Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees

Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees

Today I want to show you the steps involved in creating an umber drawing of trees.

With this method, you begin by creating an umber under drawing, over which you then glaze color. We won’t be glazing color in this tutorial. Instead, I want to focus on the umber under drawing.

Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees

Before we get to the tutorial, I want to share a couple of basic tips that apply especially to creating an umber drawing, whether you’re drawing trees or something else. We’ll begin with choosing the best color for the under drawing.

Choosing Under Drawing Colors

When using this method, it’s important to choose a medium value earth tone for the under drawing. The color should also be neutral, not too yellow or too blue. However, this is less important because there are times when the under drawing needs to be warmer or cooler in order to get the best results.

My preferred umber under drawing colors are Prismacolor Light Umber and Dark Umber, Polychromos Nougat and Bistre, and Pablo Brown Ochre. These colors are light enough in value that I can create “whisper-soft” values by using the side of the pencil and very light pressure, but still create suitably dark values.

I usually use one color for the under drawing, but there have been times when I’ve used two colors. This is helpful when there’s a lot of contrast in a composition. One color is for the middle values and lighter, while the other color is for the deepest shadows.

Most of the time, however, I create nice dark values simply by adding more layers.

Since you don’t want to get too dark too quickly in the under drawing, the darkest dark you can draw with light umber will usually be sufficient.

Drawing the Under Drawing

Build values slowly by adding layers. Use light pressure as long as possible throughout the under drawing. Try not to use pressure any greater than medium pressure, which is the same as normal hand writing pressure. This preserves the tooth of the paper for color application, which is especially important with smoother papers.

Review your work after each layer or each working session. This helps you stay on track while developing the under drawing. It also gives you an opportunity to find and correct mistakes early in the drawing process.

Again, be careful in creating the dark values. Don’t make them too dark too quickly. Every layer of color you add will makes values darker, so leave room for that.

Now let me show all about creating an umber under drawing of trees.

Step 1: Creating a Line Drawing

Outline the major shapes of the trees. Include interior shapes when necessary. These well be especially noticeable where the shadowed and lighted parts of the tree meet.

Use a sharp pencil and light pressure. I’ve used medium pressure in the early stages of these illustrations so they would show up in the illustrations.

You can make these edges as simple or detailed as you like. Use squiggly, sometimes overlapping lines for trees that are closer to the foreground and less detailed lines for trees further away.

This is a squiggly stroke. It’s an ideal stroke for outlining foliage shapes.

I drew a group of trees, with one group in the background and the other group in the foreground. See the finished umber under drawing at the end of the post, and draw something similar.

Don’t fuss too much over the line drawing. You need just enough to know where the trees are, and which ones are in front.

Step 2: Choosing the Right Color

Remember, the main purpose of the umber under drawing is to establish the values and details without also having to make color decisions. Look for a shade of brown that’s a medium temperature and value.

I recommend a color that’s about midway between the lightest earth tone and the darkest in the colors you have. That color is usually ideal for drawing light values and is capable of producing the darkest values you’re likely to new for an under drawing.

However, color choice is an entirely personal choice. Any brown is capable of producing a good umber under drawing so long as it isn’t too blue, too yellow, or too red.

I used Prismacolor Light Umber for this demonstration piece. Light Umber is a slightly warm neutral color, and one of my favorite colors for umber under drawings. In the illustrations, the color appears much warmer than it is in real life.

Step 3: The First Layer on the Background Trees

Create the illusion of distance by shading a narrower range of values (limited difference between the lightest value and darkest value) on the background trees. Also avoid drawing too many details.

Use light pressure and diagonal strokes to lay down a smooth layer of color over all of the area. There should be no bright highlights or dark shadows. Make the color layer as possible with light pressure. Using a blunt pencil or the side of the pencil can be helpful in creating smooth color.

Next, add a second layer of color to the shadows. Edges between the values should be soft and indistinct. Keep the darker values relatively light so that these shadows aren’t as dark as the darkest values in the foreground trees.

Work carefully around the outline of the larger group of trees where they overlap the background trees. The edges of the background trees should be soft and less distinct, but preserve the outline of the foreground trees. This area is a highlight area, so it must be preserved. It’s easier to get clean highlights if you haven’t already added color to them.

