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Trees - Part One

I had a recent Facebook request to talk about painting trees.
My first reaction was, “What’s so mysterious about painting trees?” But, the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that, for a pure landscape painter, none of the elements in the landscape are more personal to the artist than the trees. Furthermore, a landscape painter would have to exert some effort to get to places on earth where there were no trees visible. So it is paramount that the landscape painters have an essential understanding of “tree”ness.

Trees are the longest living organisms on Earth. There are Bristlecone Pines that are 4600 years old. Each tree is a conscious, living thing, and each species of tree has a distinct personality that can lend emotion and credibility to a landscape. They are useful elements that can be orchestrated within the composition to convey the strongest impact.

It is conservatively estimated that there are more than 50,000 species of trees on earth. I don’t believe that anyone would expect a painter to be familiar with all of them, but, in the pursuit of painting convincing landscapes, the artist would be well-advised to become familiar with the trees native to their painting haunts.

I live in Colorado at 6400 feet above sea level. Although there are 14,000-foot peaks in the distance, the scant rainfall qualifies this area as high desert. There are a few deciduous trees, like Cottonwoods and Gambel Oak, but the forest that surrounds my house is primarily composed of Juniper and Pinon. Some of these old veterans reach above thirty feet, which may not seem like much, but considering it took them over a hundred years to reach that height, I have cultivated a deep reverence for these hearty survivors.

Since Juniper and Pinon dominate the terrain that I frequently paint, I would be doing myself a disservice if I did not, at least, familiarize myself with these two species and their general characteristics.

So how does one paint a tree?

The only way to paint convincing trees is to understand them.

Despite the various shapes and sizes, all trees have the same basic structure. They have a main stem, or “trunk”, which comprises about 60% of the tree mass. The trunk is anchored to the ground by an extensive root system (about 20% of the mass), and it supports the combined branches and leaves (about 20% of the mass).

The trunk supports branches that widen at the juncture with the trunk. In order to bear the weight of the leaves (and fruit), these branches are flanged into the trunk, and continue almost to the heart of the tree. Anyone who has ever spent time cutting firewood can vouch for the difficulty of cutting through the “knots” (the circular markings, that essentially represent the “roots” of the branches).

Trees grow from the top, not the bottom. Both the trunks and the branches gradually diminish in thickness as they extend, from the trunk base to the apex, and the base of the branch to the tendril. This is an extremely important thing to remember when rendering trees. It is these gradual taperings that gives size and flow to the tree, and make it appear as a living, growing entity.

The tree is like Nature. It struggles to maintain a perfect balance. At important junctures, key branches (usually three or four) will spring from the main trunk, forcing the trunk to instinctively shift, in order to maintain a balance over the center of gravity.

These key branches will grow and support their own colonies of foliage. These individual groups of foliage ensure that a greater surface of the tree will be exposed to sunlight. These smaller masses combine to give the general tree mass its distinctive shape, gesture and personality.

Finding these significant masses of foliage, and rendering them simply and correctly will make your trees convincingly structural, and enable you to capture the “treeness” of any tree you paint. Furthermore, it will save you countless hours of painting leaves, smaller “branches” and tons of useless highlights. If the tree is structurally sound, you will find that a minimal amount of embellishment will be sufficient.
Left to their own devices, each tree would grow nice and straight. Trees do not twist and bend unnecessarily. Contortions are an extra expenditure of energy, and generally arise from the survival instinct. For example, trees growing in windy areas (like seacoasts) will often grow slightly canted away from the prevailing winds to prevent breakage.  Like us, they need their space, and forest trees growing too close together will often twist and turn in competition for the available sunlight.

At this point, I haven’t even discussed “sky holes” (the areas between the masses of foliage, where the light shines through). There will be three or four significant sky holes between the main foliage masses. I’ll address that next month with a couple of demonstrations.

The bottom line on all this is: if an artist wants to paint good convincing trees, he must go out, observe, sketch and make some attempt to gain an understanding of trees that are native to the areas in which he paints. Sorry, there really aren’t any shortcuts.

It is imperative that we don’t treat trees as if they were cut out stage sets, with green leaves in the summer, red in the autumn and bare branches in the winter. The leaves and the trunk can run the color gamut on any given day. Trees are important living individuals, with mass and density. They are generally the most important design elements in the landscape, adding strength, depth and orchestrating how the viewer’s eye moves through the painting.

I’m including a few paintings that exemplify an understanding of some of the principles mentioned above. Click on any one to enlarge.

Old Stackyard, Gringley  15x22 wc David Curtis)
Broken Cottonwoods 16x24 oil  Clark Hulings
Aspen Forest 20x34 oil Richard Schmid
Environs de Beauvais 16x12 oil Corot (1845)
Winter Feeling 8x11 wc Philip Jamison
Overgrown Pond 35x51cm oil Isaac Levitan   (1887) 


Happy Painting!