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How to sketch trees and landscapes on location: an illustrated guide

Updated on November 11, 2011

You can learn to draw like this

A quick five minute charcoal sketch of a path in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park
A quick five minute charcoal sketch of a path in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park

How to begin

There is nothing more pleasurable than to go outside and enjoy the natural surroundings of a park or even your own back yard. There is no better way to connect with nature than to grab a sketch book and some charcoal or graphite and express yourself by interpreting what you see of nature in your own creative way. You can learn here how to draw from nature with these step by step lessons.

You do not have to be an expert at drawing to enjoy the pleasures of expressing yourself while interpreting what you see around you with pencil or charcoal. Examples are provided of tree photographs and of corresponding sketches of the same tree. Of course you may not render a tree as expertly as shown, but artistic freedom should allow you to expand your vision of nature. Each individual has their own way of seeing an object and as an artist it is important to preserve your own vision that satisfies you.

Start out with the right materials

These drawing materials can be purchased for less than $20 dollars or less at your local art store.
These drawing materials can be purchased for less than $20 dollars or less at your local art store.

Step 1: Choose your materials

I have displayed above a picture of my own sketch book and pencil kit. The General No #10 kit provides you with all the drawing tools you will need out in the field. In most art stores the kit sells for under ten dollars.

As far as sketch pads are concerned. I recommend starting out with a 9 x12 inch book with a paper weight of 80 to 100 lb and a rag content of 25 percent or more. Rag content is cloth fibers blended in with wood pulp to offer strength and a courser grain to the paper. When you are working with charcoal you may want a rougher paper to accentuate the lines and present a more tactile image.

Go to the art store and feel different samples of paper weight and texture and perhaps you migfht buy two small pads and see which type of paper you like working with. Most sketch pads at the 9x12 inch size run less than ten dollars.

How to hold the pencil

Drawing lines on a pad for practice
Drawing lines on a pad for practice

Step 2: Learning how to handle your pencil

The illustration of my hand above shows you the way I hold my pencil in order to sketch. You can see how the fingers have a somewhat loose grip on the pencil. The pencil is cradled between middle and index finger. Having a fairly light hold on the pencil will allow you to sweep up and down or side to side. You should use more of a wrist action than with the fingers.

As a first exercise, take a pencil and get the feel for the drawing instrument in your hand. Take a blank page of paper and make lines and curves and allow your hand to relax. Slide the tip of the pencil along the page, feel free to draw shapes and curves and lines.

The next exercise may seem like copying but it is important to get the feel of the shape of a tree limb or the shape of a tree trunk as it tapers upward. Get a photograph of a tree and put a piece of tracing paper over the photograph and copy the lines of the trunk and branches and draw the shape of the tree canopy. You can also do this to get the feel for the shapes of buildings and other objects as well.

Once your hand becomes accustomed to making these shapes and lines, when the time comes to draw an actual tree while standing at a distance, you will have trained your hand to draw the curves and you will find that it is not so difficult to recreate what you see in front of you.

Drawing to interpret not to copy

This is the photo and my sketch of the same tree at Balboa Park in San Diego.
This is the photo and my sketch of the same tree at Balboa Park in San Diego.

Step 3: Drawing your first tree

Once your hand becomes accustomed to making these shapes and lines, when the time comes to draw an actual tree while standing at a distance, you will have trained your hand to recreate the curves and you will find that it is not so difficult to draw what you see.

The important thing is to look at the basic lines of the object in front of you and leave out the other information before your eyes. Take a look at the examples of drawings and the photograph that are provided above and you will see what the artist left out.

As far as sizing and scale are concerned, you do not have to be accurate. You are not copying nature, you are creating your own interpretation of nature. If you want your drawings to be realistic and to scale, take a close look at the object and make little points with the pencil of the size of the object on the page. You can also observe the size and relationship between the tree and the objects in the forefront and background to judge the size of the tree. This is what is called perspective.

After you create your size points, you may sketch an outline of the tree and then add stronger lines after you have the basic shape rendered on the page. This of course will take some practice. It all comes down to practice.

Step 4: Drawing tree groupings

Once you have drawn a single tree and you develop confidence with your drawing skills, you can take on more complex subjects and create a larger composition and expand you view of a scene such as the grouping of trees I rendered below. Once again, I did not attempt to create an exact representation. You are allowed to change the composition and even relocate a some elements of the composition. Your rendering may or may not be more realistic than mine. That is up to you. This lesson is about free expression not an contest to who can draw the most accurate tree.

Unusual tree shapes in Balboa Park, San Diego

This is a photo and my sketch of the same grouping of trees in Balboa Park, San Diego
This is a photo and my sketch of the same grouping of trees in Balboa Park, San Diego

Step 5: Practice to improve your skills

The lesson I have shown you is just the beginning. Practicing your drawing skills is important but it should not be drudgery. Take a sketch book with you when you are going out for a walk. Sketching pictures of your surroundings is the best way to connect with nature. It can help relieve stress and at the same time, offer you a sense of accomplishment.Challenge yourself. Set a time limit on a sketch to five minutes or ten minutes and be free with your hand and see what you come up with.

The first illustration in this hub was a very fast sketch of a path in San Francisco's Buena Vista park. Rendered in just five minutes and the lines are minimal. Go to a park and try your hand and drawing a setting while using a minimal amount of lines.

Look for future art instruction workshops

This hub is the first in a series of drawing and painting workshops that I will be offering in the coming year to celebrate my 50th year as a painter. Future hubs will offer instruction with watercolor, acrylic painting, how to mix a color palette and more advanced techniques in honing your drawing and painting skills inside and outside the studio.

I welcome your comments ands suggestions and I will respond to inquiries about your art studies and will offer additional tips on how to advance your skills as an artist.


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    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi, this is a great guide! I would never have thought of using tracing paper to train your mind in the way of sketching the tree, such simple ideas, and yet they are way to learn, fascinating, thanks!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      This is a brilliant and beautiful guide! You've reminded me of the days when I had art classes and we would go outside and work on landscapes... what good times those were! I should go out with a sketchbook again. Thanks for the inspiration, and for the helpful tips, too!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Voted up across the board!

      My husband teaches art, and thought your instructions were spot-on.

      My own skills, however, are mainly lacking from lack of time to put into enough practice. ;-) I tend toward landscapes, myself, though--they are far easier than people or animals.

      Great hub!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      You are very good my man. I love to sketch and I love to share my work. Good tips.

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      7 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      Drawing trees really is quite relaxing, especially if you are drawing whilst on location outside. Wonderful tips and examples!

    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      This is an amazing Hub! I love your guide as well as your drawings. You are very talented. This is something I would like to do if I could get over the frustration of it not turning out how I would like in my head. Copying a tree first to get a feel of the lines is a great tip and would definitely help. This guide will definitely help me!

    • SweetiePie profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Great ideas for drawing trees, especially for beginners who may have never drawn before.


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