From Trees to Forests: A How-to Guide to Drawing Greenery





Hello everyone! It’s been a while! Yoru here, and I’m back with another tutorial, this time about drawing trees and forests!


For those who are unsure of where to begin, drawing environments might be intimidating. There is a much larger sense of scale and distance in the picture, as well as layers upon layers of details that may look hard to do on your own. In this tutorial, I'll break down the essentials of creating a green-rich environment art!


Trees are not flat, they have structure and volume. Not only that they’re not uniformed in ways most things are. Some are asymmetrical and widely disproportionate, while others can look similar from a distance. Because of this, drawing trees can often be challenging because there’s so much to choose from and so many variations you can make.


For me, there are 2 fundamentals to keep when you start drawing your tree:

i. Form and Structure

There are many types of trees. Different locations lead to various species; each with different characteristics like leaf shapes and the texture of the tree bark and even the silhouette.


But when you strip it all down, you can get a basic shape of what a tree should look like.


When you bring it down to the basics, trees are essentially a long pole with either a sphere or cone on top of them, and from there it becomes easier to see how lighting would fall on these shapes.


Once you’ve identified the basic shapes, it’s time to distort it. Trees are organic, this means they aren’t perfect. A tree isn’t going to consist of straight lines and clean circles.


It has twists and turns, there’s a sense of movement from how the tree grew. Some trees have more pronounced curves. It’s best to keep the sketch loose to make it more natural, focus on the gesture of your lines and the overall shape.


For the leaves, think of the volume of the leaves rather than individual leaves. Think of it as drawing clouds on the end of branches.

ii. Silhouette

Other than the shape, it’s important to pay attention to the silhouette of the tree. Trees are shapely, but they also have holes and gaps amongst the clumps of leaves that expose the branches and lend a softer look on the leaves that differentiates it from the wood.

The most important about maintaining the silhouette is making sure that, at a glance, it still looks like a tree. The shape and form must maintain the image of a tree.


Now that we know how to shape our tree, let’s start with adding color and rendering. When drawing trees, it’s important to first choose the distance of the tree.


When drawing from up close, then it’s better to focus on the texture. Since you don’t usually see the whole tree when it’s in a close distance, focus more on rendering the branch or leaves, putting more attention to the imperfections and cracks of the bark; or the way the leaves pile on top of each other.


However, if you’re drawing from a distance and trying to fit the whole (or most) of the tree into the canvas, it’s better to not put a lot of detail on the tree.


Let's use the sketch from the previous section. Add a solid color on the branch.

Then add a gradient using an airbrush. If you’re not confident with your skills, feel free to make a layer on top and clip it to the base color layer.


Since the top part of the tree is going to be covered in leaves, add a darker color there.


Next, on a new layer, color in the clumps of leaves.

Unlike the branches, add a solid block of color to indicate the light direction instead of a gradient.

Use 3-4 colors onto the clumps. Keep in mind where the light is coming from. Typically, the light would come from the top, so put the lightest color on the top and add a darker color in between the original color and the shadow.

Next, mix them up. By this, I don’t mean to blend them together, rather make sure the colors are distributed and are placed next to each other to give the illusion of different layers of leaves.

You can use a default brush for this, or you can use a custom leaf brush. There are a lot of good leaf brushes on Clip Studio Assets, here are some of my favorites:


Then, break the silhouette by adding stray leaves around the edges and cleaning it up a bit. This gives a three-dimensional effect.

Finally, add a tiny bit of light on the top part of the leaves and a few blue spots on the darkest parts of the shadow. The blue spots act as the reflected light and it also adds a depth to the overall shape of the leaves.

Now that you’re done with the leaves, we can go back to the branch. Because the leaves have been rendered, it’s easy to see where the light would fall and where the leaves would block the branch from the light.


When adding color to the bark and branches, remember that they are rough to the touch. This means that the strokes of the shading should be rougher and less blended in. Rather than painting and blending it. It’s more fitting to say that you’re putting blocks of colors together.


