How to Make Trees Look Real

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know how to make trees look real. Here’s the question:

When doing trees and bushes, do you round them similarly to rounding wine glasses and bottles.  I tried to round bushes and it does not appear real. What do you do to get the 3D for them?

Thank you for your question.

How to Make Trees Look Real

Making trees—or anything—look more real looks complicated, but it really isn’t if you keep three simple principles in mind.

Shape

Value

Variety

Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

How to Make Trees Look Real

You can make trees look real by using the same shading principles you might use with a wine glass or a vase. Shading is shading, after all, no matter what you’re drawing.

The difficulty is that a wine glass or a vase is a simple shape and most trees are not. They are a collection of smaller shapes within the larger shape, so for your wine glass shading to work, you have to shade each of the smaller shapes, too.

To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.
To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.

Shape

Everything in the world can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes. Circles, squares, and triangles. Circles can be squeezed into ovals, and squares can be stretched into rectangles or twisted into other four-sided shapes. Triangles are pretty much always triangles, but they can take a number of different configurations.

Trees are no different than any other subject.

The trunks are usually some form of rectangle, with smaller rectangles as branches. The canopy of the tree (the leafy part) is usually some type of circle or oval at it’s most basic, but it can be broken down a collections of shapes as shown here.

Start with the biggest shapes first, then add the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Drawing trees that look real begins with the very first marks you put on the paper, with the big shapes. Get those big shapes correct, and you’re off to a good start.

Value

The thing that makes a shape (circle, square or triangle) into form (something that takes up space) is values. Shadows. Light areas and dark areas.

These light and dark areas reveal how light falls on the shape. The parts of the shape facing the light are getting direct light. The parts of the shape facing away from the light are getting very little light. In between is a variety of lighter or darker values known as middle values.

Values are just as important with trees as with anything else you might want to draw.

What makes trees look so complex is that they have so many different, smaller shapes within the larger shape. At first glance, they can look too complicated to draw, but use the same principle of values with each of the smaller shapes as with a larger shape and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to make trees look real.

Even with very crude shading as shown below, this sketch begins to look more like a real tree.

Shade around the largest shapes, but also around the smaller shapes. Treat each shape like an individual subject. Draw each one before moving to the next and the tree won’t be quite so overwhelming.

Variety

No two trees are ever identical. Not even two trees of the same species are identical. So vary the sizes and shapes of the trees you draw.

One of the best ways to do this is to draw from life. Keep to basic sketches and big forms, but take note of how one tree differs from the next.

The more you practice sketching trees so they look like individual trees instead of cookie cutter trees, the more realistically you’ll be able to draw trees with colored pencils.

I Hope that Helps You Make Your Trees Look Real

Like any other subject, trees look complicated when you first start drawing them. Take the time to practice first by learning the basic principles of drawing. Then sketch trees from life or photos until seeing the shapes and characteristics of each one becomes second nature.

Than you’ll be able to make your trees look real!

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