- Lesson details
Trees, with all of their leaves and branches, are one of the most difficult subjects to paint in landscapes. In this painting lesson, Ben shows you how to simplify trees, and illustrates the idea of a transparent mass.
Landscape painting in a studio compared to painting on-location are completely different experiences, each with their own set of challenges to face. Painting landscapes on-location means you’re faced with constantly changing natural lighting, as well as nature, but the experience itself can really make your inspiration flow.
In this painting course, Artist Ben Fenske teaches you the fundamentals of landscape painting through a series of lessons. These lessons include easy to follow instruction, analysis of famous landscape paintings, and demonstrations shot on-location, to help you better your painting skills.
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sky. I want to just to show a few ideas about how to go about that.
So first we're going to look at sky holes.
The first thing that's difficult about painting trees really is
how do you simplify them and even just at this level drawing a tree in
is difficult. And you have to start to develop the ability to simplify things and group
things together. So I'm imagining a few trees here growing together.
and the shape of some trees and branches and maybe there's a few branches that I'm
seeing through. And I've got the main leaf or tree mass sketched in or outlined.
And now I'm going to pick out a few of the probably hundreds of little holes,
poking through the leaves where I can see through to the sky.
So I've simplified a general outline of the tree and I'm going to simplify some of
these what are called sky holes.
I just want to pick out a few of them.
And we'll paint the tree on top of a partially it’ll be seen through
to a sort of mountain background and partially
to the sky and maybe I'll just lower the horizon a tiny bit
so there's more sky. Let's do that.
Okay, so I’ve indicated a little bit of the trunk and and branches.
I’ve outlined a little bit as well as I can
the mass of leaves and branches and as I'm doing that I'm looking for
interesting and characteristic shapes. So each tree is different and each species of tree grows
a little bit differently. And so I'm just trying to identify the characteristics of this specific
tree. And yet do it in a simplified way because I cannot paint every leaf and
I cannot trace around ever leaf.
Okay next I'm going to think about a a light source.
and I think I'll light this from
yeah I can light it from here. So side and little bit of side lighting
and a little bit of back lighting.
And I'm going to look at where the shadow and the light meet.
And again, I'm going to have to simplify.
I'm going to see a general
shadow mass here and a light mass. I'm also going to see probably a cast
shadow. Okay, so the first difficult part of a tree is simplifying the shape
or the outline then dividing shadow from light.
Now the tricky part is how do you paint
leaves against sky and how do you determine what to paint?
Should I paint the sky first and paint some of the leaves into it?
Should I paint the leaves first, paints some of the sky into it?
It's really difficult and I just going to show you one one technique here.
So I’ve basically already determined
this is mostly leaves and shadow.
This is mostly leaves and sunlight and then I’ve picked out a few holes that are
I'll paint in a few more sky holes
into the leaves and I'll paint the few leaves into the sky later on.
So I'm just going to first block this in what they call
a block in. And I'm going to mix up -
I need to mix up a shadow color or a few maybe
a white color and a sky. Okay,
so knowing that there's a lot of variation
out there, and I'm trying to interpret that and try to take all that information
and interpret it into paint.
That's how I'm simplifying it,
but I'm looking, are there some things that I may be able to - some variations
I might be able to include?
So I'm thinking for example,
is this tree a little bit lighter, are these branches down here a little bit lighter,
maybe because maybe they're getting some reflected light from the ground,
for example. So I'm painting in a general
shadow mass, but I can vary it a little bit.
And maybe a few bits of shadow here.
So I want to keep this simple.
I don't want to put in too many small pieces of shadow into the light right
now. And want to keep these two things distinctly different.
So just for now basically shadow and light.
I’ll mix up a slightly different color for the trunk and some of the branches.
And maybe I'm seeing a few main branches
here and there. Okay, I'll mix up now a color for the light.
And one common mistake is to make too much of a contrast between the light and
shadow on a tree. So find the right contrast there.
Okay. I'm just going to go for something like this and lay it in
flatly against this shadow. Okay so at this point I have a light shape and
a shadow shape blocked in.
And I've left a few pieces for sky holes and other sky holes
I'll paint back into these masses.
So I'm going to mix up a general sky gradation now.
And I'll mix up a gradation for the sky.
So changing in color from top to bottom and in value as well.
And as I'm painting the sky in I can
start to if I need to start cutting into some of these shapes
and try to do it cleanly. But I haven't dealt with any sky holes yet.
Okay so far I'm just trying to lay these things next to each other cleanly.
Okay, and I haven't dealt the sky holes yet.
Maybe the bigger ones I can, maybe this big one I can
paint in already. Okay, then this one.
I’m gonna paint the background in a bit. Maybe there's some sort of mountain back there.
And I'm going to do the same thing here, I want to just paint cleanly around
everything. And I'll just put in something for the ground as well.
Okay. So all the big masses are in place.
Now we can start looking at the sky holes.
And what that means is when you have a small piece of a light, like for
example, if you have a small piece of sky
inside of a big mass of something darker like this tree, those darker things tend to
start affecting the perception of this hole, the sky hole.
