Trunk of an Old Yew Tree (1888) by Vincent van Gogh
All trees grow in unique directions, so if you want to draw a certain tree accurately, it is helpful to look closely at the way branches split, where the leaves or needles grow, the shape and movement of the branches, etc. Today I’m going to teach you how to draw an oak tree like the one you see below. This lesson is basic but definitely not age specific. The project can be simplified or made more complex to match any skill level.
“Angel Oak” (image source: www.angeloaktree.com)
- Your favorite paper – (use heavy paper if you’re going to paint)
- Coloring supplies (watercolor, gouache, acrylic, or oil/chalk pastels work great for this!)
Draw along with me:
First steps to draw the tree (refer to animation above)
- Using a pencil and paper (turned to landscape orientation), draw a long straight line to represent the ground about an inch or two from the bottom of the page.
- Draw two short lines to make a thick stump in the bottom center of the page (sitting on top of your ground line).
- Lightly draw a large semicircle that touches from one corner of the ground line, to nearly the top of the page, and across to the other corner.
- Draw four or five thick branches growing out of the stump, and leave a good amount of empty space from the edge of the semicircle. You can make some of the branches overlap each other if you want.
- Draw small “V” shapes inside the open end of each thick base branch, and follow these “V’s” to split each branch into two smaller branches. You can split all the branches, or just some of them.
Next steps to draw the tree (refer to animation above)
- Lengthen the branches and make them thinner as you move out. Keep splitting and thinning out branches until you reach the edge of your semicircle.
- End your branches and start to draw leaves toward the outside of the tree (see tips below).
It’s important to notice that almost all leaves grow on the small outer branches of the oak tree, and they grow in bunches. You can use the semicircle as a guide for where most of the leaves should be, but to make it look more natural, let some small branches and leaves exist inside the semicircle, too. When you use color to fill in space, there should be holes and empty spots closer to the trunk and thick inner branches.
“So… how should I add color?”
You can add color to this drawing any way you want, and add as much detail as you’d like to. You could make this totally experimental, or try to capture it realistically from the photo. I tend to lean towards experimentation and some abstraction, but that doesn’t mean I ignore how the tree really looks. None of the paintings I’m going to show you are 100% realistic representations. They all have a degree of abstraction, and that is why they are paintings and not photographs.
When adding color, you can think about adding more dimension by painting leaf bunches in layers. By placing some high-contrast clumps of leaves in front of the branches, you can create the illusion of branches coming forward. If you add muted, softer groups of leaves behind branches, it will look like the branches extend backward.
A few experts you can learn from:
Oil Painting by Kevin Lawrence Leveque.
Check out how Leveque painted everything darker in the center underside of his tree, and added gradual highlights to the outer leaves. His painting is a great example of how to layer leaves for dimension. Notice how many holes you can see toward the center of the tree. Only leaves on the branches pointing out toward us are overlapping that area.
Oil painting by Andrew Danielsen.
You can add interest to your work by using a variety of colors in your leaves, bark, and background. Look at different bark colors and patterns, then experiment with texture and contrast as you color your tree. I love the way Danielsen used texture and contrast to create engaging movement and depth in his painting.
Acrylic paintings by Clinton Whiting.
You could try switching it up and focus on the shapes between branches. Whiting captured excellent energy in his tree paintings by using different sized brush strokes and painting beautiful shapes throughout the space around the tree.
Take the time to address all areas of the tree and background, and you’ll be able to make this project look awesome.
Do this project with a child! Or not.
Large Plane Trees by Vincent Van Gogh (source: wikiart.org)
Like I said earlier, this isn’t an age-specific project, and if you want to spend some time learning with a child you love or teaching an art lesson to a class, this is a great option. I taught a group of fifth graders about impressionism and observing trees last year. Using a large collection of colors and a variety of mark-making techniques, each of their trees was unique and full of energy. I think Vincent would have been proud. I gave them all a copy of the “Angel Oak” photo (found at the beginning of this article), then I drew a basic version of it on the board as they followed along with paper and pencil. We didn’t add leaves to our drawings this time, but no one even cared. Students worked with pencil on black paper, and used oil pastels to add color (no drying time and less mess – perfect for a classroom).
One of my favorites from the fifth grade class (2016)
I instructed the kids to use warmer, high contrast colors to define branches coming forward, and use cooler color groups in receding branches as well as the background. There are several ways to define dimension in an observational drawing, and this is only one. We came out with a beautiful variety of work.
I also taught a 2nd grade class to draw “Angel Oak” this past Spring. I focused mostly on the drawing part of the lesson, then gave them freedom to add color any way they’d like. They made some really beautiful work, too.
Second Grade “Angel Oak” drawings (2017)
I encouraged the second graders to play with pattern and color groups, and should note that they definitely needed some encouragement to work slowly and fill in all the gaps. Using colored paper helps things not to look so unfinished, but the more color the kids added, the better these drawings looked. Everyone was proud of their work by the end.
I hope this lesson makes you feel more confident about observing the shapes of trees, but also inspires you to try many different approaches to adding color. I only showed you a basic lesson on how to draw one type of tree. If you want to try something totally different, check out all these beautiful trees. Better yet, go outside and draw one from life!
I am dying to draw both of these trees I photographed in Coronado, CA this summer.
Good luck with your trees!