Drawing Better Trees | Sarah Benkin | Skillshare

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Drawing Better Trees

teacher avatar Sarah Benkin

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (29m)
    • 1. Introduction

    • 2. Materials

    • 3. Find the Shape of Your Tree

    • 4. Branches and Volume

    • 5. Bark, Leaves and Details

    • 6. Drawing a Forest Scene

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About This Class


Join illustrator and Sequential Art MFA Sarah Benkin as she shares tricks and techniques not just for drawing trees, but for drawing better trees. 

Students in my painting classes often ask me how I draw or paint trees. In truth there are as many ways to render trees as there are different tree types! But if you keep a few principles in mind, (and know how to use your references,) it’s possible to make trees that feel more natural, more three-dimensional and more interesting.

I’ll talk about using references, branch patterns, finding the shape and volume of your trees, adding textures and shadows, and integrating detail.

If you struggle to make your trees feel ‚Äúreal,‚ÄĚ if you want your landscapes to have a stronger sense of place and character, or you just want to improve the trees that you already draw, this class is for you!

Meet Your Teacher

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Sarah Benkin


I’m a graduate of SCAD’s MFA program in sequential art, and have over five years of professional comic and illustration work under my belt. In addition to my freelance work, I've published two comic anthologies about ghost stories, strange experiences and encounters with the unexplained, called Then It Was Dark and Built On Strange Ground.

When I'm not drawing strange and spooky things, I teach social painting classes to amateurs. I love when someone comes into my class telling me that they can't paint for them and leaves realizing that they actually can, it's just a matter of sitting down and doing it!