Keep the details and strokes simple, there’s no need to go in depth with the amount of details and layers on the branch when there’s already so much detail on the leaves. Choose enough layers and colors to give a sense of depth but not enough that one would stand out in contrast.


Add a few dark brown lines to add more branches behind the leaves.

Finally, use a ‘Screen’ layer to add the lights. Make sure to put a few on the top part of the tree to make it seem like the light is going through the gaps of the leaves.

And there you have it, a rendered tree.

Stylized vs Realism

Now you may ask, what’s stylized vs realism? Why does it matter?


Stylizing things such as trees and environments are important, because sometimes, realism isn’t a good match for your art.


For example, when drawing with a stylized cartoon artstyle, putting a realistic tree onto the picture would look off. Instead of letting the tree be a part of the image, it looks like a photo superimposed onto it.

But if you stylize it to fit the artstyle you’re using, the final image will look more natural and immersive.


i. How to Stylize a Tree

When thinking of stylization, think about ‘what is my interpretation?” of said object.


Zoom out of the canvas and start small. This way you could get a good overview of the drawing and not get lost in the details.


Think about what you want to push and exaggerate with the tree. Do you want to exaggerate the curves? Or maybe the sense of movement? Or the form?


For this example, I choose to exaggerate more on the tree branch itself rather than the leaves. So my focus will be on making the shape of the tree bark and branches interesting.


I try to keep the lines as loose and unrefined, this way I can focus more on the gestures and movement of the tree.

Then, on a different layer, I drew the general shape of the leaves.

Define the sketch a bit more. Focus more on the form and gesture of the overall tree, don’t draw any individual branches because you could lose the gesture of it. Think of it as if you’re sculpting, you’re laying the groundwork and choosing the parts that will be more curved, the parts that will look sharper and straight, the parts that twist and turn.


Now that you have the sketch done, add a base color on separate layers.

Add a soft gradient using an airbrush.

Now, determine where the light source would come from. I decided to use the same light direction as the previous rendering example.


Now, create a new layer and set it as multiply. Place colors where the shadows would roughly be. For this one, I chose a light blue color for the shadow.


I lowered the opacity of the multiply layer.

Then, I made a copy of the multiply layer and separated the leaves and branch layers into two groups.

Then I merged the branch layers. This way, it'll become easier for me to paint over.

When rendering a stylized tree, I like to sculpt with the colors. What does this mean? Well, rather than putting a new color onto the piece, I would use the colors that’s already on the canvas.


For example, I would pick the color between the original base color and the part where I put the light gradient airbrush.

And using that color, I would add light strokes onto the intersection where the two colors meet.

Keep the strokes and don’t spend too much time trying to be a perfectionist with a certain part. Have fun with your imagination and zoom out often to make sure you don’t get lost in the details. When stylizing, it’s important to maintain the same quality throughout the work process. That means to maintain the shapes of your initial sketch.


Then, add darker colors where you think it’s needed. For example, I would add darker color on where the bark twists to give a sense of the layers and twist. Similarly, I would add some near the ground and roots, as well as on the top branches where the leaves begin to give a sense of a deeper shadow.


Moving onto the leaves, I decided to only sculpt a bit and leave it be so that it doesn't have too much details that will steal the attention from the branch, but to still make it cleaner than the sketch.

And there’s my stylized tree. Of course, you can focus more on the leaves more and add more dimensions and strokes on that, but remember to maintain the focal point you want the viewers to notice. By choosing to focus on one thing, you move away from realism and it becomes an interpretation instead.


Building your environment

Now that you know the basics of how to draw and render a tree, how does this translate to drawing an environment?


Drawing an environment is not the same as drawing a character. There is a different approach of detail and scale that exists in environment art that doesn’t necessarily exist in character art.


Environment art has a sense of scale and distance created by the atmospheric perspective in between landmarks. For example, when you look at a mountain far away, the color of the mountain becomes grayish and the details mix together. This is because of a haze between the person and the background that changes the color and reduces the contrast as well as the details or objects far away.


