The Pillars of the Landscape

Trees are one of the most popular drawing subjects available, and it?s not hard to see why. They can suggest all kinds of ideas and designs that you can incorporate into your work, and you don?t need to be an expert botanist to seize these opportunities. Some basic drawing skills and a little study of how trees are constructed should be all you need to successfully populate your landscapes.

To understand trees and be able to render them accurately, we must realize that every tree is (or was) a living thing with characteristics that develop over time. One reason for the popularity of trees is that they readily lend themselves to telling a visual story by showing the changing seasons—from the bare limbs of winter to the buds and flowers of spring to the lush foliage of summer to the beautiful colors of autumn. With a good appreciation of this evolution, all you?ll need to start drawing is a pencil, a sketchbook and a favorite tree.

How Trees Grow
When studying trees for my drawings, I find it difficult not to marvel at what a wonderful feat of engineering I?m looking at. Some species can reach enormous heights, supporting tremendous weight (including a small world of wildlife and plant life) while still swaying gracefully in the breeze. Because trees grow upward, a handy way to view them is like a telescope, divided into sections with each section a little bit smaller than the one below and fitting inside it, forming a balanced and tapered shape.

The limbs of a tree follow the same principle of diminishing size. Out of the trunk grows a bough that?s smaller in girth, and from the bough grow branches, and from the branches grow twigs. Each is smaller (though not necessarily shorter) than the piece before it, creating a balance that enables the tree to withstand significant punishment from weather and wildlife over time.

To start drawing, try a simple contour drawing of a tree that you?d like to paint, like the one pictured at right. Whether or not you use your drawing as a foundation for later work, this step allows you to concentrate on the tree?s outline, and by doing this you?ll better understand the shape and form of your subject. Plus, this sort of drawing gives you the opportunity to experiment a bit with the tree?s basic structure so that you can see for yourself how a severely unbalanced composition just doesn?t occur naturally.

It?s important to give the impression that your tree genuinely grows out of the ground, and there?s nothing less convincing than a tree that appears to be merely set upon the surface of the earth. Below a tree lies the root system, most of which is underground, but you can usually see where the roots first emerge and gather toward the base of the trunk. Also, if you could go back far enough in time, you?d see that all boughs, branches and twigs began as buds. These buds sprout from twigs, and their placement varies with the species of the tree, but if the perspective of your drawing is close-up then a few buds will add a touch of realism.

Combining Your Talents: This old character is a wonderful example of how a single tree can incorporate as many of your favorite elements as you like. Here I drew boughs and branches (some with bark and some without), a double trunk with knotholes where dead boughs have fallen away, and twigs sprouting out all over. Always keep in mind that virtually any tree you design can look realistic because it would be hard to design a tree that nature hasn?t already created.

Seeing the Whole Forest
When you look at a forest, you typically see trees big and small, wide and thin, coniferous and deciduous. Drawing this mass is not as difficult as it sounds, though, because instead of trying to make an exact copy of every tree, you can view the forest as a pattern of lights and darks.

Begin your group of trees with some rough sketches that identify the major shapes of the composition. Once you?ve decided which sketch works best, redraw it lightly onto your good support, and then build up the drawing by adding shading to create a variety of values. Start with the darkest areas and work toward the lightest, varying the pressure on your pencils and erasing gently if desired. If the spaces between the trees are lighter than the trees themselves, that indicates a shallow forest, while darker spaces between the trees indicate deep woods.

In general, try not to use too many repetitive shapes close together or your forest is liable to appear artificial. Establish a sense of depth (and avoid any potential monotony) by following the rules of perspective, keeping the spacing between the trees random, and perhaps placing some of your trees distinctly in the foreground. If you?re using a close perspective, some of your trees may even run off the edges of your paper. If your trees are backlit, allow some of the light to emerge from the trees and even flicker on the ground in front of them. Also, if the trees are your main subject, remember to create a focal point among them for the viewer.

Adding Life
Finally, if you have the opportunity, don?t forget to treat yourself to a few of the fun ?accessories? that always come with trees. Bark, for instance, can range from long, reedy hickory bark to papery birch bark to the thick patterns of a mature oak. Knotholes of various sizes, lichen and fungus, spiderwebs and insects, birds and their nests, and dead leaves—these are just some of the possibilities, and you?ll find almost any tree surrounded by a carpet of fallen debris.

Anybody who?s had the time and the wisdom to stop and appreciate the trees that we pass almost every day of our lives can tell you that they?re some of the world?s most fascinating creations. No matter how many you see, or how many you draw, you?ll never get two alike. But with a strong set of basic skills you?ll be able to draw almost any tree, and the more of them you draw, the more you?ll see the natural world come alive in your work.

Heather Galloway is Assistant Paintings Conservator with the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio.

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