View Full Version : Tree Basics...Foliage

Deborah Secor
08-19-2008, 10:26 PM
I posted this in a thread and thought that perhaps it would be generally helpful, so I copied it here. It's just some advice about how I paint any tree.

First, it's much easier to work from a reference photo to learn how to see properly. Then:

Squint hard at the photo until you almost can't see the color, looking only for the overall shape of the tree. Is it oval, rectangular, triangular? Get that in mind first.

Then decide where the bottom of the trunk is located on the paper you're going to paint on. Make a small, light mark there.

Now look at the sides and top of the tree, remembering that overall shape. Make marks at the top and sides, too. If the tree goes off the paper on one side or the top, make a little mark on the board where you see it. Yes, even if it's off the paper!

Now lightly draw in the shape--your oval or rectangle or triangle--so that the overall shape of the entire tree matches up to your marks.

Then start with the trunk, finding the major branches you can see. Don't paint yet, just draw it in lightly.

Next lightly sketch in the big balloon of the foliage of the tree, ignoring small shapes. It might be like cotton candy or cloud shapes at this point, just fluffy and rounded.

Find the different balloons of foliage inside this bigger balloon, each of which is supported by a major branch. Ignore the small stuff, just find the bigger ones. There might be three or four of them. Sketch them in lightly.

Identify the direction of the sunlight and make a nice big arrow on your board, so you can keep it consistent.

Now, start with the SKY or whatever is behind the tree, lightly painting it using the flat side of the pastel. Paint a little sky into the edges of where there will be foliage, but don't use a lot of pastel. Go very lightly. Where the tree predominates, save the paper for the tree color instead.

Begin your actual tree once the background is established lightly, using a medium green color. Use the pastel on its side, following the contours of the foliage balloons.

Then add some strong, deep darks inside the foliage where there are shadows, and some strong lights where the sun hits the foliage, again using the side of the pastel. Don't think of this as drawing, but as PAINTING.

Once you have the balloons of foliage roughly established with the three values (medium, dark, light) of green, then find a stroke that resembles the leaf. A willow will be long vertical stroke, slightly curved, for instance, or cottonwoods will be a large rounded stroke. Whatever you decide on, use that as a kind of scribbly stroke, working a little dark into the lights and light into the darks, creating the light and shadow of the tree. Keep checking the big arrow showing you where the sun comes from and stay consistent. Use this detailed scribble stroke mostly along the edges of the light and dark areas, rather than trying to paint every leaf. You'll find that your viewer makes the connection from simply seeing texture in the areas of a lot of foliage.

Lastly you might add some strong light highlights, and put in a few sky holes where you can see larger patches of sky coming through. The sky coming through those holes is never as light as the sky behind it, so use a slightly darker sky color to do this.

I hope some of this helps you! One day when I have time I'll try to do a step-by step demonstration. Meanwhile, here's a painting where I used this system. Maybe it will help to look at it with what I said in mind. (You'll just have to trade red for green--sorry!)

Hope this is helpful. I'd love it if some of our tree painters would add their paintings here, too!


08-19-2008, 11:31 PM
Thanks Deborah. I have been struggling with trees the past few days and getting frustrated. I will give your method a try tomorrow and see what I can do. I think I am trying to paint the perfect tree and that just makes it worse.

I will be looking for balloons inside the big balloon now and remember to keep it simple.

Thanks again.


08-19-2008, 11:56 PM
Thanks for offering this. I don't paint trees but plan to give it a try in the future. I'm going to save this.


nana b
08-20-2008, 12:14 AM
Deborah, you are so thoughtful!!:clap:
I'm printing this off and saving it to try right away! Thank you! You are a :heart:.


M Douglas
08-20-2008, 01:55 AM
Thanks for taking the time to explain your steps Deborah, you make it sound so simple, you're generosity and thoughtfulness are really appreciated.


08-20-2008, 09:29 AM
Deborah this is fantastic! thanks so much and your tree is marvelous....I think you must be a pastel Saint...will call you Saint Deborah.....

08-20-2008, 04:41 PM
:wave: Thanks so much Deborah,
This is very helpful.
:clap: :clap:

Deborah Secor
08-20-2008, 05:22 PM
No problem--happy to help out. I will try to get to a demo one of these days. I'm teaching two classes on trees in the next couple of weeks so maybe that will be a chance to get some shots of the steps. I plan to start with a grove of trees, which is sometimes harder to do than the classic stand-alone tree.

I'd love to see some of your results if you guys do any balloons-inside-a-balloon style experiments...

saint (no capital!) Deborah :angel:

08-21-2008, 02:46 AM
Thanks a lot Deborah! very helpful :)

08-21-2008, 07:34 PM
OK Deborah. You asked for it. Here's my first attempt at the balloon method. I think it actually looks kinda like a tree.:o Maybe. Sorta.:confused:



08-21-2008, 08:21 PM
Thanks Deborah...I am totally frustrated with trees and folliage.