This atmospheric perspective helps create a depth and sense of vastness to your drawing.


Let’s start with our drawing so we can understand better.


First, choose what is the main focal point of your piece. Is it a tree? Is it a river? Is it a rock? Or maybe you want the focus to be a ray of light that pierces through the sea of trees?


By choosing a focal point, you can determine the location of plants and items and paint a better picture. By determining the locations, you can avoid making the final image look like a uniform mesh of colors.


For this, I decided to use the stylized tree from before as the focal point of the piece

Next, I slowly sketch out what I want. For example, I want the area around the tree to be empty aside from the tree and a single path leading towards the tree. I want the surrounding to be filled with a field of grass, with trees on the foreground and far in the back where it won't be near the main focal point.


I also decided to add rocks around the main tree so that it can add more information and detail to the field to make it more interesting.

Now that I have my sketch, I start blocking in the colors. This is an important part of the process, because lighting and color have an immersive effect that can make or break your piece.


Choose a color range that isn’t extreme, limit your color choices and make sure they’re cohesive and unified.


There are many brushes you can use to create fields of grass and lands and they help add a lot of textures onto your piece that default brushes can’t. Here’s some of my favorites:

I separated the layers so that editing the lighting and atmosphere of each piece would be easier. Not only that, it helps visualize the depth of the environment.

Because I already have a light direction with my stylized tree, it’s just a matter of following the existing light direction and blocking in the shadows onto the other pieces of the piece. By blocking in the shadows, it adds a dimension to the pieces that make it look like it’s really a part of the scene rather than just an afterthought.

For the tree itself, since it's already pre-rendered, I used a combination of multiply and screen layer to add more lighting to it

Now for the trees at the back, I decided to divide it into 2 layers. One is closer to the foreground, and the other is even further back. Instead of actually drawing the tree in detail, I chose to focus more on the silhouettes instead

To add the atmospheric perspective I mentioned before, add a gradient onto the different layers. This adds the effect of haziness on the larger objects.

For the tree at the front, I decided to make it darker. This way, it can act as a sort of frame that helps direct the focus to the tree in the middle.

Adding Details

Now that we have the general outline of where things are and the distance between them, it’s time to add details.


I like to separate the areas into 3 to make it easier to differentiate.


a. Foreground -> Large objects, detailed.

b. Mid-ground -> Some details, but blended together

c. Background -> low contrast details.


Items closer to the camera (the foreground) have the richest color and the most contrast. For example, to make the picture look more natural, I decided to add a pile of leaves and bushes onto the foreground. Because it’s closer to the camera, you can see the details of the leaves and the separate colors better.


For the mid-ground, instead of adding details onto the field, I pick areas with high contrast and add the details there. For example there’s a shift of color between two patches of grass, I use a custom grass brush in between the two colors.


Similarly, I added texture to the rocks by painting strokes on the edges where the two colors meet.

This way, it tricks the eyes to think that there’s a lot of details when there isn’t. If you zoom in, you can see that all I did was add some minor details in between two colors. But when zoomed out, the picture looks richer in detail.

Finally, for the background, I blurred it slightly to further add the sense of haze. It also helps hide the lack of details of the background.

I add a few bushes, but rather than using any custom brushes that would add a texture, I decide to use a default brush and just draw pockets of colors.


You can go into more details when it comes to the background, but remember to not overdo it. In this case, since I was going to add a gradient and blur the background, I found that adding too much detail was unnecessary since it will most likely be covered and blurred together.

Add a few more details if you want, maybe a few rays of sunlight or dust particles or wildflowers. Just make sure that they don’t steal the attention from what’s been drawn. In my case, I try to add details that either adds more information to an otherwise boring area; or I add details (such as light and shadows, falling leaves, flower stalks) that point towards the main focal point of the piece.


And there you have it! An environment art done!



Thank you for reading until the end! I hope I explained everything well, and I hope you were able to learn a few things from this tutorial! Have fun and keep drawing!



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