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Written by Johannes Vloothuis

Bare winter trees are probably one of the most difficult things to paint in landscapes. It is important to learn the form and the way the branches grow, just like medical students learn about the human skeleton. Knowing this will help you paint  trees with foliage as well.

Many serious figure drawing courses teach the students bone and muscle structure before getting into the flesh rendering. The same concept will apply to the endulged art student.

Close up detail
Look carefully and you will see that the thicker the limbs are the darker they become. Pick a    major limb  and follow it all the way to the edge of the tree. See how the  value lightens   gradually  in the same  proportion as it thins  out until it almost merges into the sky? You can  barely see the top of the tree where it meets  the sky. 

Obviously, it will be too overwhelming to draw every limb and branch a real tree has. As always, we must simplify and create a symbol. We don't need an exact rendering of a tree seen in real life. Pick the major limbs and branches and paint those. Branches almost never grow straight. Some are convex ,others are concave. Some trees  have more gnarled branches than others. That's what determines their species and gives them their personality.

A good analogy would be a clock. Imagine we superimpose a clock on the tree in the photo. The branches will tend to grow in the same directions as hands towards the numbers that indicate the time on the clock. Which means the angle of the tree branches that aim for11 o'clock to 1 o'clock will have less of an open angle. The reverse will occur for branches aiming towards the later hours that is, the lower the branch is the more open the angle will be. A branch pointing to 3 o'clock will be about 90 degrees.

Common errors with tree trunks

Incorrect. The limbs originate at the same angle on both sides creating a mirrored version.   This is a slightly improved version. The angles of the limbs on the right are the same.   The two branches on the right are placed parallel.

Here are some general points to consider when painting winter trees:

a) Make sure both sides of a limb don't run straight and parallel to each other and/or other limbs.
b) Make them look round by lightening the value where the light hits and rendering reflected light.
c) Consider that some branches project outward towards you and farther from you, the latter would lighten in value even if the branches were thick.
d) Limbs will cast shadows onto each other on a sunny day.
e) Add character by putting in cut off limbs, squirrel holes, bark peeling off, leaves that didn't fall, a bird's nest, etc.
f) The shadow side will pick up some reflections from the sky. Add touches of& sky color to this area.
g) Variegate the color of bark. Even though in nature their color seems to be a brownish gray add blue
combines with siennas, umbers, ochres, reds, even green moss. Mix these colors on the canvas instead of the palette.
h) Preferably don't allow your tree to shoot up straight. A leaning tree is more interesting. Make sure the ones on the sides lean into the picture.
i) At the top of the tree there are many little branches, many more than at the bottom. These are the ones
that actually hold the mass of leaves.
j) Don't allow the tree to fit into any geometrical shape such as ovals, circles, triangles (for pine trees) etc.
k) Don't overdo the amount of branches. Open areas are good for breathing space.
l) Some branches break off during their life span.These add history and give your trees a personality.
m) Snow stuck to branches is a lovely sight. Trees can use socks in the winter.
n) Branches are convex and concave.
o) Make sure your branches don't depart from the trunk in equal angles.
p) By adding a few leaves that survived the high winds of late autumn, it will help offset all the linear movement.
q) Depict snow stuck on the various parts of the trees. This will dress up your trees.
r) Tree branches make excellent pointers to guide the viewer to the center of interest.
s) Make sure you show branches that are overlapping each other.

Stay away from:

1) making your branches too thick and dark near the edges.
2) painting the trees trunks and branches them in one premixed color such as gray.
3) putting too many branches and twigs that will make the tree look overworked.
4) making your branches grow straight.
5) the major limbs growing out from equal sides of the tree trunk.