Painting a tree can feel like a daunting task for any landscape painter, from beginner to pro. With all the branches, leaves, and bark, it seems like nothing could be more complicated than a tree. And it is true, you could spend days painting all of that information. But there are ways to conquer painting a tree without obsessing over each and every detail. All you have to do is simplify. And here's a step-by-step tutorial to help you do just that!
Since pine trees are so common in landscape painting, you are bound to encounter them often. I’ll show you how to paint a pine tree using this handsome fellow from a park in my neighborhood. I’ll be using Liquitex Basics acrylic paints on Canson Artist Series cold press acrylic paper.
It helps to select a subject with a strong light source, and preferably to the left or right of the direction you are looking, rather than directly in front of or behind you. I photographed this tree from the south while the sun was in the west, so as to get some good cross-lighting and strong shadows in the branches and on the ground.
In order to simplify what you are seeing, squint! It has the effect of isolating the important information, whether you’re working from a photograph or on site. It also desaturates the image a bit, to help you focus on value-- lights and darks.
Now you can focus on just how dark the shape of the tree really is, and how bright the sky is, without getting hung up on the details.
Step 1: Draw the rough shape of the tree form onto my paper. Details aren’t important here-- you just need to block out the proportions very loosely so you can go in with paint.
Step 2: Load Black and Burnt Umber onto your palette (wax paper).
Using a 3/4 flat synthetic Taklon brush, start blocking in the rough shape of the tree with a mixture of the Black and Burnt Umber. Remember, detail isn’t important here. We’re working general to specific.
Step 3: Add a little Light Green Permanent and Phthalocyanine Green to the mixture to block in the ground.
Step 4: Add your sky, using a mixture of White and Primary Blue. Because these acrylics are nice and opaque, you can start “cutting in” to shape the tree, helping to define it more clearly and specifically as you go.
Step 5: Using a little Primary Yellow and White added to the greens and Burnt Umber from before, lighten up the grass on the ground with short, choppy strokes of the flat brush. Also add the shoreline behind the lake in the background. The lighter colors help to isolate and emphasize the tree’s cast shadow.
Step 6: Working very loosely, but paying careful attention to where the light and darks are in the photo, start blocking in the highlights of the tree branches, using a bit more of the cooler Phthalocyanine Green to help differentiate the pine tree’s color from the warmer green of the grass. It helps to remember where the light source is coming from (the top left) so you know what parts roughly to highlight and what parts to leave dark.
Step 7: Now you should switch to a #6 “shader” flat brush, to continue with the highlights. Then mix an even cooler, lighter shade of green-grey for your top highlights.
Step 8: Keep going back and forth between laying in the highlights and re-establishing the dark values, building up layers of paint so as to create a feeling of volume and three dimensions. Don’t overwork-- the individual pine needles and blades of grass do not need to be painted for the tree to take shape.
Once you decide it’s done (sooner than you think), step away and enjoy your painted pine tree! Are there any handsome pine trees in your neighborhood that deserve a portrait?
Now capture the beauty of an entire landscape in acrylic. In case you missed it explore the history of portraiture here. Then come back to the Craftsy blog tomorrow to learn how to work with perspective to enhance your pieces.