I find that among artists, trees are a polarizing subject matter. Some artists love them and some hate them. Many artists find trees to be a very organic and expressive part of nature. Others see them as complicated and challenging objects that get in the way of the rest of the composition. For these artists, there are a few tips and tricks that can make painting trees a more enjoyable experience.
|Vincent Van Gogh, Chestnut Tree in Blossom, 1887|
Instead of focusing on the minute details of a tree, think of it as a whole, solid object. This object, in the sun, will have a light side and a shadow side. As a whole, the side facing the sun will be much lighter than the other side. This seems like a very basic concept, and it is. As long as you can refrain from seeing the details of the individual leaves, seeing the tree as a whole is simple.
Remember, just like any other object in direct light, the tree will have a form shadow. Making the transition between light and shadow gradual and placing the dark portion of the form shadow where the two meet will create a much more realistic look. Once you’ve established your light and shadow sides it’s not a bad idea to add a few little hints of shadow on the light side and lights on the shadow side. This will give an appearance of a few branches sticking out.
Vary your colors! If you are painting a landscape with multiple trees, or multiple plants of any sort, it’s important to vary your greens. Using a wide breadth of greens will give your landscape a lively and realistic feel. How you do this is up to you, but I suggest keeping the warmer greens in the foreground and cooler greens in the background.
If you are only painting one tree, or if there is a tree (or any plant) central to your composition, vary your colors within it. Yes, the tree is green and the trunk is brown. But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers. By including secondary colors, your tree can really come to life.
The sun is a warm light source. That means that the light side of your tree will be warm and the shadow side will be cool. Keep this in mind as you mix your greens.
Adding texture can help once you’re set up the light and shadow sides of the tree. Leaf detail in the upper part of the tree and bark texture on the trunk can elevate the level of your painting. However, it can be easy for those of you who are detail lovers to get carried away. Resist the urge (if you have it) to paint every leaf on every tree.
As I said earlier, trees offer a wonderful opportunity to stylize, should you feel inclined to do so. If you aim to paint a realistic image, resist this temptation. But if you do wish to stylize, have an idea before you begin of just how realistic you want your tree to be. Once you’ve determined that, you can decide how many of the “rules” you want to follow. Because, despite what one painter said, they don’t all have to be happy trees.