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Fantasy Art Tutorials in the FARP Section

Trees and Foliage

By :-) Alisa Simonoff

   You have just drawn the most amazing picture of a brave, handsome knight fighting a ferocious and evil dragon, and now you want to paint it to bring out its true majesty. Sounds great, eh? Oh, there's a problem? The dragon and knight are battling in a forest and you can't paint trees without making them look like puffy green clouds on inverted ice cream cones?

Well, never fear! Trees and other plants aren't as hard as they look. The trick comes in breaking them down. Each type of plant follows a pattern, be it deciduous, evergreen, conifer, and once you've figured it out they are easy as pie. With a few brushes, some pigment and a good eye you'll find you'll be painting an ogre raid in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest in no time!



Getting to Know Your Subject

   I am a tree hugger, pure and simple. There is nothing I like more then going out into the wilderness, whether it's the Redwood Forest, the Sierra Nevadas or the park across the street. I have had many chances to "get in touch with nature". That's the tip I'm going to give you if you want to paint landscapes. Sure there are formulas, and I'm going to tell them to you, but the best thing to do is go out in nature yourself and really observe her. You'll find some neat surprises. I promise.

   Of course you don't have to be painting a big landscape to have plants and trees in your picture. A nice shrub or fern added in the right spot can really add to a picture, and be visually interesting. Let's take this photo at left. We have a really cute gargoyle and he would have looked good on his own, but add the Hedera Helix (English Ivy) to the left of him and you have an even better picture. The ivy does a nice job of framing the gargoyle and even though the gargoyle is still the main focus point, he's not the only thing to look at. Your eye keeps moving throughout the picture plane. Good, yes?

   Growth patterns of trees vary with the species. There are many pines and fir trees in the world and each one is special and has its own variations such as color, leaf shape, and the direction the branches grow. For example; pretend you are painting a high mountain scene. Instead of just painting in a bunch of identical Christmas trees, add in those variations. Throw in some white spruce along with those Douglas firs and maybe a few whitebark pines. This will help add visual interest to your work.

   Okay, so I have gone on and on about how plants can add to a picture, how different species of the same genus can add diversity and why we shouldn't cut down the rainforest and, *cough*, ahem. Let's get back to painting plants. Each plant is unique to itself, but all plant species have their own basic growing pattern, foliage color, cones, etc, etc. I have made a little chart that goes through the physical characteristics of different genera, species, and some of my favorite plants. It is by far not inclusive. To explain the difference between every tree and plant would take more webspace then Elfwood has. But this should be enough to get you started in familiarizing yourself with nature's flora.


