Archive for July, 2013


Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013
DRAWING TREES with midground mystery

Artist Richard Devine submitted a query on my website to ask:

I thoroughly read all I could find both in your book “Drawing from Line to Life” and on the web about drawing trees. Then I tried to capture the beauty of Florida’s Champion Live Oak, the Cellon Oak. I would appreciate your honest critique of my work and how I could improve it. The suggestion of leaves was done with irregular squiggles, for the leaves are about 2″ long and 1/2″ wide. If I was to render a maple tree at the same distance, would I use a different size or shape squiggle? Perhaps angular shapes?

Richard's Cellon Oak drawing

Richard’s Cellon Oak drawing

This critique won’t take long 🙂 For a midground tree, it does its job admirably. It has believable form, suggestions of detail, and an excellent sense of reality. Personally, I think the beauty of working with squiggles and circles is that it allows you to explore an area without a break in concentration, unlike line that has to be continuously restarted. So you very quickly slip into working directly from your mind and sculpt what you expect to see.

If I was to render a maple tree at the same distance, would I use a different size or shape squiggle? Perhaps angular shapes?

Exactly that. Consider why you know it’s a Maple from that distance and then adapt your squiggles to reflect that knowledge. In the case of the Maple, or my preference for Sycamore, the visual clue lies with the angular shapes of the leaves. Build in that clue and you send the intended message. Very often, I find, using that clue around the perimeters of each foliage mass is all that’s required. When you create the shaded side of a mass and use that to negatively create the lighter edge of the adjoining mass, use that shade to create angular “maple-like” shapes. Edges are what most attract the viewer’s attention.

The other equally important area is the outside edge of the tree itself. Here you can be quite explicit about the leaf shape. Although you described your Oak’s leaf to me, I was already aware of that, based on the shapes around the extremity of your drawing. Those are the only clues my brain needs to understand the species of the tree, the leaf size and shape, and that all suggested foliage within it should be read as being identical.

Creating midground recession

Creating midground recession

Here, no actual leaves exist, only suggestions of leaves. But the outer edge of the right-hand bush is deliberately sharp-edged and intended to suggest the scale of its foliage. The outer leaves were not drawn, or even planned, but created as negative white shapes as I drew the shaded area behind them.

Midground trees drawn with clarity

Midground trees drawn with clarity

Behind these trees is a lake with morning mist rising from it. To increase the depth, these midground trees were drawn with exaggerated sharpness and contrast. Most contain very little internal “detail” so attention is thrown onto the outer edges, which suggest the species (usually imaginary!) and its leaf shape and size.

Midground secondary element trees

Midground secondary element trees

These trees are merely a backdrop – something to contain the viewer, and to suggest locality and strength of light. Again, most of the work was concentrated on the negatively drawn edges. The interiors are simply squiggles, circles and random meandering of my pencil as it sought to reproduce the three-dimensional form and lighting that was in my mind.

I had references to assist with the drawing of the central dark tree but all the others were imaginary and created without any prior planning. The only conscious goal was to clearly differentiate between the two species.

Foreground, midground and background trees

Foreground, midground and background trees

Both the midground and background trees were drawn in the same manner applied by Richard – squiggles that sculpted what I was imagining. The distant background trees were lightly blended to soften any hard edges.

The foreground tree and bushes employ a similar approach with one exception. Here the extreme foreground leaves were outlined first to isolate them. Then the midground “leaves” were established by spontaneously and negatively creating the solid dark background between them, resulting in white silhouettes of random, partial leaf shapes. They were then darkened to variously push them back into the shade. Finally, the foreground leaves (the visual clues) were carefully drawn to make you believe that everything behind them is also foliage.

Don’t over-plan or over-think foliage. Take a long look at the Nature around you and you’ll quickly realise that it is full of mystery. Very little is clearly understandable. Even close up, you may understand the foreground leaves on a tree, but one or two layers back you simply assume that what you are seeing are more leaves. To achieve a sense of realism you need to emulate Nature and allow mystery to exist.

Then stand back at look at the overall internal shaping – the way the rounded masses of foliage form. Combine that knowledge with your feeling for the local foliage and you’ll create a tree with a true sense of reality – even if your interpretation is more abstractly suggested.

Thanks for letting me see your tree, Richard – it’s excellent in both composition and implied texture.

You can view more of Richard’s work at :