Deborah Secor
08-21-2008, 11:15 PM
It does look like a tree, Doug! It just needs a couple things. How about a few interior trunks and branches that hold up the balloons. They'll be in shadow, but not too overly dark. And then add a scribbly stroke over the top of the balloons that's in the character of the leaves (in the second to last bullet point above.) It has good light and shadow! :D


Donna T
08-22-2008, 09:51 AM
Thanks Deborah, I know I can always use help with trees. One thing I'm beginning to notice with mine are that the sky holes naturally occur between the balloons. Because the tree is three dimensional, the balloons overlap more near the main trunks and as you move toward the outer branches the balloons spread out more and overlap less, thus more chances for a sky hole to appear. I've been lightly indicating these gaps (holes) when I sketch in a tree and most of them get covered by foliage but when I do find a place for a sky hole it seems to look more natural than if I just randomly put it in. Sometimes sky holes can be put on either side of a branch that connects two balloons. I think it's kind of neat to see the branch in a few places and it gives a little variety to the appearance of the sky hole.

Doug, that's a great start to a tree. Once you see them as large sculptural shapes that you can manipulate they aren't so intimidating!

Here's a painting where I was trying to feature a tree and where I was trying out the balloon and sky hole system. It was plein air so I didn't have too much time to think. If my sky hole ideas are wrong or don't make sense please tell me so I don't keep creating a forest of weird trees!


08-22-2008, 06:40 PM
Thanks for your help Deborah. I did what you told me to do on this one I think.:o



09-03-2008, 09:26 AM
Hi deborah very nice how to for those wanting to paint trees, I was wondering if you would mind posting a link of this in my, (starting my tree study) thread or if I could, that is if I can figure it out lol. Thank you for posting this how to, it is very informative.

09-03-2008, 11:53 AM
Deborah - Great instructions. Thanks. I'm going to try it out today.

Donna - I think your tree looks terrific. You also do such a great job with grasses. Maybe you could do a tutorial or demo on just grasses. Pretty please.

Deborah Secor
09-03-2008, 01:43 PM
Sorry, I've been off wandering all over WC and not visiting here! Just like me to start something and then drop the ball... but here I am now. :p

Donna, your observations are very accurate and well put. Thank you! I think you've reasoned out the placement of the sky holes well and I like that you see how they help define the balloons of foliage. I agree that having a bit of branch showcased in a key area can be a nice addition to the character of a tree. Nice painting. :D

Doug, you're on track there I think. Now just keep going! You see the volume, mass and relationships of the balloons to the trunks.
This area looks good:
You have a nice lacy effect going there! Now carry that into the darker areas, too.

Scott, to post a link all you have to do is highlight the www. address at the top of this (or any) page and copy it, then plunk it into a post. It comes up as a link as long as you have the whole address there. Sure, post a link anytime anywhere! :wink2:


09-03-2008, 02:31 PM
Thank you Deborah, :)

12-17-2008, 11:08 AM
This is great! Thanks Deborah for writing this out. I want to start some tree studies and have been lurking in Scotties thread off and on. but now with your help I feel a little better about how to start off. Thanks! :)


Deborah Secor
12-17-2008, 12:40 PM
Have fun, Sara! :wink2:


12-17-2008, 02:34 PM
Hmmm...just in time. I'm working on grape vines. I imagine the same things apply. Thanks.

12-20-2008, 12:32 AM
Deb, your painting is beautiful! I love the colors and the wonderful touch you gave it.

I Just found this thread. And boy do I need it - my trees and foliage lately have left me having a lot to be desired. :o But, here is one I did last spring that I like. Maybe some day I'll get back into painting trees that I like and would actually want to hang on my wall. Thanks for this thread - I think it's just what I need to get inspired about trees again.


Donna T
12-20-2008, 10:14 AM
I really like this, Michele! Is that Spanish moss hanging from the trees? I like how you kept the details to a minimum. For some reason that little spot of blue to the left of the trees really does it for me. When I cover that up the painting loses something.


Deborah Secor
12-20-2008, 10:59 AM
Nice one, Michele! (And it has a ROAD in it! :wink2:) The simplicity of the design, palette and technique is what makes this one work, I think. there's a majesty to these regal trees guarding the road. Lovely!


12-20-2008, 11:31 AM
Wow Deborah - Great post!!! I've always been rather afraid of trees. I tend to go nuts with the leaves until there aren't any sky holes left. You've inspired me to try again. Thanks again!

12-20-2008, 12:04 PM
Donna, Yes, it's Spanish moss. We have a lot of that down here in Alabama (even more before Hurricane Ivan, which blew it all away). Here's a painting of a couple of cypress trees that I did at the same time as this one and it has even more moss.

Deborah, Thanks. Yes - a road! I tend to do roads a lot (as well as paths, streams, and anything meandering), that's why I was drawn to answering your blog on the roads. And yes, the simplicty I think is what made me like this painting. And probably the reason I'm not liking much of the landscapes I'm doing today - lately I tend to get too caught up in details, colors and strokes and then feel lost. :( Hey, but I think this thread has made me realize what I'm doing wrong and maybe now "I'll get back on the right road". Thanks! :D


P.S. Hmm, I just realized the horizon line isn't straight in this photo. I hope when I framed it I straightened it! That's one of the pluses of framing pastel paintings.

BTW, I have a trick a teacher taught me for keeping the dust from the frame out of the picture (you know, the frustrating little pieces of wood or whatever that always show up under the glass and on the mat): Before laying the glass in the frame, use a blow dryer to blow away any dust that maybe lingering on the frame. It really works!