue to create a very dry green, or burnt umber to create a dull orange color.
The two green colors which I do sometimes use straight from the tube are viridian and sap green. I find these to be duller than the other options and better suited to painting the landscape.
The brighter greens can often be overpowering.
In the painting above by Claude Monet, there is a very wide range of colors used to portray the trees. There are greens, reds, yellows and blues.
The result is a vibrant and almost chaotic effect which appears very natural. Also, note how the trees blend in with the surrounding color schemes.
(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet).
Forgot The Idealized Image Of Trees
Forget what you think a tree looks like.
Now, look at the tree you are trying to paint and break it down into basic shapes, lines and colors. This is essentially how you should think about painting any subject.
Your mind can play annoying tricks on you if you are not careful. For example, a common issue by beginners is using too much green when painting trees, all because of this idealized image of what a tree is supposed to look like.
You need to use your eyes. Observe the shapes, lines and colors and paint what you see. It is really as simple as that.
Nature Is Never Perfect
Did you mess up that branch? Is the green not strong enough? Is your tree too big?
It does not really matter. Nature is not perfect.
I am not saying to be sloppy. You should try and paint with accuracy. But do not lose sleep over any inaccuracies, as there is nothing perfect about nature. It is a wild beast.
Breaking Things Up With A Palette Knife
A palette knife is a great tool for creating a very textured and broken color effect in your trees. You could use your palette knife to:
- Add broken highlights to bark on a tree
- Create the illusion of dense foliage
- Emphasize the foreground from the background by adding more texture
- Break up any mundane areas with a bit of variance
These are just some examples of times to use a palette knife when painting trees. If you become skilled with the palette knife, you may not need to use paint brushes at all (however I find palette knives and paint brushes complement each other very well).
For the trees in my above painting, I used a combination of palette knives and brushwork. I used the palette knives mostly to paint in the negative space between the trees to indicate the light shooting through.
The brushwork gives a nice complement to the rigid palette knife strokes.
Paint With A Loose Hand
Trees are not rigid and refined objects. So why would you paint them with a rigid hand?
Hold your paintbrush away from the tip and paint with a loose and gentle hand. Your strokes will not be perfectly accurate, but that is not how you should be trying to paint trees.
There will be times when you can tighten up your technique for those last few branches or leaves to bring everything together. But this is usually only once you have painted 95% of the trees. These finishing touches are when you should be tightening up if you feel it is needed.
Remember, it is much easier to tighten up your painting than it is to loosen it up. So start loose and then get tighter from there if you need.
Hope you enjoyed these tips on how to paint trees. These tips can also be applied to many other aspects of painting, especially landscape painting.
If you have any tips or comments, please share them in the section below.