I firmly believe in the Bob Ross philosophy that talent is only pursued interest, and that anything ... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hello. My name is Sarah Ben. I'm a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Designs M. F. A program in sequential Art. And I've been working as a comic artist, an illustrator for over six years. In this class, I'm going to go over some tips, methods and exercises that can help you draw better trees. Whether you consider yourself a beginner who has trouble drawing trees, it'll or you just think the trees you do draw could use some improvement. This course is all about making trees that feel more riel, are more interesting and have more character. We'll start with an exercise to help with finding the shape of your trees, then will sketch out some branches and large leaf clusters. Together. I'll talk a little about details, textures and different types of trees, and finally, we'll be putting everything we learned together to draw a four seat at all times. I encourage you to go at your own pace. Depending on how confident you feel, you're welcome to copy the trees I'm drawing exactly or to take the principles I'll be going over and using them to draw your own trees from references or imagination. So if you're ready to get back to your roots, branch out as an artist and spruce up your Conifers and broad lease, click the next video to get started. 2. Materials: gather any materials you'll be using. I'm going to be doing my demonstrations in a digital drawing program, but traditional materials can absolutely be used here. If you're not using a digital drawing program, you're going to want to have some type of light pencil that you can easily erase on eraser and some black ink or other very dark pigment to get final lines down with. I'd also recommend having Whiting White quash or some similar material for cutting into some of the dark black shapes will be making, since we're going to be focusing a lot on big shapes and texture. Most of what we're drawing is going to be in black and white. But some nice color washes can always be added on top. If you want to make your drawings a little more exciting, I'm going to be periodically referring to my field guide to Trees in this lesson. Well, it isn't necessary that you have a field guide. If you're really interested in drawing better trees, I would hardly recommend either finding one in your local library or if you're really dedicated buying one. The biggest use of the Field guide is references. If you're looking at riel trees in the world around you for reference. Using a field guide to identify them could be very interesting and give you a deeper understanding of the plant life around you. But where it really comes in handy is when you're looking up references online. So if that's your main source for references, you may down the line. Want to consider getting a field guide from somewhere. 3. Find the Shape of Your Tree: one of the core ideas that helps me draw trees is remembering to think big to small trees have so many tiny details to them. Countless leaves, branches and twigs that it's easy to get lost in them not only is impossible not to see the forest for the trees, it's easy not to see the tree for the leaves. Some detail is good, of course, but it's more important to get the large shapes and bigger areas of texture down. With that in mind, we're going to start by looking at the whole shape of the tree, which means we're going to be drawing some trees silhouettes. If you're using traditional materials, I recommend drawing these shapes and ink. If you're using a digital program, I suggest you avoid erasing as much as possible. These are meant to be fairly small, quick shapes and definitely don't have to be perfect for this exercise. I'm just going to open my field guide to a random page, pick a random tree and type that trees name into a Google image search. Then I'm going to use the references that come up as a basis to draw the silhouette of that particular type of tree on. I'm going to do this over and over for several different trees. If you don't have a field guide, you can use the names from a website like the one at Cornell that ej you, which I've linked below. The main idea is to look at a lot of different specific types of trees, so you get a wide variety of shapes and then see how much diversity there is. I'm starting with a few coniferous trees here, as you can see the first to have a very dense shape. One scene silhouette with very little light showing between the branches. But there are also coniferous trees with sparser branch patterns. Take a look at the tree that you're drawing and ask yourselves. Can I see a lot of space between the branches, or are they densely packed with very little light showing through them? What direction are the branches going? Do they come out from the sides of the trunk as with a fir tree? Or do they slowly split off and divide is the trunk grows higher, as with an oak? What shapes do the little clusters of leaves make? Are they rounder? More flat, more angular. All of these little marks I'm making to denote clusters of leaves I'm making very quickly. They're not very careful shapes there, really, just little scribbles. Some of them are a little more circular. Some of them are more linear to denote a leaf that's more needle like, and others might be a little more angular. Usually, when a tree is seen in silhouette, there will be some dense branch texture around the trunk because the branches are coming out in all directions, even in front of the tree. Remember, the idea is to look a big areas, not little ones. I know I'm adding a lot of little bits of leaf texture to some of these, but I'm really trying to do it quickly without