Evergreen plants have foliage that persists and remains green throughout the year.
Fir trees are tall, erect, symmetrical trees with uniformly spaced branch whorls. Large cones are held erect; they shatter when ripening, leaving a spiky stalk. They have an overall upright triangle shape. All have a single "telephone pole" trunk. The branches at the very top point skyward, gradually flattening out until they are parallel to the ground. Below that, the branches slope downward. This parallel point varies with the individual species.
  A. amabalis
(Silver Fir, Cascade Fir)
Dark green needles, silvery beneath, and curve upward along the branches.
  A. bracteata
(Santa Lucia Fir, Bristlecone Fir)
A tall tree (70ft. in 50 yrs.), with spreading (15-29 ft.) lower branches and slender steeple-like crown. Stiff, 1.5-2.5-in.-long needles are dark green above, with white lines underneath. Needle points are sharp and rounded cones are about 4-in. long with a long, slender, pointed bracket on each cone scale.
A. concolor
(White Fir)
Large, very symmetrical tree. It is bluish-green with 1-2-in.-long needles.
  A. magnifica
(Red Fir)
Tall and stately, with symmetrical, horizontal, and rather short branches. New growth is silver-gray. Mature needles are blue-green, 1 in. long and curve upward on upper limbs. On lower branches the needles grow in two rows.
Angophora costata
(Gum Myrtle)
Mature trees may reach 40-50 ft. high and almost as broad. It has a beautiful smooth trunk in tones of cream, rose, and mauve. It has thick. glossy, 3-5-in.-long eucalyptus-like leaves with a prominent midrib. New growth is shiny red, turning to rich green. White flowers are carried in clusters as branch ends in summer, followed by fruit with prickly spines.
Calliandra Calliandra are evergreen shrubs, There are over 250 species represented by a flame bush, a pink powder puff, and fairy dusters. All are showy, spreading shrubs. The example to the left is C. tweedii (Brazilian Flame Bush) It has lacy, fernlike leaves, divided into tiny leaflets. Flower clusters are bright crimson pompons at ends of the branches.
Cedars bear needles in tufted clusters. Cone scales, like those of firs, fall from the tree, leaving a spiky core behind.
C. atlantica
(Atlas Cedar)
They grow up to 60 ft, and have open, angular growth in their youth. Branches usually get too long and heavy on young trees and break. The growth becomes less open with age. Needles are less than 1 in. long and are bluish green.
C. deodara
(Deodar Cedar)
They grow up to 80 ft. with a 40-ft. spread at ground level. Lower branches sweep down to the ground, then upwards. Upper branches are openly spaced and graceful. It has a softer, lighter texture than other cedars.
Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cryptomeria) A graceful conifer with a straight columnar trunk. Bark is red-brown and peeling in strips. Foliage is soft bright green to bluish green in growing seasons and brownish purple in cold weather. Branches, slightly pendulous, are clothed in 1/2-1-in.-long needlelike leaves, Roundish, red-brown cones are 3/4-1 in. wide.
Eucalyptus citriodora (Lemon-scented Gum) There are as many species of eucalyptus as there are pine trees. E. citriodora is one of the most graceful of trees. It's slender and tall (75-100 ft.) The trunk is usually straight, but sometimes curved. Leaves are long (3-7 in.), narrow and golden-green. The trunk and branches are white to pinkish. The lower 1/2-2/3 of the tree is bare trunk. Blooms mostly during winter. Flowers are whitish, not distinctive and in clusters.
Juniperus (Juniper) Another genus of evergreen with more species than I care to think about. There are over a hundred. Junipers can be shrubs, trees, or groundcover. They are coniferous plants with fleshy, berry like cones. Foliage is needlelike, scalelike, or both.
Olneya tesota (Desert Ironwood) Can reach 25-30 ft. high with equal spread. Branches are erect in youth, later spreading. It has gray-green leaves, each with 2 spines at the base, divided into many 3/4-in. leaflets. Blooms in early summer. Flower are pinkish violet, and in clusters. 2-in.-long pods follow. Old leaves fall after bloom, and new ones replace them quickly.
Spruce has a pyramid shape with a lot of spreading at the base. Branches point upward, flattening out as they near the base. The species at left is P. pungens 'Glauca', or the Colorado Blue Spruce.
Pines are great individualists, not only among species but also in the way they respond to the wind, the sun, and the soil. The number of long, slender needles in a bundle and the size and shape of their cones are the main way pines are classified.
  P. albicaulis
(Whitebark Pine)
Tall and stately, with symmetrical, horizontal, and rather short branches. It is a five-needle species. New growth is silver-gray. Mature needles are blue-green, 1 in. long and curve upward on upper limbs. On lower branches the needles grow in two rows.
P. canariensis
(Canary Island Pine)
In youth it is a slender, graceful pyramid. Later it is a tiered structure and finally a round-crowned tree. Needles grow in bundles of three and are 9-12 in. long. The tree is blue-green in youth, dark green when older. Cones are 4-5 in., oval, and glossy brown.
P. nigra
(Australian Black Pine)
P. nigra is a dense, stout pyramid with a uniform crown. Branches grow in regular whorls. In maturity, the tree is broad and flat topped. Needles grow in bundles of 2 and are 3-6.5 in. long. They are stiff and very dark green. Cones are oval and brown and 2-3.5 in.
Pseudotsuga menziesii
(Douglas Fir)
Douglas firs are sharply pyramidal when young. They can grow 70-250 ft. in forests. They have dense, soft needles, and are either dark green or blue-green. Needles are 1-1.5 in. long and radiate out from all directions on branches and twigs. The ends of branches swing up. Pointed wine-red buds form at branch tips in winter and open in spring to apple green tassels. Reddish-brown cones are oval, about 3 in. long, and have 3-pronged bracts. Unlike the upright cones of true firs (abies) these cones hang down.
Sequoia sempervirens
(Coast Redwood)
The coast redwood is the tallest tree in the world. It's red-brown, fibrous-barked trunk goes straight up. Branchlets hang down slightly from branches. Flat, pointed, narrow leaves (1/2-1 in. long) grow in one plane on both side of stem like feathers. Leaves are usually medium green on top, grayish underneath. Small round cones are 1 in. long. Redwoods vary greatly in form, texture, and color. Some are dense and some are very open. Some are pendulous, others bristly; foliage colors may be any shade from light green to deep blue-green. Branch angles vary from a light up-tilt to straight out from the trunk and cupping a little at the outer ends to almost straight down.
Sequoiadendron giganteum
(Giant Sequoia)
If the coast redwood is the king of trees, the giant sequoia is queen. It has the most massive trunk in the world and is one of the tallest trees. The dense foliage of the Giant Sequoia (bushier than the Coast Redwood) is gray-green; branchlets are clothed with short, overlapping, scale-like leaves with sharp points. It has dark reddish-brown cones 2-3.5 in. long. Bark is reddish brown and generally similar to Coast Redwood.


