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How to Draw Trees
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How to Draw Trees

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by Frank M. Rines

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"To be able to draw and paint trees and have them look like trees and not just strokes, or gobs of paint, is the supreme test of a landscape artist's ability," declares the author of this practical manual. Distinguished landscape artist Frank M. Rines offers the benefit of his many years of teaching experience in this informative manual, which shows how to


"To be able to draw and paint trees and have them look like trees and not just strokes, or gobs of paint, is the supreme test of a landscape artist's ability," declares the author of this practical manual. Distinguished landscape artist Frank M. Rines offers the benefit of his many years of teaching experience in this informative manual, which shows how to re-create one of nature's most triumphant creations: the tree.
This concise guide illustrates the dominant features of many common trees, with examples of typical, familiar species — elm, maple, willow, apple, birch, pine, and others — both with and without foliage. Studies of individual trees are followed by illustrations of trees in groups or as incidental parts of more elaborate compositions. Drawings are rendered in pencil and other media, with emphasis on the subject rather than the materials. Accompanying text explains how art students at all levels can develop and improve their own techniques by applying fundamental rules.
"An invaluable resource for any artist wishing to tackle one of nature's most complex creations." — Collector’s Corner

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
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Product dimensions:
8.20(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.30(d)

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How to Draw Trees

By Frank M. Rines

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14217-3



One of the first things to be undertaken by anyone desirous of learning to paint and draw trees (which should include everyone intending to paint out of doors), is a constant observation and study of them—as many kinds as possible at all seasons. The student should make numerous sketches, not only of the complete trees, but of their details, especially in the Fall and Winter when, denuded of their foliage, their anatomy is so clearly revealed. Their character, as typified by the graceful branches of the elm and birch, or the ruggedness of the oak, will prove a revelation to those who have not previously paid them sufficient attention.

To illustrate this character, to impress it upon the mind of the observer of the picture, even though he may not be able to analyze it or to be consciously aware of it, should be the aim of the artist. If the artist succeeds in conveying to the observer the thought that the tree, or trees, are objects of beauty (as the artist himself should feel that they are) he has accomplished something worth while.

It is not sufficient, merely, to be a good draughtsman—to be able to draw accurately what one sees. No man, even though possessed of a "photographic eye," could draw, exactly as they are, every little branch and twig or leaf. Of course, admitting such a thing were possible, it would not be desirable; it would not be pleasing.

Instead, the artist must be sufficiently familiar with his subject to know and appreciate the facts as they apply to the particular tree he is sketching; to be able to put down, upon paper or canvas, the dominant characteristics of the tree as they impress him. He must be able to design the limbs, branches, and twigs, and sky spaces, or the foliage masses as regards form and location, in such a manner that the unpleasant features, if any (and there usually are such), are subordinated or eliminated altogether.

Just how this shall be done depends upon several things—how important the tree is in its relation to other trees, and to the composition as a whole, and the medium employed.

Naturally, when painting in oils, the effect must be obtained differently than when using the pencil or the pen, but the idea—the principle—should be the same.

Before actually drawing a line, the tree should be studied for a few moments. Search for its outstanding features; wherein it differs from others of its kind, and yet conforms to certain rules of growth in common with the particular species to which it belongs.

Considering, first, the tree when bare of foliage or when the leaves are very sparse, sketch in the trunk and principal branches about as they appear. If, however, some of these main branches are distorted and broken, or do not form a pleasing line or pattern, change them—enough to correct this unpleasant effect, still keeping the same general character of growth.

For instance, the main trunk may grow quite straight, and somewhere along this trunk two limbs may grow, one on either side, at exactly the same point. They may be of almost the same size, or thickness, and form approximately the same angle with this main stem. (See Diagram 1 E.)

Raise or lower one of these limbs a little, at the same time change the thickness and angle a bit, and note how much more pleasing is the result (2E). It might have grown this way just as well, so you will not be violating any principle, but the appearance will be more informal, and therefore more natural. Take especial care when one large branch appears partially behind another for some distance to redesign one of them a little. This will prevent the illusion of the two limbs appearing as one abnormally thick one and then suddenly diminishing to a much smaller size (Diagram D).

This brings up the problem of tapering the branches. This tapering must be consistent. Do not have a limb or branch first thick, then thin, and then thick again. This is not the way they grow. Neither must the branch be drawn a certain thickness for about three-fourths of its length and then suddenly be made smaller, in order to have it end where it should. (Diagram L, with arrows). This is one of the mistakes most frequently made by students when they first start to draw trees. Then they try to rectify it by running the branch off the paper, or leaving it with the appearance of having been broken off.

