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How to Paint Trees & Foliage

Updated April 17, 2017

Landscapes have long been a favourite subject for painters. Since most landscapes feature some kind of vegetation, budding landscape painters should be able to master painting trees and foliage. Whether you are painting in oils, acrylics or watercolours, whether the result you seek is realistic or impressionistic, there are a few basic steps to follow in order to add beautiful trees and shrubbery to your paintings. After learning the basics, you can add your own flourishes to make your masterpiece unique.

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Paint the trunk. Paint the darkest colour of your trunk as a base. Add a slightly lighter colour and blend in to add some depth. Next, add lighter colours as accents to create texture in the bark. You can now add in some more of the darker shades to get the bark looking exactly as you want it.

Paint the branches. Use pictures of real trees to mimic a natural branch pattern. As with the trunk, begin with the darkest colour and blend in the lighter colours until the bark matches the texture and look of the trunk.

Paint the leaves using a fan brush for large areas of foliage. Start with the darkest colour you plan to use to create a mass of foliage and then add lighter colours to give the illusion of many leaves. Afterward, take a round brush and paint in individual leaves to add definition. Remember to make sure that there are branches in place to support the leaves rather than letting the leaves simply float in mid-air.

Paint the basic shape of the mass of foliage. If you are using watercolours, start with the lightest colour you intend to use first. If you are using oil or acrylic, begin with the darkest colour you plan to use. Try to use random strokes to give the impression that the branches and leaves are growing in natural directions. Your edges should not have a defined perimeter or shape.

Add your other colours to create definition to the foliage. Paint small strokes to mimic individual leaves. Use light colours to show the reflection of light. Keep working and adding colours until the mass begins to look like a real bush or tree.

Add a small trunk at the bottom of your mass of foliage. Since the foliage is the focal point of your tree, the trunk can be small and simple, consisting of a few strokes.


If there is a background to your painting (for example a sky or rolling hills), paint that background or wash before beginning your tree. In general it is best to paint background objects before moving on to the foreground. Follow the basic principles of the paint medium you're using (oil, acrylic or watercolour) to properly blend and apply your colours.

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Things You'll Need

  • Canvas or watercolour paper
  • Paint (oil, acrylic or watercolour)
  • Paintbrushes (fan and round brushes)

About the Author

As a professional journalist since 1998, Lisbeth Booth has worked as a writer and an editor at several magazines. Her career has focused on music and film criticism but she has also written about lifestyle topics such as parenting and home design. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Calgary.

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