Trees have limbs, so it's no surprise that you draw them much like you do the human figure.
|Old barnyard tree, by Carol L. Douglas. 6X8, oil on canvas.|
All drawing starts with careful observation. Start by observing the branching structure and overall shape of your tree. Opposite branching means that side branches, twigs and leaf stems grow directly across from each other from a main trunk. These include maple, ash, dogwood and buckeye. Alternate branching is much more common. It’s where side branches, leaves and twigs do not grow opposite each other, but grow in either a spiral pattern or an alternating one. The oak family are alternate branchers; stems grow out in a spiral pattern with no two branches coming from the same node. This creates the oak tree's distinctive silhouette.
|Every variety of tree has a distinctive shape.|
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of making trees two-dimensional cutouts, with branches extending to the left and right. In fact, branches extend in all directions, including straight at you. How do you render this with authority?
|Wire-frame drawing of the basic shape of my White Oak.|
Don’t try to sort all that complexity out in one shot. Rather, start with the major structure. Just as with the human figure, I start with a wire-frame drawing. In the case of trees, I start by reducing the trunk and branches into a series of tubes in space.
|Check those negative spaces!|
As you finish each major branch, check to be sure the negative space between the branches is accurate.
If you’ve done this phase correctly, you might notice that these simplified branches are almost human in movement and shape. This should be no surprise; we’re all part of the same creation.
|That's the basis of your line drawing.|
Connect the tubes with flowing lines to create your tree’s wooden structure. Don’t obliterate the circles too fast; they will be your guides to setting shadows.
|Time to set the shadows.|
Identify the light source—is it coming from the left or the right? Once you’ve identified the light source, set the shadows.
|The foliage doesn't need to be fully articulated, just suggested.|
Add foliage as masses of dark. If you want to articulate the individual leaves more carefully, you can do so, but be selective. Too much detail will obliterate the charm of your tree.
|Presto, it's a White Oak!|
Refine the shadows and you’re done.