When the trunk and principal branches have been designed (for "designed" is exactly what they should be) commence drawing the smaller twigs. Several things should be kept in mind when drawing these twigs. The first, and most important, is to have them take on the same general character as are those of the tree which you are drawing. This may mean that they are curving and sinuous, or angular and scraggly, or both. Having, assumably, already determined this character in the preliminary study, less reference to the actual tree is now necessary, for from now on, the attention to the pattern should be uppermost. This means not only the design of the individual twigs, but of the sky spaces as well.

Try to get as great a variety in these twigs as possible, both in length and thickness. Just as the larger branches taper, so do the twigs. Instead of having them end with a heavy line, let them become thinner and thinner until they finally end with a hair line. (See T, in previous diagram.) Draw them crossing one another, avoid as much as possible having two or more that are too obviously parallel, and do not have a twig or branch grow at exactly the point at which two others already cross. (Diagram X.)

In some spots the twigs should be massed quite thickly, while in other places they should be comparatively more open; in the former instance the individual twigs should, more or less, lose their identity, while in the latter case some of them should be quite prominent.

When drawing these finer twigs with the pencil, pen, crayon, etc., if the instrument is allowed to twirl between the fingers now and then, a freer line results. It is also easier to get a fine line ending in this manner, and you are enabled to avoid the stiff, mechanical line obtained when holding the implement rigidly.

When you have carried your drawing to this stage, and have massed the twigs in some places more than in others, a spotty appearance around the edges will probably result. Here again; your sense of design, or pattern, must play an important part, for these spots should be made to vary as much as possible, both as to size, shape, and continuity. The same thing is true of the sky spaces; they need to be broken up by drawing branches and twigs through them, so that no too obvious shapes result.

I usually make several massings of these fine twigs in different parts of the tree, at first, and then commence designing, or tying them together. In this way, I am able to get a more apparently, unstudied effect than if I were to start at any one point and continue around until I reached the starting point again.

As to just where these massings should be placed, no one can say. The artist should have a "feeling" that they should be here, or there. No two artists, drawing the same tree, would get the same spotting, and no one, drawing the same tree twice, would plan it identically each time.

A reference to the accompanying diagram will illustrate more fully some of the foregoing points. The dotted lines indicate where three limbs of equal thickness, and growing evenly spaced on the larger branch, have been changed, both in size and spacing and direction, in order to give variety to the pattern. At the same time this re-arrangement prevents the two sky spaces (S) from being so nearly similar in shape and area.

A careful study of the drawings of the trees in Winter, reproduced farther on, will help to make some of these features clearer.

Of course, many of these things which have been illustrated in the diagrams, and which I have been cautioning you to watch for, cannot be avoided unless one were to work over and over, which would utterly destroy the free, or spontaneous, effect that every sketch should possess. It is natural to overlook some of these points. However, if you have them clearly in mind, many of them can be eliminated, and the more glaring violations altered without destroying the freedom of the sketch. As a rule, this appearance of freedom is obtained only by a great deal of careful study and planning.

It may seem that too much importance is attached to such apparently minor things as the twig of a tree and its position. But it is these seemingly trivial things which, when the picture is viewed as a whole, are so subordinate, that make the final result successful or otherwise. Furthermore, care and skill in executing these details is not alone essential when drawing and painting bare trees; they are equally important when sketching trees and bushes with foliage. An otherwise very nicely handled mass of leaves can be ruined by the introduction of poorly executed limbs and twigs. I have seen this happen frequently.

Few suggestions are necessary regarding rendering, after the outline has been carefully planned. All but the larger limbs and the trunk appear in silhouette against the sky. Some branches may be left lighter where they cross in front or behind other ones. On these limbs and trunks, a light and shadow area may be shown, if the picture represents a sunny day. On these same limbs and trunk, shadows will be cast from the higher branches, often times, if the drawing is large enough, affording the opportunity of planning a pleasing pattern of light and shade.

When drawing trees (or anything else for that matter) you should frequently stop work and place the drawing some distance away. Relax, and look around at other objects for a few moments before studying the drawing from this distance. This rests the brain, the eye and the hand. Only by doing this can a true sense of the design, or "feeling" be obtained. This very logical procedure is one of the most difficult to get students to do. It seems to them like a waste of time, but time, in the end, is actually saved, and a better picture results.

Let us now consider drawing trees in Summer, when, in full foliage, their whole appearance is so different in comparison with Winter, when the skeletons stand out against the sky. The most noticeable feature of the tree now is its silhouette. Before the eye takes in the details of the separate foliage masses, or the branch construction, it is arrested by the shape, or outline of the tree against the sky.

This, then, should be the first thing to roughly sketch, or block in. Having already determined by a preliminary study, as previously described, the general shape of the tree—whether it is higher than it is wide, or the reverse, and roughly blocked it in, the next step is to go over this light outline, refining and changing it a little here and there. Do not be content with having, for example, three masses of foliage of about equal size and shape jutting out with equal spacing between them, either because they are like that actually, or because you happen to have drawn them that way. Shorten or lengthen one of them a trifle, make one of them thicker, thereby changing not only the size of that particular clump, but at the same time altering the separating spaces.