Deciduous trees shed or loose foliage at the end of the growing season.
There are over 200 members of the maple family, but just about all of them follow the same basic growth patter. In fact, most hardwoods follow the same growth pattern. Hardwood trees have trunks that come straight up out of the ground. The major limbs sprout from the trunk at about a 60-70 degree angle. The finer branches at the top of the tree also grow at a sixty degree angle, gradually sprouting at a shallower angle until they become horizontal with the ground about two-thirds of the way down the trunk. The leaf canopy is roughly triangular with a rounded top.
A. circinatum
(Vine Maple)
This is a tree that likes water and growing near stream banks. It is crooked, sprawling, and vine-like in the forest shade, with many stems growing from the base. It is single trunked, growing 5-35 feet in the full sun. It looses its vine-like characteristics in open situations. Leaves are 5-11 lobed, 2-6 in. wide and as long. They are light green, turning orange, scarlet, or yellow in the fall. New spring foliage usually has a reddish tint.
A. platanoides
(Norway Maple)
Broad crowned, densly foliage tree to 50-60 feet. Leaves 5 lobed, 3-5 in.-wide, deep green above, paler below. They turn yellow in fall. Showy clusters of small, greenish yellow flowers in early spring.
A. rubrum
(Red Maple)
This tree has red twigs, branches, and buds with quite showy flowers. Leaves are 2-4 in.-long, have 3-5 lobes and are shiny green above and pale underneath. The leaves turn a brilliant scarlet fall color in frosty areas.
A. saccharum
(Sugar Maple)
Grows up to 60 ft. and more. Stout branches with an upward sweep form a compact crown. Leaves are 3-6 in. wide, 3-5 lobed, green above, pale below. Spectacular fall colors in cold winter areas; yellow and orange to deep red and scarlet.
Ailanthis altissima
Grows up to 50 ft. Leaves 1-3 ft.-long are divided into 13-25 leaflets 3-5 in.-long. Has an overall inverted triangular shape.
Betula pendula
(European White Birch)
The birch is one of my favorite trees. It grows up to 30-40 feet high, spreading half its height. Barks on twigs and branchlets is a golden brown and the bark on the trunk and main limbs is smooth and white, marked with rough, textured bands and black clefts where limbs once grew. The oldest bark at the base is blackish-gray. The trunk is narrow and long, slightly twisting, and the branches are short at twisting. There are few major limbs, instead branchlets and twigs emerge directly from the trunk following the hardwood formula outlined under maples. Foliage is usually on the upper 2/3 of the tree and very open. Leaves are rich green and glossy about 2.5 in.-long and diamond shaped with slender tapered points. These trees usually grow in clumps of three or more.
Beeches can reach 90 ft. but are usually much lower. They are broad, with lower branches sweeping the ground. The bark is smooth and gray and the foliage is dark and glossy. Leaves turn red-brown in the fall and hang on the tree well into winter. During the winter months pointed little buds and twig structure make lacy patterns and new leaves have a silky sheen. There are little 3-sided nuts in spiny husks (And you can eat them, but they aren't really filling).
Fraxinus Ornus
(Flowering Ash)
Another one of my favorite trees. It grows to 50 ft. with a rounded crown 20-30 ft. wide. It has a whole lot of leaves. It is a hardwood, and follows the hardwood formula. Leaves are 8-10 in. long, divided into 7-10 oval, medium green, 2-in.-long leaflets with a toothed edge. Foliage turns to soft shades of lavender and yellow in the fall. In spring it displays fluffy, branched, 3-5 in.-long clusters of white to greenish-white blossoms. The trunk has a greenish-white look to it.
Larix decidua
(European Larch)
Oh gee, another favorite of mine. The larch is a conifer, and known by its slender pyramid shape with branches that sweep down then back up and drooping branchlets. Needles (.5-1.5-in. long) are soft to the touch, in fluffy tufts. Woody, roundish cones .5-1.5 in. long are scattered all along branchlets. In spring new needle tufts are pale green and cones are bright purple-red. The summer color is grass-green. In fall, needles turn brilliant yellow and orange before dropping. The cones stay on throughout winter.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
(Dawn Redwood)
Try saying this tree's botanical name three times fast. Dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer that looks like the coast redwood. The cones are much smaller, the leaves are soft to the touch and a light, bright green. Light brown branches turn upwards and the foliage turns light bronze in the autumn then falls. The trunks of older trees are rugged and fluted at the base.