thinking too hard. I'm keeping my wrist loose, and I'm focusing as much as I can. On the shape of the tree is a hole I'm not thinking about drawing leave so much as drawing scribbles or blobs that represent big clusters of leaves. I'll talk more about different leaf shapes a little later, but for now, just try and start thinking about leaves as clusters of texture rather than individual objects. And, as is always the case when drawing a natural object, try not to make it to say me too orderly or too rigid. Rial tree branches aren't perfectly smooth. They have nots and bends and weird angles to them. They are rarely perfectly spaced apart on the trunk. Some might be broken or bent, and in general it's always good to add a little a symmetry to any tree. Give it some rough edges. Trees are weird, trees are wild, trees are uneven in asymmetrical, and my advice, whenever you're drawing trees is to just embrace that. Keep going with this exercise, drawing different tree silhouettes for a so long as you like, I'd recommend drawing at least 10 that looked distinctly different from one another. Pay attention to the Marx you're making as you go, because that will help you later on when you're trying to fill in large areas of leaf texture. Remember this exercises for practice and your tree silhouettes don't all have to look nice . They don't have to be your best drawing. It's all about getting you thinking about the shape of the tree as a whole 4. Branches and Volume: for this exercise, we're going to talk about branch patterns and about finding volume on your tree. If you're using traditional materials, you will want to start out sketching and pencil so that you can erase. You're also going to want to have some references for this exercise. I just open my field guide to a random page, picked a random tree and search the name on Google images. I wasn't looking for any particular tree, but I did want some specific species because I didn't want to just rely on the abstract image of a tree I might have in my mind. There's nothing wrong with drawing trees for imagination. Of course, I do that all the time. But if you find you're getting stuck visually and you want your trees to see more riel more interesting or detailed, looking up a specific type of tree and using references of that can be incredibly useful. I'm going to be drawing the branch and leaf patterns of a cherry plum tree here. I'm not looking to copy these images exactly, just to use them to learn things about the tree I'm drawing. For example, I can see that this type of tree has branches that split off from the trunk near to the ground and then divide and subdivide into a lot of little twigs. So that's what I'll be drawing. I'm going to start with a guideline er to a line that starts at the very tip of the tree and then extends down to form part of the trunk. These lines help me figure out the main gesture of the tree, what direction it's crowing or leaning in. Then I'll draw a few lines that split off from those main branches into little or sticks and twigs. As I get further along and drawing my branches, I'm going to start to add thinner sticks and twigs to the top. The further up you go, the thinner the twigs get, and twigs will always be thickest. Where they connect to the tree, try to avoid being too orderly and regular with your twigs. The human brain is always trying to make order out of chaos, but nature tends to be more chaotic than orderly, and if you make your treat to orderly, it won't look like a tree. So remember, not every branch will have the same number of sticks coming off it. Not every stick will have the same number of twigs. The branches and sticks and twigs won't be perfectly spaced apart. They won't all come out at the same angle, will come out in random and unexpected places sometimes. And that's something you're gonna want to embrace when drawing trees, embrace the random, embraced the disorderly, embrace the natural. Now I've just drawn the trunk and branches for a cherry plum, making up the branch pattern as I go, but basing it on what I could see from the cherry plum in my images. But there are a lot of different ways the tree branches can bend and curve. Sometimes you'll see a tree that's more knob lee and naughty. Sometimes you'll see one that's more curvy or that leans a little more towards one side. Either way, the same principles of starting with a guideline that forms the trunk, then drawing branches that split off from there, keeping them thinner near the tip and varying them up to make the more natural will apply. As you continue drawing trees and improving, try to look at a lot of different types of trees and make note of the different ways branches bend, curve and connect to the trunk. We've got some nice branches, but unless we're drawing a scene in the winter, our tree is gonna want leaves. I mentioned in the section on shape that it's important to think of leaves in terms of clusters rather than individual objects. And to help us do that, we're going to take a closer look at our reference photos. I'm zooming in on this one image, going to take a close look at the shapes I see in the tree formed by large clusters of leaves and then outlined them. I can see the shapes I made are vaguely over Lloyd with irregular, spiky edges. So that's the shape I'm going to use for clusters of leaves on my tree. I'm keeping my wrist loose. I'm not being too precise or careful when I make these clusters there, mostly in places where I put a lot of twigs, but I'm going to make sure the have some in front of the tree on. I'm going to make sure to vary the size, shape and position a lot. Some are going to be bigger, some smaller. Some Mobley flatter some taller. Some will be more oval shaped. Some will be almost hard