How to Paint a Tree

I received a very nice email from a gentleman who was soon to be retiring from a 35 year career as a teacher of horticulture, who wrote:  I have long admired trees, shrubs and the out of doors, thus my love for painting.  However I have never been able to illustrate them correctly on the canvas. When I saw your work I realized that I had found an artist that understood tree morphology and got it correct. Additionally he said regarding my painting of trees: “Yours are far superior to any I have seen. Museum quality! The masters would be proud.”

Whether or not the masters would be, I appreciated the comment, but he’s not alone in his struggle with how to paint a tree. Those new to painting often start by painting in a tree trunk, limbs, branches and then on top of that place little green dobs of paint to represent leaves. Invariably the outcome is less than what they hoped for. So how do you go about painting a tree? What I shared with this individual and now with you, and using as simple of an illustration as I can will perhaps help you with your own painting of trees.


A key to effectively painting any tree regardless of the type is getting the appropriate values put in the right place on the underlying geometric form. For example a fir tree is essentially a cone shape. If you can paint a cone with a single source of light and get the light, middle, and dark values in the right place, then you’ve achieved the greatest hurdle. Other trees have an underlying large spherical shape, broken up into smaller spherical or round shapes each having a light, middle and dark value.
Perhaps the following illustration will help. Click on the image for a larger view.

tree illustration by William Hagerman copyright 2013

Here is a basic shape for an oak tree. Do you see the 3 larger value areas of light, middle and dark on each form that makes up the tree? Notice I have not added any detail. The values are laid in as a large mass. Not individual little “leaf” strokes.
Below is the same tree with added “leaf” strokes and some negative shape painting for sky holes and a few drawn limbs, but notice that the underlying value (light/dark) structure is still there. A problem that can destroy the look of your trees is if you put light values or colors that are in the sunlit areas in the sections that are to remain in shadow. Shadow areas can also receive light, only not direct light, but reflected light. This reflected light ( coming from the sky ) is not going to be as light as the sunlit areas so obviously they will be darker in value as well as being cooler in color.

how to paint a tree illustration 2 by William Hagerman copyright 2013

As an exercise, try painting the first illustration making sure you have definite light, middle and dark values and not just color changes. Because if you only have a color change, and not a value change as well, this will result in a flat looking tree with no depth to it. Once painted let it dry.
Then try adding the details as in the second illustration with smaller little strokes on top, making sure you don’t loose the value structure. Don’t put those sunlight colors over in your shadow and vice-versa and be careful not to paint out the middle values as well.
Problems in painting trees is often a problem of incorrect value placement. Be mindful of this as you paint, and it should help you achieve a more satisfactory and pleasing result.

After sharing this, our gentleman horticulturist said: “I realized that I have been going about painting trees the wrong way.”

Perhaps this short and simplified overview of how to paint a tree will allow you to improve your own painting of trees by identifying the underlying structure and the light and dark patterns that fall upon it’s shape.


11 thoughts on “How to Paint a Tree

  1. Pingback: How to Draw an Oak Tree Video - Hagerman Art Blog

    1. William Post author

      I’m glad it helped Marilyn. The mystery is really in understanding the underlying geometric form of the tree and how light traveling across it produces the various values on it. Paint those shapes and values correctly and your tree or any other object will appear more natural.

    1. William Post author

      I’m glad you found the instruction easy to understand and that you like my paintings. I appreciate you letting me know.

  2. Helen

    Love your paintings. I so appreciate the time you take to show others your painting tips. I too am a self taught artist still learning everyday.

  3. Joseph V. Claeys

    I found this very interesting and helpful.I am just learning and your direct basic approach will stay with me and eventually I hope to paint some good and realistic trees.Thank you so much


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