Branching Out

Trees form an integral part of most landscapes. They’re versatile elements that can be used either in supporting roles or as the center of interest. In general, trees fall into one of three categories: evergreens, palms and hardwoods (trees that lose their leaves each winter). Since hardwoods are by far the most common of the three, I’ll focus on them.

My approach to hardwoods moves from the general to the specific—that is, I have some general rules that can help lay the groundwork for lifelike trees. I’ll share those with you here. However, in order to capture the finer points of particular types of hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, you’ll have to do some observation. When you do, you’ll find that the trunks, limbs and canopies of each type are slightly different. Now let’s get started.

Planting the Seed
The first rule for painting trees is this: You must get over the idea of painting exactly what you see. If you use the real tree only as a guide, your painted tree will be more visually interesting. To understand why this is true, consider that all trees are made up of two primary parts—the foliage (leaves) and the skeleton (the trunks and limbs). The skeleton is by far more attractive than the foliage, so to get the maximum visual impact, you’ll want to vary both the thicknesses of the limbs and branches and the sizes of the negative spaces between them. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to minimize the foliage. You’ll be amazed at how little foliage is needed to make a tree appear full of leaves. Finally, you’ll discover that foliage looks best painted in clumps of various sizes, shapes and hues, rather than as individual leaves. As you paint the foliage, it’s a good idea to leave spaces so that the trunk and limbs can peek through between the clumps. And at all costs, avoid creating foliage in a single, boring ball shape.

Pruning the Foliage
Now that you’ve got a feel for the general guidelines, we’re ready to begin painting. Start by lightly sketching the outline of the foliage, the trunk and perhaps a few major limbs. Then paint the canopy of the tree. Mix any combination of a yellow, a brown and a blue, and create one mass of varied hues, allowing the colors to blend in the interior of the tree. Make sure that the rough, textured edges remain—these create the illusion of leaves. To produce a convincing sense of volume, this mass should be a middle value, with the bottom portion darker than the top. You can get the range of warm greens you need for this by varying the ratios of blue, brown and yellow in your mixture.

Actually, this canopy is all that’s needed to create the illusion of a tree full of leaves. But for the sake of demonstration, I added smaller clumps of light and dark leaves in Step 2. Notice how the dark leaves recede into space, while the lighter leaves advance.

Getting to the Root
Now we’re ready to move to the skeleton of the tree. The most important rule here is that everything–the trunk, limbs and branches–should be straight or only slightly curved. And any changes in direction should be marked with angles rather than curves.

The trunk should always be the thickest part of the tree, followed by thinner limbs and then smaller branches. In nature, the trunk and limbs actually get thinner as you move toward their extremities. But in a painting, trunks and limbs look more realistic if they get thinner only as they pass points where smaller limbs and branches grow out from them.

The skeleton of the tree can be any grayed hue, but it’s usually a blue-gray or a brown-gray, with the side facing the sun lighter than the side that’s in shadow. I always start with the trunk and work up. I make the trunk lighter and warmer at the base to simulate light bouncing off the ground. Then, I make the limbs darker and cooler as I move up the tree. The cooler hues indicate light reflected from the sky, while the darker colors suggest the shadows in the interior of the tree.

While painting the trunk, I add the major limbs as I come to them. This allows me to create a soft-edged joint between trunk and branch. The limbs usually point up at about a 30-degree angle to the trunk. Avoid having any two limbs coming off the tree at exactly the same angle—it looks unnatural and boring. The trunk continues to move upward until it finally subdivides itself into two or more branches.

Refining the Image
The final step is putting in all of the fine branches. Like the trunk and the larger branches, these are thicker at the base and thinner at the tip. The direction they take is very important—at the top, they’re about 30 degrees off vertical, but they gradually approach horizontal as they move down the tree. About two-thirds of the way down, these small limbs actually become horizontal—about 90 degrees to the tree trunk. Below that, there are fewer limbs, and they’re tilted slightly below horizontal.

As you add the limbs and branches that move up and out, skip over the light leaf clumps, but paint over the darkest areas. Run the limbs right up into the dark underside of the canopy, stopping at the lighter leaves. This furthers the illusion that the dark leaves are on the far side of the tree, and the lighter leaves are on the near side.

If an area of leaves is too dark for the painted limb to show against it, use water and a tissue to lift color from the entire area. Then go back in and paint the dark leaves once again, but this time leave a light space to create the branch. Once you’ve made these final adjustments, your tree should be complete.

Nurturing Growth
My formula for painting trees can be modified to depict any particular species simply by changing the shape of the overall foliage, trunk and limbs. However, the general direction in which the trunk, limbs and branches grow will remain the same for all types of trees. And, of course, the rules for painting light and shadowed foliage are universal as well. So study the information presented here, then put it to work for you. You’ll be amazed at how quickly this approach brings a greater sense of realism to your trees.


Georgia-based Tony Couch is a well-known artist, author and workshop instructor. He’s the author of Watercolor You Can Do It! (North Light Books).


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