(Plane Tree, Sycamore)
All species grow large, and have lobed, maple-like leaves. Older bark sheds in batches to reveal pale smooth new bark underneath. Brown, ball-like seed clusters hand from branches on long stalks through winter.
P. acerifolia
(London Plane Tree)
Grows up to 40-80 ft. with a 30-40 ft. spread. The upper trunk and limbs are smooth and cream-colored. Leaves are 3-5 lobed and 4-10 in. wide.
P. recemosa
(California Sycamore)
Can grow up to 100 ft. The main trunk often divides into spreading or leaning secondary trunk. Smooth branches often twist gracefully and become contorted. Major limbs protrude almost parallel to the ground. Bark is smooth and patchy and tends to be a dark brown-green color at the base, then becoming more buff-colored the farther up with dark spots that generally disappear near the top. Leaves are deeply lobed, yellowish-green and 4-9 in. long. They usually turn dusty brown too early in autumn to be considered as fall colored. Overall shape is like a tall gumdrop.
(Poplar, Cottonwood, Aspen)
A fast growing tree with triangular leaves and soft, light wood. They are especially fond of extreme season changes.
P. nigra 'Italica'
(Lombardy Poplar)
Grows up to 40-100 ft. A beautiful columnar tree with upward reaching branches. Leaves are bright green, triangular, 4-in. long a turn golden yellow in fall.
P. tremuloides
(Quaking Aspen)
Grows up to 20-60 ft. The trunk and limbs are smooth and a silvery color. The bark is silvery gray to green gray. It is a very beautiful tree and yet another one of my favorites. The round leaves are dainty and light green. They flutter and quake in the slightest air movement. Color of the foliage in fall is a brilliant golden yellow. This tree likes higher elevations and moist soil. The approach to painting aspens is much similar to painting birch, however, the foliage is more erect.
Pseudolarix kaempferi
(Golden Larch)
Grows to height of 40-70 ft. and is often nearly as broad at the base. Branches are wide spreading, pendulous at tips, and grow in whorls to form a symmetrical, pyramidal tree. Foliage has a feathery look. 1.5-2-in.-long bluish-green needles (golden yellow in fall) are clustered in tuft except at branch ends, where they grow single. Cones and bare branches make interesting winter patterns.
Pterocarya stenoptera
(Chinese Wingnut)
Grows to 40-90 ft. with heavy, wide spreading limbs. Leaves are 8-16 in. long and divided into 11-23 finely toothed, oval leaflets. Foot-long clusters if small, single-seeded, winged nuts hand from branches.
There are many species of oak trees, but they can be grouped in two broad categories; "southeast oaks" and "everywhere else oaks". Most oaks have a short and fat trunk with a very rough texture. The trunk twists rather than growing straight up and the many limbs that branch off of the trunk generally follow the hardwood formula outlined under maples. Southeast oaks, or oaks that grow from North Carolina and south, have a trunk that is shorter and thicker than other oaks. The overall shape of the foliage is broader and looks grayer than other oaks.
Q. douglasii
(Blue Oak)
I have these trees right across the street from my house. Blue oaks are low branching and wide spreading, growing to about 50 ft. high. They have fine textured light gray bark and, like their name implies, bluish leaves that are shallowly lobed and almost squarish. Fall colors are pastel pink, orange, and yellow.
Salix babylonica
(Weeping Willow)
Grows up to 30-50 ft. with equal or greater spread. Long leaves (3-6-in. long) have a very pronounced weeping habit. We've all seen the weeping willow tree in the Little Mermaid, right? Branchlets are greenish-brown to brown. Left on its own, the weeping willow will grow too low to walk under. They need to be staked until about twenty feet and old growth removed to reach a high enough point before branching out. But since this is fantasy I doubt we'll have to worry about that, magic and all.
Styrax japonicus
(Japanese Snowdrop Tree)
A tree with a slender, graceful trunk; branches are often nearly horizontal, giving the tree a broad, flat top. 3-in. leaves are oval, scalloped edge and turn from dark green to red or yellow in fall. White flowers hang on short side branches in early summer. Leaves angle upwards while flowers hang down.
Ulmus carpinifolia
(Smooth-Leafed Elm)
The elm tree is a tall tree with umbrella-shaped foliage. Most of the foliage and the lesser branches and branchlets are located on the top half of the tree. Branches are widespread, with weeping branchlets. Leaves are 2-3 in. long and shiny deep green. The trunk is straight but rough textured, and often splits into several major limbs that grow almost vertically from the trunk.

