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Trouble with Trees
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Broadway Foot
Nr Helmsley
York YO62 5LT

01439 798214


Of all the elements in a landscape, trees and foliage are the ones that cause the inexperienced painter the greatest problems. This is unfortunate, as here in England, trees play such a large part of our landscape. So what are these problems and how can we overcome them?

SHAPE In childhood days, we painted trees like green lollipops with brown sticks. These images tend to stick in the mind, unless closer observation and personal recording is done. Study the shapes of English hardwood trees to find out the individual tree characteristics - oak trunks and branches are angular; beech trees have upright trunks with smooth bark; willow trees have drooping branches. Try to recognise and capture the overall shape by form as well as colour. Use Tree Guides to find out the skeleton shape. This need not be too botanical - just the general idea. Then study the shapes of some of our most distinguishable coniferous trees - the pines, the firs, the larches. Make small skeleton sketches to get to know the shapes and characteristics of the trees.

BEECH TREE A tall tree with large spreading crown. Mature trees have thick trunks with grey bark. OAK TREE Stout trunk with spreading, twisting branches forming a broad, rounded crown. Often the width is greater than the height.

PROPORTIONS How tall is the tree in relation to other trees at the same distance? How tall is it in relation to the height of a hedge or a house? How thick is the trunk in relation to the branches? How thick is the trunk in relation to the height? Where do the branches start to branch from the trunk? An English hardwood tree grows its lowest branches between a quarter and a third of the total tree height. If the tree has more trunk showing - then look to see if the lower branches have been lopped. If necessary, "replace" some of the lower branches! Some trees are pollarded, e.g. willow, poplar or hazel and they then regenerate with many thinner branches.


  • Before you begin to draw your tree, make a thumbnail sketch of the tree skeleton and show the quarter, or third proportions until they become totally familiar.
  • Try to have a sketchbook with you at all times, not only to record specimen trees but also to record natural groupings of trees. A grouping with a nice balance or a good colour harmony can be used in later paintings when a landscape needs an interesting middle ground or foreground.
  • Record additional information that will help you:
  1. The species of tree or trees.
  2. An arrow to show the sun direction and a note about the brightness of the day.
  3. The date or the season of the year.
  4. The shadow areas in the foliage.
  5. The natural setting of the trees, i.e. the terrain it is growing in - grass, arable, etc.
  6. The slope of the ground and the shadow shapes on the slope.
  7. Quirks and irregularities, e.g. dead branches; moss/lichen/ivy growth; branches catching the light; trees bent by the wind; trees with leaves clinging to one side only; fallen branches or logs on the ground. All these irregularities add conviction.
  8. The colours you would use in painting the tree(s).

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