Landscape Painting Lesson – How to Render & Simplify Trees

This landscape painting lesson is courtesy of Barry Waldman of Interactive Art School.

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Student uses a Digital Camera (supplied in your Student Sign Up Kit along with Textbooks & Supplies) to take digital photos of their completed assigned Lesson Artwork for each lesson. The student sends those photos as email attachments to the teacher who draws, paints & comments on the work & posts a critique of each lesson on our WEB site, a personalized How-To-Do-It-Better Critique for the student to view 24/7/365.

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Landscape Painting Lesson – Simplify Trees

A sculptor student asked about how one does images of trees and further how to simplify them as the complexity of painting a million leaves can make an artist batty. Some painters and sculptors want to paint every leaf…bless them…for the rest of us this mini-lesson is about:

A. Making realistic trees

B. Simplifying those trees in our images (paintings, drawings, sculpture)

First there are countless kinds of trees and then millions of variations within those– two shown here, they couldn’t be more different

Landscape Painting Lesson Image 1 Landscape Painting Lesson Image 2

(above left: photo of wide tree…….above right bare trees from my painting “Snow Gardens” below:)

Landscape Painting Lesson 3

We could go on and on with many other tree shapes, sizes and variations, but let’s focus on one tree, analyze it in the following steps:

I. Let’s figure out how to make the tree real

II. Let’s explore how to simplify the real tree we create in various degrees of simplicity

On the left below is a photo of a row of Magnolia trees… confusing, right?

As a reference for a painting…lets analyze one tree:

1. The original photo

2. That photo made more contrasty to start to see the form better revealed (this is done here with photo manipulation in sketching in nature you would squint your eyes to achieve this effect)

3. I did a 3d model of the tree to show its basic underlying form

A tree – like everything we see, has a basic form or a series of basic forms as its understructure. Students often get lost, particularly with trees, in painting each leaf …while to make it real its underlying structure needs to be communicated.

To make an object seem solid, one needs to understand the following:

Study the above and also the mini-Lessons on Form (click on the blue links below):

Lesson 2 Basic Form and

Lesson 3 Advanced Form

One needs to mass the tones in groups based on the above — the darkest tones on the shadow sides of objects, middle tones in the transitions from light to dark and the lighted tones in the most light stuck areas of an object.

Just below is a painting of a group of leaves from the tree photographed above (you can paint the rest of the tree in this level of detail – I’m just not going to do it …it would take almost forever)

Now lets explore how to paint the tree simpler, then still simpler: on the left is the original photo, then a simpler painted version, then an even simpler version on the extreme right:

Left is a reprise of the source photo from above……then, the tree painted to be round in lots of colors and values…. then the another interpretation SIMPLIFIED—into three tonal masses

In my paintings above, I eliminated the sky and simplified the outer shape of the tree to better demonstrate the principals of form and the simplification.

In the right hand most simplified tree, I used only THREE color mixtures to paint the tree On the left hand side is the transitional middles tone Up through the middle is the light struck tone…then some middle tones again to step down from the high tones of the light struck leaf masses…. and…on the right side I have massed the darks…the resulting tree is simple but solid…no details, not painted leaf by leaf

POSTERIZED: Simpler still– areas are divided into a few colors – tree leaf area into just light stuck side and shadow side

(See Wikipedia definition of “POSTERIZATION” at:

The ultimate simplification- silhouette…First in black and white…

Then – silhouetted “forest” in color:

The trees in the foreground are darker and more vibrant (more intense color green… while the taller “forest” behind is a lighter and bluer, less intense color blue-green— this is a reflection of the concept of “atmospheric perspective”…as things get further from the viewer’s eye… they get light in tone, less chromatic (color intensive) and have less contrast (see
mini Online Lesson 4
) for a fuller exploration of atmospheric perspective.

To see examples of simplified trees -see the work of these painters and photographers:

Edward Hopper* -1940-Posters.jpg

_______________________________________________ and

Fairfield Porter’s



Fairfield Porter on Mark Harden’s “Artchive” Painting titled “Amherst Campus“:

Fairfield Porter on:

The Bridgeman Art Library:



Edward Hopper

* A note about Edward Hopper, the great American Illustrator and Painter – he was a master of “leaving out”, or simplifying… you can see it in his trees, his people, his houses and interiors…he leaves out detail…one fact few observers notice is that there is no glass in any windows Hopper ever painted. Study his most famous paining “Nighthawks” a picture of people seen in a late night diner in Manhattan, NYC through windows – NO GLASS.(Yes, there is a hint of it at the far left where the window curves around the corner – but not in the large part of the diner window and also, look across the street at the shop windows “Nighthawks” can be seen on the Artchive website at:

Look at the other Hoppers on the Artchive site like “Chop Suey”

Once you get to the Hopper bio at the page above, click on the “VIEW IMAGE LIST

To sign up for the course, click here.


  1. Mario Verardi says

    I am painting a scene of a supermarket where there are high wall-glass around and trees outside.
    How could I paint the trees behind the glass doors and windows, giving in the same time the transparency effects?
    Your help greatly appreciated.
    Thanks and regards.


  2. Luke says

    Thanks for the lesson. It really helped. I’m taking a landscape/nautre painting course and this really helped. Do you often use photos to help with your paintings?

  3. jazz arora says

    thnkss for giving me such creative ideas tu complete mi paintings.
    thnks agn..

  4. Melissa says

    Thank you so much for sharing this post! it is so interesting and give us ideas on paintings, i really appreciate it, thanks again and keep it up!

  5. Jimmy says

    This reminds me of my basic landscape drawing classes from high school. Simplifying the shape of an object is always key to getting it down on paper or modeled on your computer. This post is a great refresher for guys like me, thanks!

  6. says

    It’s interesting to note how trees and other plants really start to look 3D when values of high contrast are played against one another. I like your first demo,(on the left, 10th image from the top). It demonstrates how well it works to put black and other extreme darks in among the leaves of a tree, or other plant, to make them “pop”.

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