How To Paint Trees
I could write a whole book about painting trees in acrylic. As a matter of fact, there are already several books on the market about painting trees. However, in this article, I am just going to give you the basics of tree painting to get you started.
Style of Painting
First you have to decide which style of painting you are doing. Do you want to paint a hyper realistic group of trees, a more painterly style, an abstract tree, a comic book type of tree or something completely your own style. Whatever you decide to paint it’s best to start with a few tips on color mixing your greens.
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Color Mixing for Trees
Your palette for painting trees doesn’t necessarily need to include a tube of green. Most beginner painters have bought a set of paints for beginners such as this one.
The green included in this is not ideal for trees on its own. It needs to be toned down, lightened up a bit to give the necessary highlights and shadows to make your tree more dimensional.
You can mix several shades of green with a palette of blues and yellows to give your scene more interest and give you more flexibility over with colors in your painting.
A good palette to start with would be ultramarine blue or Phthalo blue, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, white and alizeran crimson and a tiny touch of black for painting leaves and trunk.
If you don’t have these exact colors, spend some time playing around with mixing what you have to get the colors you are happy with. Use more than one shade of green for your trees and any foliage around the trees.
Here are some basic mixes with Cadmium Yellow mixed with Ultramarine Blue and Phthalo Blue. There are many, many more combinations you can mix to get almost any color you want. Add more yellow to make them lighter or more blue to make them darker.
Be aware too that the colors may be slightly different on your computer. Also, there may be a difference among the brands of paint. It’s best to make a chart for yourself before you begin painting to see what colors you have and what mixes you can make.
You can also use a bottled green such as sap green or phthalo green and mix it with either a blue or yellow to lighten or darken it.
Not All Trees Are Green
Not all trees have green foliage. Some, like Japanese maples, have dark red or reddish brown leaves.
If you are bored with painting green leaves or just want a pop of color in your landscape you might think about painting a flowering tree or maybe doing a fall picture with all of its colorful yellows and oranges.
Winter scenes can also be interesting and beautiful with ice and snow glistening on bare branches or little bits of evergreen peeping through on branches heavily laden with snow.
You can also do a whimsical painting using one or two of your favorite colors that are not traditionally used in tree. Use various shades of purples and blues for example to render a unique look. It would be a fun exercise in how to understand tones and values in painting.
Atmospheric Influence on the Colors of Trees
Don’t forget the atmospheric influence on the color of the leaves and trunk. Bright sunshine, setting or rising sun, dusk or moonlight night. All of these will add shadows, highlights and reflections to your trunk and leaves.
Think about how the red/orange glow from a setting sun can deepen the red of a maple or make the yellows of an aspen seem to glow.
Take time to study the perspective of your painting. Trees in the foreground will be larger and more detailed than the background trees.
The colors and textures in the foreground trees will also be more vibrant. Trees in the background tend to be less defined and take on a more neutral bluish grey color the further back they go. See my post on Perspective.
Observe the shape of the trees you are going to paint and how they fit in to your overall piece. Are they tall and slim? Short and round? Large and majestic?
Do the branches stick out randomly like a bad case of bed head? Are they mostly in shadow or in direct light. Are the trees all of the same species or are there different types of leaves and colors on some of the trees.
Having a good idea of what exactly you are painting will help with your composition. You can add a few leaves or whole trees to fill in gaps you don’t like or add a dead tree to make it more interesting.
The great thing about art is that you can take a reference photo and make it your own by adding or subtracting a few artistic touches.
Painting trees is more about recreating the patterns and shapes you see than placing each individual leaf and branch in the right place.
If you want to see some really hyper-realistic tree painting, check out this Michael James Smiths YouTube channel. He is an oil painter who does some of the most realistic landscapes that I have seen.
Brushes for Tree Painting
You can use just about any brush to paint trees. A lot of artists like to use a fan brush for pine trees.
Load the paint on the corner of the brush and make branches gradually getting smaller as they go up. Add a second and third layer of different shades to give dimension and shading to the tree.
The same technique can be used with a flat brush. Load the brush with paint on the corner and dab on your branches.
You may get slightly thicker branches with the flat brush so this is good for very dense trees.
Use a liner or small round brush for details and highlights on your tree.
Tree trunks are not always brown. There are many different colors found in the trunks and branches of trees including grays, blacks and whites. I
t depends on the type of tree, the season you are painting and the play of light on the trees and branches.
Trunks are wider at the base and may have large, prominent roots and knotholes or peeling bark. Even tall slender, trees are slightly wider at the base.
1.Begin by making a line with a flat or round brush and your desired color. You can add a large limb or two to bigger trees.
You can add as little or as much detail as you want. Everything can be adjusted later, for now just get the basic shapes down.
2. Add some foliage to your tree. Start with the darkest of your greens. Use a fan brush or the edge of a flat brush to “dab” foliage onto the tree trunk and branches. Don’t cover it completely but just enough to give it some background. The dark color will act as shading for your tree.
3. Next, add some of your midtones in the same manner, filling in a few more gaps and adding some depth. Don’t go overboard. Most trees have some sky showing through and you want to leave enough dark color showing through to add some shading.
4. Now you can add some light tones and highlights to make your tree pop. Do this lightly with your fan brush or your flat brush just here and there to mimic the sun hitting the leaves.
From here you can continue to add highlights and shading where you see necessary. You can add in a few thin branches and cover them with a little foliage.
Go back and add in some sky holes through the branches. Paint in layers rather than big blocks of color.
You can also add more highlights and shading to the trunk using a little white or black mixed with your burnt umber.
These are just basic trees to get you started and more comfortable with mixing the greens and finding the shapes in the trees. As I said, whole books have been written on the subject.
Here is a chart you can use as a guide when mixing some of the blues and yellows to mix green. It may not look exactly like yours due to the differences in computer screens but it will give you a general idea of the hues you will get.
Ultramarine tends to give you a more earthy green, while phthalo gives a brighter green.
There are several ways you can make charts to help you decide which colors to use:
Make a chart of green mixes = yellow/green Blue/greens.
Make a chart of mixing other colors with a base green.
Mix blues, greens, yellows, red, whites and blacks into the browns for tree trunks.
Practice is probably one of the most important things in painting. Get some painting paper or any heavy paper or cheap canvases and practice painting trees to build up the muscle memory and technique.
Practice a variety of shapes, sizes and types.
Practice painting leaves too. Most of your landscapes won’t require you to paint many individual leaves, but there will be some compositions where you will want to paint a closer view of a leaf.
Practicing beforehand will make the painting go faster.
I hope this all helps to get you started with landscapes. I a planning on making a few more in depth tutorials later on and maybe include a short video if I can figure out a Parkinson’s friendly way to do it. 😉
If you have any questions or suggestions I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Happy Painting!!