shaped, but no two will be alike. Variety is the name of the game. Back to my references. I'm now looking at the big areas of shadow on those shapes I've just outlined. This will help me get a feel for the shape of my own leaf clusters and where the shadows should go. As always, you want to consider your light source when shading, unless the tree is lit from below at night, the shadows are probably going to be on the bottom of the leaf clusters, and depending on the angle of the sun, they may lean more towards the left or right. The important thing is staying consistent. If one cluster of leaves has a shadow on the lower right, all of them should have shadows on the lower right. Think about what kind of texture the leaves have while you make your shadows. Since cherry plums have narrow leaves, their leaf clusters will have some small, sharp edges to them on. I'm going to reflect that in the kind of marks I make. I'm keeping my wrist loose. I'm being bold and making big areas of shadow, and I'm letting my marks overlap one another, building up the shadows with a bunch of big blobs and a few small, angular details. If you're using either a digital or traditional brush, I recommend using a large brush size and varying your pressure, alternately pressing harder to make a bigger mark and then pressing lighter with the tip. To make a smaller mark, Be sure to turn your wrist and vary the direction of your mark or scribble to keep things looking random. Once you've got the big areas of light and shadow down, you can start refining. I'm going to mostly erase the lines on top of these leaf clusters so that I can redraw them with a little more detail. Give it a sharper, more scattered, broken line that reflects the texture of the leaves that I'm making. I'm also going to cut some of these chunks of shadow down with a white highlight to break up some of these bigger areas and keep things visually interesting justice. With the overall shape of the tree working big to small first marking off the main clusters of leaves than the big areas of shadow than smaller areas of texture. And finally adding a few finishing details is key. If you find the volume of your leaves and use texture to create the impression that there are big clusters of them on top of one another, it will create the illusion that every single leaf on the tree is there without you having to draw a 1,000,000 of them and over render your tree. I'll talk a little bit more about leaves and little details like that in the next section. 5. Bark, Leaves and Details: So let's talk details. Now I'm going to go over some of the bark and leaf types you can find in the Smithsonian Field Guide to Trees and talk about them from an artistic perspective. Different types of trees will have different bark textures, which means you're going to use different marks toe light and render them. Don't feel like you need to memorize any of the terms will be using. If they help you, remember the shapes and textures or if you just find them interesting, great. But the main thing is getting an idea of some different types of bark and leaves and figuring out how to render them as a tree grows in ages, it sparked gets less and less smooth, and cracks, ridges and other bits of textures start to form. Some trees have. Lynn tickles small round pores and little ridges that go around the tree horizontally, sometimes forming distinctive I like patterns. As on birch trees. I tend to draw these as slightly curved Slash is coming out from the sides of the tree and leaving large white gaps in between. Bar can also form irregular plates, large, irregular shapes that are pushed up over the darker bark behind them, forming this sort of pattern. As with every other part of the tree, remember, the variety and randomness is the name of the game. Here. Trees can also form ridges in their bark raised areas that catch the light forming curvy, irregular lines of shadow. Always when shading a tree, you'll want to use Marx that both reflect the texture of the bark and where the light is hitting the tree with textures, shadows on one side or textured highlights on another. As a tree really starts to age, the bark will sometimes peel off entirely, making room for new bark underneath. It will usually either peel off in sharp vertical shapes in large horizontal chunks, as with a paper, birch or random irregular flakes. If you think about how some of these shapes might look from a distance, you can use them to make your tree look textured. Feel free to copy These images is practiced to help figure out what kind of marks you want to make to get these various different textures. When it comes to leaves, there are 10 basic shapes thin needle like leaves, which are just lines flat needle like leaves, which are thicker lines roundly, sometimes with a notch of the base or the tip, but that are more or less circles ob long leaves that are fairly consistent. Ovals elliptic leaves that narrow at each end, heart shaped leaves that have a deep knowledge of their base. Ove eight leaves, which are like elliptical leaves but wider at the bottom. Obviate leaves, which are like elliptical leaves but wider at the top. Lancia late leaves, which are thin, shapes wider at the bottom and finally, ob Lancia late leaves, which are thin and wider at the top. Looking at these leaf shapes and silhouettes, take a little time to think about what kinds of marks you might use to make a big cluster of them. Could round leaves be clusters of little dots? Could elliptical lease be made of marks that are thinner on each end? Now you might be thinking, Hold on. I've seen leaves that don't look like any of these before. Why is that? Well, let's talk about tooth leaves and compound leaves. Tooth leaves are leaves that have