Do not, above all things, be satisfied to complete the outline with three or four curving strokes that make it appear like something cut out from a plank or piece of wall board with a jig-saw. This may sound far-fetched, and yet I have seen it done many times, not only by students, but by professionals.

Remember the foliage is something through which the wind can blow, causing the leaves to tremble and rustle; therefore, indicate in the outline the soft and lace-like edges. Handle this outline in such a manner as to suggest the abovementioned quality and to create the impression that it is different material from the buildings, rocks, boats, etc., that may also be in the composition. (See accompanying diagram.)

Another thing to bear in mind is that all trees have three dimensions—that they have depth as well as height and breadth. So many times they are drawn and painted as if they were flat, like a piece of paper. Usually in photographs, also, they have the appearance of being all one tone, with little or no modeling in them. In the case of the photograph this effect is due to either one or both of two things; the film is not sensitive to the different color values, or else the picture was taken with the sun behind the tree.

But we, as artists, should be able to improve upon the camera. There are several means by which we can do this. One way is by changing and redesigning, as already described (and to be emphasized further), and another way is by selecting the point from which we view our subjects so that the light comes from some other angle than directly in front of us, thereby throwing sunlight and consequently shadow upon the objects.

It is this contrast of both light and shade that makes a picture interesting. This is equally as true of trees as it is of buildings, rocks, boats, etc. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes we wish to paint gray day effects and so on, but generally speaking, it is the sunny effects that are most pleasing especially when working in black and white.

All of which leads us to the next stage in making the tree outline, after the general silhouette has been drawn.

In the same manner with which you have blocked in the outer edge, draw the shapes of the light and dark masses of foliage, and the largest, or principal, skyholes. If the foliage is open enough so that the large branches show, sketch them also. Do not bother to draw the smaller twigs, except to indicate where a cluster may show.

The drawing will now have the appearance of a more or less confining outline, enclosing a lot of meaningless lines—there will be no distinction between the foliage masses and the skyholes. A helpful idea is to make, very lightly, a small letter "s" in these sky spaces, and to "scumble" in a few lines to denote the areas that are to be in shadow. (See diagram.)

The result now is what might be termed a rough diagram of the tree. The lines should, of course, be kept light so they will not show when the rendering is completed.

Now, surely, you are ready to start the tone, or color, it would seem. But there is yet one more step to be taken before facing this final problem. It is—to study the pattern of these masses and their confining outline once more.

Does the whole silhouette have the appearance of informal balance? Are the different masses varied enough as to size, shape, and continuity? Are they distributed in such a manner that the tree does not have the effect of being divided right through the center in respect to the light and shade areas? Are the skyholes sufficiently varied in character so as not to seem made with a rubber stamp?

If the answer to any of these questions is "no," then now is the time for alterations; now is the time to correct these faults.

Most of you who read this will be much surprised, no doubt, to find that so much time and effort should be devoted to merely the outline of a tree; something that eventually will be covered up. But this is exactly the secret of being able to draw a tree well. The additional time required to follow out the preceding stages is time and labor saved later on and is the only way by which satisfactory results can be obtained. All this work, as well as that to follow, is bound to require time at first. As the student progresses, and increases his skill by more and more practice, less time is required to perform this preliminary work, and yet it should never be neglected.

In applying the tones, shading, color, or whatever term may be given a filling in the outline, a feeling for the direction of the leaf growth and the leaf massing must be evident. This is true, to a greater or less extent, no matter what medium is employed. When using the pencil or pen and ink, crayon, etc., the strokes should be more defined than when using, for instance, oils—for both the pencil and the pen require plenty of "technique" if they are to show to their greatest advantage. Even in using the other media, however, the tones should be applied in such a manner that a suggestion of the texture is given; otherwise the result will not appear as foliage.

In every tree, as we must have discovered in our study of the bare trees, the tendency is for the topmost twigs to grow in a more or less vertical direction. In some species, as well as in some individual trees, this direction is more evident than in others, but it always exists to some degree.

Once we get away from the top, however, the change of direction of growth differs considerably. Compare, for example, the elm and the maple and the oak. (See diagrams.)

A more thorough realization of these differences will be obtained by reference to the following "tree portraits" and to the real trees. The previous practice of drawing bare trees should also help to emphasize this very important characteristic.

Our strokes, then, should be made with these directions of growth in mind—especially around the edges, or silhouette, of the tree. When leaving the edges, and working toward the interior, the strokes should vary more, for the masses now are extending in several different directions, with some reaching out almost directly toward you, and others shooting off at various angles It is, therefore, along the edges that the greatest effort to express the character should be brought to bear.


Excerpted from How to Draw Trees by Frank M. Rines. Copyright © 2007 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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How to Draw Trees 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an awesome way to express yourself
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is the sample good because i dont have money