And what that means as a painter is that these holes have to be painted slightly
darker than the sky here, that’s just a big patch of open sky. And so theoretically
the smaller the hole the darker it needs to be.
So let’s just paint in a few sky holes using this color
and see how they look and then we’ll darken them down a little bit and see
if they kind of - see if the tree sits into the environment a bit better.
When it's like this, the tree tends to look flat and cut out. When you
introduced the idea of refraction the tree starts to
sit in its place, starts to interact with the air a bit.
So let's try to do that.
I will do the same with the leaves. We’ll put a few leaves out here into
the sky. So I'll just mix up something like this first and see if we can
see a difference in and how these things work.
Because I've got the sky color
the same one. Okay, I'm just going to fill some of these in
with that first sky color. Maybe I'll put a few up here
and one here. So I think it's already starting to look at the tree -
once you start to introduce some sky holes a tree
starts to look better. It starts to look more realistic.
But it still looks very cut out.
So what you want to do is Darken the sky holds down a little bit.
And if you do this
right, most people will never even notice that it's a different color.
If you do it wrong,
they’re just going to notice that the tree looks kind of cut out and flat.
So I’m gonna darken that sky color.
And hopefully these will now sit in their place a little bit better.
I can see how much darker that actually is.
And I think they're starting to work a little bit better.
Okay, now we can try to maybe take a few leaves
and put them out into the sky.
Maybe I'll just darken this down, that one’s kind of popping out.
This is too. Maybe I'll get one really dark one on here.
One or two. I also don't want to overdo the sky holes because then I'm moving
into that zone where I'm not simplifying anymore.
I'll take that one out.
I also wanna be careful that I am not making them all the same size and
the same shape. Okay, let's paint a few leaves into the sky
and work with the masses together a bit.
So now I'm I can paint some
mountain holes into the sky as well
or into the tree. Sorry.
So that's also going to start to appear more transparent.
And I might be able to pick out a few places where the light, the sunlight
is hitting the branches. I'm just going to keep this ground plane a little bit.
And I’ll add a little bit of cast shadow.
The same idea goes on down here where you have a situation
that's sort of dappled light situation where you've got
a mass of shadow, cast shadow, but there might be a little bits of of light filtering
through the tree and they're going to be affected by the same principle.
So now I can take my ground plane brush
and then I'm going to paint little pockets of dappled light into the shadow
I might want to darken that color just a little bit.
And again, I'm going to pick out a few key
dappled light holes and try to do it cleanly.
And I might find a few accents down there as well.
And there might be a few accents up in the tree as well.
They could be branches or areas of the leaves that are receiving less light.
And I can go in with my shadow brush and light brush and I can push
the shadow over the sky hole a little bit if I want to modify it, paint
the sky hole back into the shadow shape a bit.
And sometimes just the act of doing that
will help it sit better.
You start to get things blending together a little bit.
Maybe you can just take it out and try it again.
Okay, so that's the basic idea of sky hole approach refraction.
And it basically applies to every - anything.
So if you got a big area of something light and something dark is over the
top of it, that dark object is going to become a little bit lighter.
If you have a sky hole in the middle of a dark tree
mass it's going to be affected by the dark tree mass and it's going to
become a little bit darker.
So you've got a - you literally have to mix up a different color
and put it on there or else your tree will look a bit cut out.
And the same thing with the dappled light effect.
So that's the sky hole idea and approach to painting trees.
different artists have treated that topic.
So for the first image
we've got a painting by Arthur Streeton
and this is a pretty good example of sky holes.
And I'll just take a look, I’ll just point a few things out. So if you
look at the main mass of the sky, this whole area,
and compare it to the areas that are within the tree, these little sky holes,
you'll see a see color difference, a value difference. And so he just selected
a few little holes here and made them a little bit darker.
And so this whole tree seems to just sit in its environment.
And let’s just take a look at how much darker those sky holes actually are.
I want to just select a piece of - select a piece of sky here
and I'll just move that
next to one of the sky holes
and hopefully we'll be able to see how they compare.
Okay, so now we can really see the value difference here.
Here's the sky without alteration, without changing the value, and then here's the value of the
sky hole. So you can see they're quite different.
And we can also see that in some areas where the sky holes are
are even smaller, maybe a few of these sky holes. Here is a really dark one
in this area. Right there.
So the smaller ones are even darker.
This whole area just gets darker
as it's next to the - as it moves next to the tree.
So a good clear example of Ssy holes.
Let's look at this painting by
Emile Gruppe. Another approach to sky holes,
and there's a lot of lot of variation in this painting.
So this painting likely was mostly painted wet into wet and you
can see different ways that he went about painting these trees. So It looks
to me like this area,
there's just - he chose a sort of
value that was somewhere in between
the branches and the sky and made a kind of average in between them.
And you got - he ended up with this sort of gray
that's just a little bit darker than the sky
and into that he painted some sky holes which were again darker than the mass of
the sky over here. We just point out that it's a really nice,
they're really nice illustration of linear perspective, these shadows all converging
at a vanishing point in the background. Alright let’s look at another image.