little spiked edges to them, adding a sharpness to some of these leaf shapes compound leaves, as the name suggests, are formed by taking one of these basic leave shapes and repeating it. For example, if I take this ove eight leaf shape, make three of them and then mashed them together into a compound shape with one sticking up in the middle and to coming off to the side, it properly looks like a compound leaf you've seen before. This is what's called a lobe compound leaf, where the compound shape forms one mass with three or more tips sticking out of it. There are also Pin eight and Bipin eight compound leaves that is leave for the basic leaf shape is repeated up and down the length of the stem. Like so playing around with these basically shapes, you could make an infinite variety of compound leaves, whether you're drawing a tree that exists in the real world or one from your imagination. As I said, you don't need to memorize thes terms, but if you keep these basic leaf shapes in your mind, you can use them to make a variety of both simple and compound leave shapes that feel like leaves from the real world. I'm going to use what we've just talked about with these basically shapes to make a few close up details of specific trees. I'm going to work from references on. I'm going to use specific trees I found in my field guide. Let's start with the leaves of a Sitka spruce. Looking at my references, I can see that this tree has needle like leaves that come out of the stems in all directions, forming deads clusters using the same principles I use. When drawing branches and twigs, I'm going to make a few random looking stems and draw clusters of needle like lines on them . My references help me when it comes to seeing how dense the needle should be and how they should be longer at the tips. In this instance, I can also see that the sickest Bruce has some nice sizable pine cones, so I'll put a couple of those in there. I'm taking note of the texture on these pine cones, thinking of large shapes and areas of shadow rather than every individual line. Thes pine cones, for example, have flat square scales, so that's what I'm going to draw for my next plant, a western hemlock. I've got my references up where you can see them. Once I've drawn in my stems, I'll put some cones in. These are more short and squat than the cones on the Sitka spruce, so I'm drawing them a small, rounded ovals. They also have scales that are partially open, So I'm going to cut into the edges of these ovals as I draw the scales. Next, I'll take a look at the leaf pattern. This tree has slightly flatter needles that come out on either side with some visible space in between. So I'm going to keep that in mind and draw a nice amount of space in between my lines. Remember, nature is never perfect, so be sure to include a little chaos and disorder in your trees. Finally, let's do a broadly for some variety. I've got my references up for a California hazelnut tree. I can see by looking that it has a toothed ove eight leaf shape and is also a compound leaf with the basically shape coming out a little staggered on each side. So I know he draw a shape that's wide and round to the bottom and sharp of the tip. I'm going to go into the edge and make a lot of sharp little ridges, keeping my wrist loose and allowing for some chaos and variety in their size and shape. Then, since this leaf has visible Baines coming out from the stem, I'll draw a few of those in. As you can see, my lines are fast and loose. They aren't all the same size. They aren't perfectly spaced apart. They're all coming out from the stem and curving towards the edge, But there's still a little bit random now. I'm going to get all the other basic leaf shapes down if they're a little in perfect, if they aren't all the exact same size or shape. That's fine, because I know nature is never perfect. I can also see for my references that thes leaves are a little staggered and they emerge close to the stem. So I'm going to keep that in mind when I'm drawing them. I'm also letting myself be okay with these leaves, overlapping a little where it makes sense. Finally, I want to get the seed pod in there. I can see from my references that this seed pod has around bottom with some sprigs of plant texture coming out the tip. I'm going to hide one behind the sleeve on put a 2nd 1 on top at a tiny bit of shading, and I've got my California hazel. Unless you're drawing a close up of a tree branch, of course, you're not going to need this level of detail, but it can still be helpful to practice a variety of leaf shapes, embark textures so that the marks you make when drawing these from a distance reflect the actual shapes of leaves themselves. 6. Drawing a Forest Scene: Now that we've talked about tree shapes, branch patterns, volume and detail, we're going to take everything we've covered and use it to draw a forest scene. You can feel free to copy of scene that I'm drawing, or depending on your level of confidence, you might want to make up your own foreseen. Based on your own references for this particular scene, I'm gonna tie my trees to a specific location. I once went camping near the Oregon coast with a good friend of mine, and I absolutely fell in love with the trees there. So that's the sort of foreseen I want to draw. Using online sources, I looked up what sort of trees are common in that area and collected some references that I can look at while I draw. These include images of the general shape of the trees, as well as little details that can help me draw them with more precision. Of course, it isn't necessary to make every forest you draw accurate. I wanted to create a force that felt like it came from a particular place in the Pacific Northwest, so I looked up trees