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Happy Tree
by Leonardo

This tutorial explores painting and drawing techniques, rather than PhotoShop tools.

Tutorial Overview

    1. Forethought, coming up with a plan for your drawing.
    2. Creating a background, in this case, a sky.
    3. Creating a foreground and keeping it separate from the background.
    4. Drawing a Tree
    5. Adding in the final details / Consistency of color, lighting, and texture.


This is a very important habit to get into. Many artists skip this and just jump right into a drawing, unless your style is completely abstract, this is not good. If you are creating original artwork, then you should be doing a little homework and brainstorming before you even start. I usually try to get relaxed and get into an environment where I can think.

Forethought Sample #1 Forethought Sample #2 Forethought Sample #3

(Note: Nothing on the drawing was traced, these pictures are used only as guides)

Then I just try to come up with a subject that is doable, once I do that I start to actually come up with what objects/charcters/etc. I'm going to create. Now is a good time to have a pencil and paper handy, just make rough sketches - the more the better. Once, your head and paper are filled with ideas, then it's a good idea to do some research, look though books, magizines, other artwork, and websites so you can get an accuate idea of proportions, colors, etc. I usually cut them out/download/print them so theier all accessable. NOW, its time to start your drawing. (note: this process can vary depending on how realistic and how much detail you plan on putting into your drawing)


By now you should have a good idea and somewhat of a plan of how your drawing is going to look. Now, where do you start? The background of course. Most of the time I start with the background. This should be smooth and undetailed, your main focus usually shouldn't be on the background and should be a little out of focus.

Step One On this picture I am making a sky for the background. I started off aribrushing in some thick lines of complimentary colors showing a faintness of clouds and I also used darker shades at the top. Then, using a smear tool, I blended it all together. I made sure I didn't miss a line, I mainly used a large brush with high opacity for the smearing. There you have it, an easy realistic sky!

Step Two

Now, I knew I was going to have some water in the picture that reflected the sky. So I simply copied the top 65% of the sky, flipped it, and moved it to the bottom. I then took a little of the contrast out and lightened it up. Then, using the smear tool again, I created some slight ripples, I used a medium to small brush with about 40% opacity.


Step Three

The next step I took on this painting was the middle and foreground. I decided to go for kind of a swampy - grassy look, so I started to draw in some black outlines of land and marshes. After that, I used the smear tool again (btw, I wish that photoshop had a more advanced smear/blur tool - I use it a lot), and using horizontal strokes I smoothed out the edges in the middle ground closer to the horizen (the closer the the horizen, the less detail you should have). Then I wanted to add in some grass that reflected in the water, so I basically make hundreds of brush strokes going halfway into the water and halfway above the marsh. I then touched up unwanted lines with the eraser. After that I used some green/blue/brown colors and airbrush over the marsh with a large brush with hardly any opacity. It kinda softened it up and added a little color.

Step Four

Next I drew the foreground - the space closest to you. It's important to put a lot of detail here, and to have sharp edges. Another good thing to do is add more texture in this area too. This area really needs to stand out. I added some weeds and stuff here, starting out with solid black lines, then going back and adding color. I then left the area alone for a while, so I can concentrate on the tree, I will go back and add more detail later.

A happy little tree

Step Five

The tree was actually not complicated at all to draw; I started out with the basic shape. I drew in the base and the largest branches first using a dark brown color with 100% opacity, then I used a smaller brush to branch off more. I continued doing this, as my brush got smaller I was making more branches of the branches I just made until I was using the smallest brush. It took a little time painting in all the tiny twigs (I wish I had a tablet! I hate using the mouse; I sometimes have to undo 10 times to get the perfect stroke). Now, the basic outline was done, it looked like a dead tree. Next I used to burn tool to add shadows on the tree, and used a lighter brown color with the airbrush to add in some highlights. Then I created a new brush about 15 pixels wide with tiny dots lined up horizontally for the wood grain. (Note: I didn't put a lot of detail in the top of the tree because I was going to add leaves there anyway).

Step Six The treetop and leaves were the next logical step. To do this I made 3 different brushes each a different size. I kind of made the brush look like a group of leaves; I also set the space between 75 and 125. Then using black, I scribbled in the treetop in a circular motion, making sure I hid the top of the branches that I didn't put a lot of detail on. I also used the smaller "leaf brush" dabbed a little bit around the branches. Next, I choose a dark green color and highlighted what I had just made. I then did the same with some yellows and reds (with less opacity). I used the eraser (also with the "leaf brush") in areas that were too dark, and let the sky show though a little.

Step Seven

The final step of the tree was to put a little more detail in it to make it look real. (One thing I've learned: if you're striving for realism, then you need a lot of detail.) Using the same "leaf brush", the smaller one, I proceeded to make some mossy stuff hanging from it. I also went back and shaded the tree a little better, mainly on the smaller branches that I missed earlier. When I was completely done shading and highlighting, I then added some noise to the tree (setting 7 on the branches and setting 12 on the leaves). I did this to give it more texture, but mainly to bring it into focus and separate it from the background.

The final details

Step Eight

Now the drawing was starting to look like something, but it needed something else to give it character. First I went back to the shoreline (in front), and added more detail, I made the weeds darker and more defined. I also added some color in too (some lighter greens, reds, and yellows). Then I took that layer and added some noise to it (from here on out I will make all the objects in the foreground have noise setting between 6 and 10). Next I put some wildlife into my swamp, starting with a crocodile. Then I put a bird sitting in the tree; I also put a snake winding around the base of the tree. I also added some noise to these 3 objects. After that, I drew some birds taking off over the swamp. Then I copied the birds, flipped them, and used it as a reflection in the water. I used the smear tool over the refection to show some rippling. Finally I added a few morning stars to the sky.

Throughout the drawing I tried to keep things consistent. I used a wide pallet of colors, but they are all balanced, and they all kind of compliment each other. The lighting is another important element to consider. It is either early morning or late night so I didn't use light colors or bright colors in the foreground. But on some of the highlights, like on the crocodile, I used brighter colors to reflect the sky. I also kept textures consistent. If one area of the foreground was sharp, then the rest had to be. I also kept the background soft and little out of focus.

Final - /tutorials/leo_tree_tut_images/lo-tree.jpg

Tutorial by Leonardo.iCE Copyright � 2000-2002


Fantastic tutorial and final image. I have always loved this pic.

Excellent artwork, indeed! One small thingy... The reflected birds... You're not supposed to see the reflection from the exact same angle, but more from a semi-bottom view, based on the position of the viewer and the original birds. It's just a small detail, but worth thinking about. Other than that, I love the tree, which naturally is the focus of this tutorial. Maybe someone (Read: "Not me" ;) should do a reflection tutorial? Keep the tutorials coming, I for one read and apreciate every single one of them. =)

I love the picture, but I don't agree with a few of your tactics. I'm no professional or greatly talented artist by any means, but while most of your drawing seems very realistic, it seems as though the moss/leaves and the birds are blurred a little more than they ought to be. Unless you're trying to go for a photographic look with a long shutter time, it seems like a little more detail on the birds might make the entire painting look more realistic. Also, your leaves don't seem very... leafy. While the effect works pretty well, your tree still looks like its only covered by a thick and possibly gravity-defying mass of mossy spiderwebs. The top of the tree is well done, but the bottom seems like it is slightly lacking. The picture is a beauty though. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the tips!
Mad Ollie
Bob Ross?
Is it you, Bob? ;-)
Re: Bob Ross?
Hmm... thats highly possible! though I hope you dont have that terrible 70's afro any more...
Great tut. Great point on the reference material.
A mouse?
You did this with a mouse?!
That's incredible!