Okay, here we are, another Monet painting, and this is the example of a transparent mass.
And so this big mass is composed of about four different pieces of color.
It's got some sky, it’s got some
leaves in sunlight, the more yellow he thinks it's got some darker accents.
And it's got these little flecks of blue,
sort of a dark blue, and what you can see is that he's really playing with
that idea of refraction. So the blues that you see in that mess, they're not due
to aerial perspective. The blue of the back mountain, that color is due to the
aerial perspective. But the blues that you see here in the tree is pretty
much in the foreground and the blues that you see here are due to this thing
called refraction. It's as if this dark almost black color.
when it become small enough, when you get little pieces of it,
the sky around it starts to affect it and we have a very light and a
blue sky and it starts to eat into those colors.
And you get this blue happening.
So that's a good example of refraction.
Also just a really good example of a transparent mass and transparent mass again is
a - it's a difficult thing in a painting to deal with because it's an
area where you have almost, as in this case,
there's almost as much sky as there are leaves in that area.
It's difficult to simplify. If there was a lot of sky but not many leaves you
could just paint the sky first and paint the leaves into it.
And if it was a lot of leaves and just a little bit sky,
you could pay it mostly leaves and paint sky into it,
but here it’s almost equal.
So he's using almost equal parts of fracted leaf shadow,
leaves in sunlight, a darker accent color for the leaf shadows, and then little
sky holes. So he's got these four elements all combining
to create the effect of a tree against the very bright sky.
So that's another approach to it.
All of these things are really hard to do and like I said before, it's one
of the trickiest things to paint in a landscape.
Here we have Monet again.
And here we can see that idea of refraction.
We can see how blue and light this stuff is because again
it's a sort of transparent
mass area so we've got parts of the shadow they’re dense enough that you can't see
the sky through them but here in this area
it was probably half needles and half sky and you come up with this - or he
came up with this sort of blue
color and it's against the basically the idea that this color.
Is here, but there's not enough of it
so the sky starts to eat into it and it creates a sort of blue color
and basically it's halfway between here and here and you get this sort of thing happening.
There's also some really dark sky holes in here.
So look at how dark those are.
And again the smaller the hole that generally the the darker they are so you
have dark blues in here
and then big patches of sky outside of the tree mass.
Okay, let's look at this
treatment of all trees.
This is an artist called Timkov, he was painting in the 1950s and 60s.
And let's just look at how many sky holes are actually are in this painting and
we can see that there's not very many.
So none of these trees
in this area - I don't see any sky holes yet.
So he's just kind of eliminated them.
And he's just simplified the mass of these trees down to just tree, no sky.
This entire tree here there's maybe one sky hole here and maybe a hint of one here
where it's kind of an accidental one, see he dragged the brush of the sky
a little bit, he dragged the tree over sky.
This tree has got one sky hole here and one or two here and here but it's
basically what he did is he simplified everything into tree
and sky and just left out the idea of sky holes.
So it's probably also a denser tree.
But if you were to see this the scene in real life,
you would probably, if you took a photograph of the scene in real life,
you'd probably be able to zoom in and see millions of sky holes everywhere and millions
of leaves, but he just simplified it all into mostly tree. Okay,
here's another example of trees against sky.
And in this example, you can see some sky holes
cut into the tree, but there's not much of an attempt made to to
darken them and it gives a little bit more of a harsh graphic look to
the painting, but it's still seems to work.
I think it works because the lights of the tree are already so close in
value to the sky.
So whereas it probably won't work as well if the lights of the tree
or the shadow of the tree was was dark and probably would not work as well.
But yeah, this is a more of a sharp graphic feeling to the tree edge.
Let's look at maybe one more example,
Here's another another Isaac Levitan painting and all the trees are in the middle
ground but there's not even one suggestion of a sky hole, which is kind
of interesting. Again, it's this is a very sharp edge all along here.
There's actually - I guess you can call that a sky hole a little bit
but here there's no attempt made to to make any sky holes.
That's probably because the middle ground or middle distance tends to be a little bit
more simplified already. House look at one final image.
This is also really good example of sky holes.
And towards the background, not many sky holes.
Towards the foreground a lot more sky holes here.
Here we see that sort of merging of this value seems to be a sort of
in between the sky and the denser portion of the branches.
So it's an idea of refraction again in this area.
And then we can see where there are sky holes, they’re very dark. We can look at
some of these and compare them to the bigger mass outside of the tree figure, mass
of sky. So just another good example of sky holes and treatment of, in this case,
branches, thinner branches against the sky.
Alright so there’s a couple of ideas about how to look at trees and
especially as they're placed against the sky.
And you can look at old paintings and just see how people treated these but
they all, more or less, follow these general ideas.
or open your favorite book on landscape painting and just look particularly at the tree and
sky hole problem and how different artists have dealt with that problem.
This is a skill that you're going to probably work on for the rest of your
life. And it's something that it's hard to learn from nature.
It's easier to look and see how other people came up with solutions for this