from the specific area I was drawing on. Really, it depends on what you're trying to draw. If you just want to practice trees or just want to draw force that appeals to you aesthetically, it's totally legitimate to just choose trees. You like the look of and make a scene out of those. But if you want to, you're forced to feel a little more riel or to feel like it comes from a specific place or has a particular geographic character to it. It could be helpful to use trees that all come from the same area. We'll start by sketching out the big shapes. Remember, it's always more interesting to make something a little bit off center. Ah, little asymmetrical, a little less orderly on a little more random. In this case, I'm creating an L shaped composition. Ah, large Sitka spruce in the front on a felled tree coming towards the viewer form some of the biggest shapes. It's usually good toe, have a few big, close up elements, some smaller elements in the far background and a few elements that are midway between the two. Now that I figured out where my trees go, I'm going to start with these ones in the far distance. Since they're pretty far away, the trunks will just be long. Thin lines then are at the top and thicker at the bottom. I'm going to keep things interesting by varying the height and making sure they're spaced unevenly, because nature is never perfect and is rarely orderly. Looking at my references, I'll start drawing the branches and leaves. Since these trees air pretty far in the background, there just going to be silhouettes. I'm remembering the basic principles of drawing branches, and I'm paying attention to my references. In some cases, all draw lines that stick out in every direction, representing lightweight leaves stick out from the stems. In other trees, leaves might seem to come from the bottom of the stem. Cells have pulled down by gravity. It's always nice to have some variety in the trees, so I'm going to make sure that in some cases the branches stick out fairly straight. In some cases, they lean downwards. In some cases, they're angled upwards. In some cases, the branches are more dense, resulting in a solid black shape, and in other cases the branches are more sparse and I can see a lot of space in between them. I'm also going to remember that clusters of leaves might be a little thicker near the trunk to represent branches that are coming towards the viewer. Remember to keep your branch patterns a little random and don't let them get to orderly. As you start to fill in these distant trees, you can also add a few scribbles and scraps of texture down near the base of them. These could represent shorter trees or bushes or other bits of greenery. I'm going to want to get my big shapes, and they're pretty soon. So let's start with that fallen tree. I'll make it a Ponderosa pine with short, broken branches coming out from all sides. Anil also put in some bark texture. Ponderosa is have scale like bark, so that's the kind of shape I'm drawing. But notice that I'm not drawing it everywhere. Instead, I'm leaving some areas blank, putting a little bark texture on others and adding some textured shadows to the bottom. Conservation of detail is important. Whenever you're drawing trees, you need some areas of blank space as well as texture. Otherwise your trees look over rendered. I'm going to keep that in mind. When I make this big Sitka spruce in the foreground, it's going toe have some flaking bark, which means I'm going to be making little rough, loose squares and small rectangular areas of cross hatching. But I'm not going to cover the entire tree trunk. I'll figure out where I want my shadows to go. Then I'll fill them in with Theis, squared off textured marks and leave the rest open, going to draw some midsized treason. Next, using my references, thinking about how the branches come out of the trunk and thinking about bark texture. Whenever I shade, I'm going to sketch out this tree the same way I did the cherry plum first, finding big shapes formed by clusters of leaves and then figuring out where the shadows go and finally drawing in a texture based on the shapes of leaves that I want. As we start filling in this forest, we're gonna let some of our trees overlap each other, let them get in each other's way and form clusters of shadow and texture between them. Nature is not perfect. Nature is not orderly, so we're gonna let our trees be disorderly. Of them overlap and give them some random bits of texture. As you start filling in the rest of your foreseen, try and build up your shadows with the scribble marks similar to the ones you've been using . For leaf texture. Think big to small, fill in big areas of shadow, then mid tone, then highlight and bring it all together with some small little details. Use a level of detail ca Measure it with her own comfort level and degree of confidence. Even if you don't make a forest, seemed as complex is the one I'm drawing. You can still apply all these principles to your forest. I hope this lesson was helpful not just in getting you some practice drawing trees, but in teaching you some principles of drawing that will help you make better trees in the future. Whether you're drawing riel specific trees like the examples in this class, we're just drawing on your imagination. I know it's likely some of you decided to take this class because you find trees interesting as a subject to draw. But there are also probably some who wanted to take this class because you find trees uninterested ing you find, drawing them to be a chore on were hoping to get some tips to make things a little bit easier. Either way, I hope you got what you were looking for and at the very least got a glimpse into the fascinating, infinitely diverse world of trees.