How to Draw Trees, Hair, and Other Very Complex Things

A large tree can hold millions of leaves and at least thousands of branches (if you count the twigs).  A human head can have more than a hundred thousand hairs on it.  You’d be a fool for trying to draw a tree or human hair photorealistically, right?  Well, yes and no.

A couple years ago, inspired by the majestic trees I saw while hiking in Yosemite National Park,  I tried to draw a photorealistic tree.  This is the result:

Unfinished pencil drawing of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park
Unfinished pencil drawing (4B graphite on Bristol board) of a Jeffrey pine seen near Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park. Circa April, 2012.

Yep, I gave up.  Although I was still learning to draw at the time and this was good practice for me, it was too painful to continue!  In retrospect, I was going about it the wrong way.

I was trying to draw every single detail as I saw it.  How painful is that?!  Let’s just say that I’ll never do that again.

You can draw trees or hair or anything else photorealistically in a freehand way (instead of tracing)*, but you’d be foolish to try to draw complex details exactly as you see them instead of drawing the general pattern that you see.

Drawing the general pattern is the key to drawing hair and foliage photorealistically without driving yourself nuts.

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s not easy to draw anything that has a lot of detail.  Photorealistic pieces are very time-intensive.  For example, Paul Lung, an artist who uses a mechanical pencil to create photorealistic drawings of cats, supposedly takes 40-60 hours per piece.

However, it simplifies things and speeds you up, if, instead of drawing exactly what you see when you look at something extremely complex, you draw the general pattern.  The result will still be photorealistic.  (Note:  this might not work for portraits, because our brains are designed to pick up on very subtle facial differences.  This is one reason that drawing portraits is harder than drawing other things.)

If you simply want to give the impression of something complex, like a tree, hair, or fur, then you should give only as much detail as necessary and leave the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.  Unless your aim is photorealism, you should stop when you’ve suggested enough to the viewer that they can identify your subject.  As Betty Edwards says, you shouldn’t overdraw.

Respect for negative space is important when drawing trees, as is remembering a few key heuristics:

1. Branches should get thinner as they extend farther from the trunk.

2. Any branch must be thinner than the branch or trunk it’s growing from.  (Otherwise, it will not look realistic).

3. Vary hue, value (very important), and chroma when painting leaves.

4. Depending on the type of tree you’re drawing, branches will grow out at different angles at different heights along the trunk.  Usually, though, this angle is more acute higher up and closer to horizontal lower down.  Don’t forget to draw in branches that face toward and away from the viewer!

5. If painting in watercolor, consider using a natural sponge to quickly paint foliage.

Here’s a quick sketch I made (with a Pentel Pocket ink brush pen and black ink) of a pine tree at a nearby park, back in January:


Here are a couple imaginary trees I sketched by following the above heuristics:



Here’s a digital painting of oak trees (initially posted here):


When drawing human hair, focus on large masses of color and try not to get bogged down by drawing too many individual hairs.  Keep the outer edges of hair (where it meets the air) somewhat blurry, except where hair meets the face, which can be drawn in some detail.

After some practice, it all becomes easier and more natural!  Artistic skill (or any skill, really) is all about quantity of practice!

*Many photorealists avoid drawing freehand and instead use grids or projection techniques to trivialize the transfer of correct perspective.  Personally, I’ve always drawn freehand because I enjoy the challenge!


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