Painting trees and foliage
There may be millions of leaves on some trees, so you simply cannot
paint them all. Simplification and generalisation again become
important. Each type of tree is unique. No two are exactly alike, so
always study the trees you are going to paint.
When it comes to painting trees and foliage, there are two faults
that occur. One is the lack of observation and the other is muddled
brush work. The result is often a stereotyped cardboard cutout of a tree
with little thought of light and shade, and branches that are
silhouetted in front of the foliage rather than feeding up into it.
What I want to do, is give you a few of the basic facts about
painting trees, some seemingly self-evident but so often ignored when
There are, of course, many different species of trees, and no two
trees are the same. But there are certain anatomical points to watch out
when painting trees, and by becoming familiar with them you will avoid
the stiff, awkward-looking trees that spell 'amateurishness'. The
structure of a tree tapers gradually upwards from its trunk to wigs.
First of all, the trunk does not shoot straight out of the ground, like
a telegraph pole. Normally some of the roots are visible. The main limbs
leave the trunk at an angle of roughly thirty degrees.
No two limbs leave the trunk directly opposite one another, or at the
same angle, so watch out for this occurring in your painting. The trunk
becomes narrower as it divides off into limbs until finally, at the top,
there is no trunk at all only a split into the last two limbs.
The limbs, in turn split into smaller, thinner branches. Again the
branches come off the limbs in a staggered form-never directly opposite
one another. The angle of the branches is important. At the top of the
tree they leave the limbs at about a 30 degree angle, but as they
descend the tree they become more spaced out and the angle becomes wider
until, about two-third down, the branches are horizontal.
At the same time, the length of the branches varies gradually
becoming longer as they descend the tree. Each species of trees has its
own characteristic silhouette or basic profile. The branch structure is
different too. Some trees branch out in a characteristic 'Y' fashion,
some in an erratic sickle shape. Another often have 'U' where the branch
joins the trunk. Some branches leave the trunk at right angles, and the
lower heavily weighted down ones even bend under their own weight.
It is very important that you get into the habit of looking at trees
analytically with these points in mind before trying to paint them. Last
comes the twigs, which are the thinnest parts of the branches.
The fine twigs are important because without them the tree appears
dead. However, trying to paint every individual twig is impossible and
undesirable. It is better to paint the twigs by applying feathery dry
brush strokes in a paler tone.
Make a habit of studying the characteristic shapes of various species
of tree, taking particular note of their proportions and growth habits.
Notice, for example, how tall and wide the canopy of a tree is in
comparison to its lower trunk. A common fault in making the company too
small and constricted is that it results in the dreaded "lollipop"
A group of trees together lose their own identity and unite to make
one shape. The common fault here is to overdo the detail on individual
trees and foliage groups. The further away a group or a wood, less
elaboration is needed.
In general, I try to resolve trees into two basic tones, putting the
lightest tone first and adding the strong darker tone while the first
still damp, keeping in mind where the light source is. Whenever I paint
trees I use a sable hair brush number eight or 12 to paint foliage which
forces me to eliminate fussy detail and concentrate on the basic masses.
The direction of the stroke depends on the basic character of the
tree itself. Notice the trunk and its direction, thickness, texture and
how lower branches radiate from it. How does it emerge from the ground?
Look at the surrounding environment. Analyse their shapes and colour. A
broad golden area with a few brownish strokes put on after it is dry can
suggest thousands of grass blades. The same is true of bushes and leaf
Foliage in a forest is massed together and must be painted that way.
Where a tree is shown close up, as you see in this painting titled 'The
banyan tree'. I have used mostly burnt amber a mixture of prussian blue
modelled with light and shade to show the roundness of the trunk. Notice
how the trunk is graded from light and warm colours at the base to dark
and cool at the top. Observe the strategic 'skyholes' which make the
tree look more delicate and graceful.
Branches and foliage are massed into groups of light and dark tones
so that each one registers strongly against the other. A very thin brush
called the rigger is used for delicate lines and putting the branches
and twigs. The rigger - this brush has very long hair which enables you
to produce, with practise an enormous variety of widths of strokes
depending on the pressure the brush.
A good watercolour painting of trees is one that looks fresh and
spontaneous. The way to achieve this quality is to translate all those
complex shapes and textures into a simpler language. In other words, use
descriptive brush work to suggest details, instead of laboriously