Tree Painting: Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Trees come in all shapes and sizes, colors and heights. Even two trees of the same species won't be identical, although from a distance they may seem very similar. However, up close you will see branches of varying lengths growing in different directions, bumps and scars on the bark, and subtle variations of hue. Along with the changing light and shadow throughout the day caused by the sun's movement, constantly changing weather conditions, and transitions through the seasons, trees are more of a dynamic element in the landscape than they might at first seem, and can be an exciting element in your painting.  But make these mistakes, and your trees may ruin your paintings.

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Don't Use One Green For All the Leaves

Painting of birch trees using a variety of greens.
Vermont Birches, by Lisa Marder, acrylic, 8"x10", showing a variety of greens used in painting the trees. © Lisa Marder

The leaves on the tree you intend to paint may be green, but it's a mistake to use only one green and expect your painting to look realistic. Adding white to create a lighter green and black to create a darker green is inadequate.

Dig into your paintbox for, at the very least, a yellow and a blue. Mix each of these in with your green to create variations. Use the yellow+green mixes where the sunlight is falling, and the blue+green for shadowy parts. You can mix quite a variety of useful greens for the landscape using blues and yellows. See How to Paint Landscape Greens.

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Don't Use One Brown For the Trunk

Tree painting mixtakes
Image: © 2006 Marion Boddy-Evans

Likewise, one brown for the whole trunk, mixed with white for lighter areas and black for darker, isn't the recipe for painting a tree trunk successfully. Mix a little of your greens, blues, yellows, even red into your "tube brown" mixture to echo the variations in color and tone you get in bark.

Check whether the bark on that species is brown or not. Do it from life, by personal observation, in different lights. It's surprising how much the color and tone on the same tree can change.

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Don't Chop the Trunk off Straight at Ground Level

Painting trees
Photo © Marion Boddy-Evans

There isn't a straight line where the tree trunk emerges from the soil. It is not a pole stuck into the ground. It widens somewhat at the base where it emerges from the ground, and the contour line of the tree is generally uneven, particularly if it's a tree species with dramatic roots. Also take note of grasses or plants growing up against the trunk, or fallen leaves, making the bottom edge where the base meets the ground, more textured than smooth.

Step-by-Step Tree Painting Demo
Don't paint branches like this!. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans

Humans may have their arms and legs neatly arranged in pairs, on opposite sides of their trunk, but tree branches follow a more complex arrangement. Spend some time sketching various species, noting the characteristics of their branches. Or, if you're too lazy, just remember to put branches in randomly not like a row of soldiers. 

You might try to remember which tree species have opposite branching by learning the mnemonic MADCap Horse. More »

Painting of autumn trees by Lisa Marder showing shadows and massing of leaves on trees.
Autumn Begins (Detail) by Lisa Marder, showing shadows and massing of leaves on trees. © Lisa Marder

You've spent ages perfecting the shadow your tree is casting on the ground, but what about the shadows the branches and leaves cast within the tree itself? Put them in as you're painting the leaves, not as an afterthought stuck on top. It is helpful to paint the leaves in layers, going back and forth between the shadow color and the lighter surface colors several times. This will help give depth to your trees and make them appear more realistic. More »

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Don't Paint Every Individual Leaf

Painting of pine tree by Paul Cezanne showing massing of needles and leaves
Paul Cezanne, The Large Pine Tree, c. 1889, oil on canvas. DEA/Getty Images

To make your trees look more realistic, squint at them and see where the major shapes, or masses, are. Paint the masses, as Paul Cézanne did, using a bigger brush, capturing the modulations of light and dark. Then use smaller brushes if necessary to selectively paint a few foreground leaves to add more detail and add specificity to a tree as desired.

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Don't Forget The Negative Shapes of the Sky

Landscape painting by George Inness with sky showing through trees
George Inness, June 1882, oil on canvas. SuperStock/Getty Images

Trees are not solid blocks of material. They are magnificent and strong, yet delicate and porous living things through which light and air move and dance. Make sure to see like an artist and observe the negative shapes of the sky. Leave areas of sky showing through the masses of leaves and branches in your tree as you paint, but also don't be afraid to go back in and add touches of sky color when you've finished painting the leaves. This will open up the branches and let your tree breathe, as it does in nature. Even evergreen trees have small patches of sky showing through some of the outer branches. Don't miss these important patches and specks of sky in your trees! 


Article updated by Lisa Marder 11/25/16