   For more pictures of trees I suggest visiting the FARP article Landscape elements: Trees or my own nature photo gallery Sylvan Visions.

   Now that you have become somewhat familiar with our leafy friends let us get to the fun part of reproducing them on paper and canvas. I've created examples in three mediums to help you along. Now just before we get started I'm going to assume you are familiar with the media you are using, and elements of art such as color theory and perspective. If you aren't, here a a couple of links I suggest you take a peek at.

Farp: Introduction to Acrylics
FARP: Watercolor
FARP: Principles and use of color
FARP: Basic Perspective

Now onto the examples! Tally ho!

Book recommendations
   Draw 50 Flowers, Trees and Other Plants
By Lee J. Ames P. Lee Ames, Paperback, 1st ed., 64pp. The draw "50 flowers, trees and other plants" shows aspiring artists how to draw with ease by following the step-by-step methods.
[More info!]

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FARP Article Guestbook

7 Nov 200945 Yusri
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24 Apr 201045 Anon.
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1 Jul 2010:-) Robert worth nuckels
Hello, Alisa, Fellow Tree Lover. I will be coming to THIS site quite a bit ! I live in Mill Valley , California where trees themselves are Cosmopolitan !
26 Aug 201045 Anon.
Looks like you put a lot of time and effort into that list. Good reference material.
15 Oct 2010:-) Sophie Jankowski
This is great! Thanks so much 2
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Very informative post about trees.

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