The finished background trees should look like this. It’s quite likely they will not need further work at the under drawing phase.

Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees
Use light pressure and small strokes to draw the more distant trees. Remember, you don’t need as much detail and the values should be lighter overall.
Step 3: The First Layer on the Foreground Trees

The larger group of trees are closer, so they need to be drawn with a wider range of values. The lightest areas should be lighter than the lightest areas in the background trees. The darkest areas should be darker. There should also be more detail—though still not a lot at this stage in the process—and the edges should be crisper.

To draw this area, begin by layering color throughout the trees except in the brightest areas. Use a sharpened pencil and light pressure to lay down an even, light value everywhere except in the brightest areas. Work around the highlights and brighter middle values.

Use a variety of strokes to begin suggesting details in the foliage. Circular strokes, squiggly strokes, hatching and cross hatching strokes. This is a fast and easy way to create the appearance of leaves without drawing every leaf or branch.

This is a scumbling stroke that’s fairly large and “open”. You can scumble with tiny strokes or large strokes, depending on the results you need.

For example, I used overlapping squiggly or circular strokes to give the shape the look of foliage, especially in the far right. I also used diagonal strokes in most of the middle value areas in the center of the tree.


Focus on the larger shapes, especially during the under drawing phase. Unless the tree is your subject—and sometimes even then—you don’t need to draw every leaf. Instead, pay close attention to the edges between light and dark and the exterior edges.

In this detail, you can see the strokes I used and the way multiple layers of the same color increases relative darkness.

Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees

It isn’t necessary to draw every detail. Even along the edges between shapes, only suggest detail by using squiggly lines. Shade the middle values with diagonal, cross hatching strokes. Layer several types of strokes—circular, squiggly, and cross hatching—in the darkest shadows. Leave clean paper for the lighter values on the left.

If you wish, add a few other details such as grass at the bottom and a couple of bare branches.

Step 4: Second Umber Layers

Ideally, the second umber layer should build on what you’ve done in the first umber layer. There is opportunity for correction if necessary, but that is not the primary purpose.

Developing the value range is the primary purpose. Make the dark values darker and create more gradations in value between the lightest values and the darkest values.

The lightest values should be the highlights. In the umber drawing phase, you don’t want to add any color to them. As already mentioned, the best way to get good, clean highlights is to have untouched paper to work with. This is especially true if you’re using white or light colored traditional drawing paper.


Use a variety of strokes to cover the paper. Use multiple layers to increase the value of the dark areas.

In the illustration below, I used a squiggly stroke in outlining the tree before starting the umber under drawing. But I also used it to add detail to the brighter middle values and highlights (marked with red arrows). These areas should have no other shading, but they do need the suggestion of details.

I also used circular strokes (#2) in the middle value areas.

In the shadows, I used a combination of strokes to cover the paper and add visual textures. This also helped create a hint of details (#3).

Overall, you don’t need a lot of detail when drawing trees.

Even if they are the subject, most of the details appear along the edges between the shadows and lighted areas.

Step 6: Deciding if It’s Finished

Depending on the type of art you prefer—detailed or more “painterly”–the umber under drawing may now be complete. If this grouping of trees was the background for a drawing, I’d consider the under drawing finished.

But this is an entirely personal decision.

The finished under drawing is a foundation for the next phase: color work. It should show a good range of values and enough detail and variation to create the illusion of distance.

Creating an Umber Under Drawing of Trees

The Bottom Line

As I mentioned above, you can make the umber under layers as finished as you like. This method is based on the Flemish method of oil painting. When I was learning the Flemish method, the artists I watched liked each stage to look like a finished painting.

I don’t prefer to detail the under drawing that much, but you may like that level of detail. That’s one of the neat things about starting new drawings by creating an umber under drawing. It gives you lots of flexibility.

Finally, although we drew trees with this method, it’s also useful for drawing most other subjects. I find it especially useful for portraits. The steps are the same, so do a little experimenting on your own and see what happens!

Sign up for Carrie’s free weekly newsletter and be among the first to know when she publishes new articles.


  1. Patricia E Wilson

    -+This blew me away. I had no idea that what was being put on the paper was going to result in such a lovely stand of trees. Thanks so much for the tips and techniques to arrive at this end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *