My Brief History of Sketching Trees

As a young child, you likely learned to draw a tree by using a few circular shapes to symbolize masses of leaves supported by a narrow rectangle to depict the tree’s trunk. And if you were in a creative mood that day, a few angled lines could be added to suggest its branches.

1992 San Clemente, California. Winter branches outside my studio window. 9B pencil.

Of course drawings of trees could vary widely depending on where you lived as a kid. Tall triangles symbolized towering conifers. Or a long and curved line topped with serrated, curved shapes became a palm tree. It was easy and fun to draw a tree.

Unfortunately, the joy of drawing trees—and everything else—is abandoned by many kids as they become immersed in the rigors of writing, math, and reading. Most people leave childhood drawing behind to pursue life’s more grown-up callings. But not me.

2017 Santa Cruz, California. Fall leaves in the parking lot outside my studio. Micron pen, watercolor.

Drawing became my livelihood and a continuous source of joy. And as an adult, trees have remained one of my core subjects of interest. Various species of trees have been tapping their roots in the pages of my sketchbooks for several decades. It is like having my own forest of drawn memories bound together.

Following are some of my sketched moments with trees…

1995 Rancho La Pila, Mexico. Learning to emphasize lines and values in foreground trees to create the illusion of depth in the composition. 6B and 9B pencil.

Trees are the master teachers that guide me in practicing essential skills in drawing from life. I find great pleasure in being surrounded by a stand of trees, getting acquainted with the silent sentries that guard my sacred sanctuary of sketching and learning.

Deliberate pressure of my pencil records the darkest shadows on branches of an oak tree, hidden from sunlight. A shift of focus requires delicacy of the pencil point to depict the hazy atmosphere that separates a tree from distant hills.

1989 Plaza Del Mar, Mexico. Sketching 101: learning to observe the movement of palm fronds. Prismacolor pencils.

Messages From the Past

Paging through old sketchbooks is like reading a visual language that was coded many years ago—visual notes of my private history of skill development and sensational encounters.

My adventure into drawing the arboreal started in earnest on a warm afternoon in Mexico during the summer of 1989. While attempting to sketch a few palm fronds swaying in the breeze (shown above), I began to notice the contradiction between my childhood notions of drawing and the complex patterns of the fronds I observed.

2017 Santa Cruz, California. Comparing vertical poles, angled wires, and leaning  palms for composition. Faber Castel brush nib pen, Micron pen, and watercolor.

Palm trees are iconic symbols of the suburban lifestyle in Southern California where I grew up. And because of their ubiquitous presence in my life, I found it easier to default to the symbolic palm tree caricatures from imagination, rather than drawing realistic palm fronds swaying in the wind. As simple as I thought they would be to draw, it would take a lot of practice to make palm trees that looked natural. And practicing is what sketchbooks are for.

1992 San Clemente, California. Capturing movement of fronds and trunk in wind; light/dark values. 6B pencil.

The simplicity of a palm’s features taught me to observe the complex movement of trees without becoming overwhelmed with too many branches and specific leafy details.

Because of shifting winds and the law of gravity, even the simplest, straightest palm tree can lean at a slight angle and have a bend in its trunk. I just had to take time to be still enough to see it, and then draw it.

1994 Plaza Del Mar, Mexico. Practicing layers of only the 3 primary colors. Prismacolor pencils.

Trees Are Always Moving and Changing

My early encounters with a cluster of coral trees while living in rural Mexico in the 1990s opened my eyes to the gradual adjustments that trunks, branches, and leaves must make according to their surroundings. Limbs are constantly twisting and reaching for precious sunlight, or shifting their weight as they lean into nature’s harshest elements. Recording their movement became a delightful obsession.

1994 The coral tree blossom that changed my life. First time observing close details while applying multiple layers of only the 3 primary colors. Prismacolor pencils.

I was introduced to Prismacolor pencils by my high school art teacher in 1973, but didn’t use them to sketch trees until my days spent in Mexico. Rediscovering Prismacolors brought the coral trees to life on my sketchbook pages. Their waxy composition allowed me to explore light and texture by layering and mixing colors in a painterly fashion.

1991 Plaza Del Mar, Mexico. Last blossoms before winter. An aging coral tree supported by a piece of wood. Prismacolor pencils.
1995 Plaza Del Mar, Mexico. Fig tree. 6B pencil.

Because I enjoy sketching trees, scheduling time for practice remains a priority. Continued practice has taught me to perceive action lines that govern a tree’s growth and movement, making it easier to place the tree on the page, find its proportions, and emphasize its contour edges.

2008 Ben Lomond, California. For placement on the page, these redwood trees started as abstract constellations of measurement points and action lines. Micron pen.

Sketching trees has given me confidence to attack more complex subject matter. The complexity of entwined branches and gnarled trunks often pushes my line work toward abstraction. The visual framework of entangled trees can appear more like sprawling river tributaries or brain synapses rather than sprigs and aging boughs.

2018 Liberty Bay, Washington. Meditation based on how John Ruskin observed that “smaller branches are carried toward the sun by larger branches”. 4B and HB pencils.

Trees are patient mentors. They wait nearby, ready to share their wisdom or strike a majestic pose. Wherever we are—walking in the woods, traveling abroad, or just looking outside our window— each tree portrait we sketch becomes a memory of time spent in wordless company with a new friend.

Each of us has already found complete confidence and joy in sketching a tree, even though we might not remember it. To relive that special moment, all we have to do is step back through history to our childhood, pick up a pencil and start drawing a few basic shapes.

A few more of my tree sketches to share with you…

2016 Santa Cruz, California. While drawing the view of trees from the front door of my studio, someone parked a car briefly, then drove away. A ghostly presence of the car remains. Micron pen, watercolor.
2015 Emma McCrary trail, in the redwoods of Santa Cruz, California. I always carry a pocket-size Moleskine sketchbook on mountain bike rides. Micron pen.
2016 Elk Horn Slough, Monterey Bay, California. Also trees in Felton, California. Micron pen and watercolor.

Note: All sketches were drawn from life while on location.

Featured image at top of page: 1995 Rancho La Pila, Mexico. Tree branches, 6B pencil.

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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.