Contrasting ways with foliage: realistic versus abstract

Tree studies are ongoing…. While on holiday I spent some time on an A3 tree portrait.  I chose a silver birch because this is one of my favourite trees; its crown seems to catch the first and last of the day’s light and there was one about 20-30 metres and positioned slightly below from where I sat drinking tea each morning last week.  In order to catch similar light each day, I drew it only between about 08.00 and 09.00 each morning over five days. This particular tree is growing on a hillside surrounded by other trees, mostly firs, which do not give it a lot of space.  There is more abundant foliage on the lower / right (as drawn) side of the tree.  This may be due to overcrowding but may also be due to one side receiving more of the stronger afternoon light, encouraging growth.  In the drawing, the morning light is coming from the right just over the hill above where the tree is growing.  Lower foliage receives very little light at this time of day, even in July.

I used the technique described in chapter 4 of Ferdinand Petrie’s book Drawing Landscapes in Pencil (1) beginning with a 4H pencil for the lightest shading of form and developing the masses of foliage stroking the paper in the direction of the foliage’s growth, building up mass slowly.   I then worked through the range of pencils to 4B, gradually adding a wider range of marks and finally jumped to a 9B pencil for more contrast.  I tried to keep in mind the direction of foliage growth which is largely vertical, although the trunk is slightly at an angle to the hillside.  However, I can see that this was not altogether successful.

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At this stage, there is a sense of light and dark but not enough contrast.  I later added shading to the left (lighter) side of the tree to emphasise its lighter tone and heighten the contrast.  I added tone by reversing the order of the pencils used in building up the foliage, but otherwise used a similar technique.  I have taken the tone on the left to the edge of the page.  While the tone does help to show the light on the leaves of the foliage clumps on the left hand side, it also looks like an accidental smudge across the paper (though this is less apparent in the original drawing than in the photo).  It also needs to be darker to bring the tree “forward”.  This is the next step.  I am reluctant because of all of the time spent on the foliage; however, it does not yet “work”.   I have drawn in the line of the hillside behind the tree trunk as seen through the trunks of other trees but this is not visible in the photo.


I have tried to give the tree more identity on the page by adding tone with graphite crayons.  I am still not happy with it: the gradation in tone is not as gradual as it should be and the switch in background tone from left to right of the tree seems too sudden.  It is also unclear where exactly sky lies between branches.  However, I have made some adjustments to the foliage on the right so that it has more definition and also hangs more freely, which gives the tree overall more movement, and have also worked on the tonal contrast of the lefthand foliage to give more definition in the light.  The tree does appear to be more three-dimensional now. The hillside is clearer, too; the tree now has a context.  The purpose was to focus on a single tree which takes up most of the paper and I have left out surrounding trees because I was uncertain how to integrate them in a way that would keep the focus on the birch but would not render the firs in a way that looked like an afterthought.


Overall, I think that I have captured something of the tree’s character: it is recognisable as a silver birch. The “final” version has lost some of the earlier rigidity and feels a bit more like a living thing. Silver birches are quite flexible trees and move with the wind but my initial drawing does not really suggest this perhaps because the foliage does not “flow” in the drawing as it does from the tree!  Too much of the drawn foliage is almost parallel to the trunk and not hanging freely in response to gravitational force… Another difficulty was depicting space between the branches to give the tree its “airy” feel.  It was difficult drawing in pencil such that everything connects in a way that makes sense to the eye.  Drawing in colour would, perhaps, be easier.  I also need to address intensity of tone: I am reluctant to use darks in any quantity, preferring small marks to larger areas but sometimes larger areas are needed for overall balance.

I took a different, more abstract approach to foliage while waiting for a train a few days ago. It was a dark, gloomy day but I caught sight of a sycamore tree whose branches dipped across the light and created interesting “spiky” patterns of light and dark from bright yellow hues near the base against the background hills to darker blue-greens against the clouds and available light.   I tried a modified contour drawing of some of the foliage using a water-insoluble fineliner.  It became increasingly abstract as I lost my “place” in the leaves and I decided to focus on creating an interesting design rather than aim for accuracy.  Later, I used coloured pencils in an attempt to reproduce my feelings about the colour changes that I had seen in the foliage.  First stages are shown below.  The drawing was made in an A5 watercolour sketchbook. I think that I have captured a sense of “tumbling” foliage.

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I had sketched in the hill line with its fir trees and decided to add a darker tone to represent this background forest in order to bring the lighter lower leaves more into the foreground.  I had originally intended to use a matt black background but was not sure that this would be easy to achieve and also that it would provide too stark a contrast with the subtle changes in colour seen in the leaves.  In the end, I chose a water-soluble blue-black ink (normal fountain pen ink) which creates a range of colours when mixed with water.  It is difficult to apply it in a uniform way over a large area because of its particular characteristics in water, and also because it seems impossible to ensure that the brush is loaded uniformly, and it also dries quickly.  Therefore, if you are going to work with such a medium, it is necessary to abandon yourself to the outcome because you could repeat the process many times and each time would give a different result.  Good practice for just enjoying the process and letting go of the consequences… Here is the final piece. This image was scanned.  The one above was photographed in bright light.  I am pleased with the range of background tones from pale warm and cool greys to intense darks, and also with the colours, especially the yellow and violet in the bottom right corner.  The ink also creates the feeling of a wave behind the branches rather than a forest…


Another approach could be to drop pigment into a wet background which would also produce a random outcome…

In Rex Vicat Cole’s book The Artistic Anatomy of Trees: Their Structure and Treatment in Painting (2), the author not only describes trees in relation to drawing and painting but also looks at their detailed structure, including their outlines (how we can often identify trees from their characteristic shape), differentiating the ways in which branches characteristically diverge and the positioning of leaves.  In The Regal from Hyde Park on a Misty Night (3), Cole depicts several trees of different species.  Their outlines are believable and, although presented in an impressionistic rather than detailed way, we can distinguish them from their outlines and overall size and growth habit and can see some of the structural detail – or think we can because we know it must be there  – and can see the light in spaces between branches.  The tree in the foreground could be a silver birch… Its intense darkness balances the bright lights in the background which have thrown it into relief.  This is how we would experience a tree in winter, outlined against a bright light source.


1  Petrie, Ferdinand  (1992)   Drawing Landscapes in Pencil   Watson-Guptill, New York.

2  Cole, Rex Vicat Cole (1915) The Artistic Anatomy of Trees: Their Structure and Treatment in Painting

3  Cole, Rex Vicat Cole (1932)The Regal from Hyde Park on a Misty Night       result=1&balid=85772  Web. 02.08.12


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