Painting Trees: study # 1

To paint a tree, you start with the trunk, add main limbs pointing in four directions, define smaller limbs leading from those and then branches, smaller branches,  and finally the foliage.  Ah, were it only so simple!


I try my hand at the first illustration in the MSM Book of Trees: tree limbs in all directions.

The overall approach to tree painting can sound formulaic and consist of logical sequencing of tree parts.  But for each of the steps my resources have tons of direction, advice and ancient insightful wisdom.  This study truly is a continual juggling of seeing the forest then the trees, and back to the forest, the trees again…


By twisting a branch more dimension can be achieved.

The first step in rendering trees in Chinese Brush Painting is to choose one of the two basic styles–outline or boneless–used for all compositions.  Most artists will explore both and often develop a preference for one of the two approaches.  Many tree studies are executed totally in shades of black ink, while some are beautifully enhanced with only a few colors.

The bone or outline method for trees starts with defining edges to the trunks, limbs, branches, and twigs. The foliage is usually executed in one of a host of “dotting” or “tien” methods. (The Mustard Seed Manual shows 36- 40 such examples, depending on which version you have.  Much to practice there!)


A worksheet showing various ‘dotting’ methods or ‘tien’ used to convey foliag

The boneless or moku (aka mogu) method follows the same sequencing of rendering tree parts (trunk, limbs, branches, smaller branches, foliage) as the outline, but involves broader brush strokes to create the shapes.  Selective over-painting with darker ink while the first strokes are still damp, brings edges forward and establishes roundness or dimension. Nenagh also reminds us to be certain we darken the V-shape that occurs where limbs protrude from the main trunk with a “crotch” stroke.


The moku method is more like the Western style of painting watercolors,  in that you suggest which direction the light is spilling over the whole composition.  In our last workshop with Neenagh Molson she demonstrated both styles of doing trees.  In executing the moku style tree, she showed how to apply clear water along the trunk and main limbs (on the forward-most surface of the rounded tree parts) so that it would repel color as you proceeded with adding other color to the parts.  This use of water to repel color and thus keep a “white” portion in your painting is fascinating to watch in the hands of a master, and tricky for a learner to grasp.  Getting the right amount of moisture, letting the result dry to the right degree, passing the next brush strokes at the right speed—these are all a learned judgment call.

In both approaches—outline and moku–you strive to convey the spirit of the tree.


These are various strokes used to represent the fine twigs on trees. Note that the deer horn turned upside down becomes the crab claw.


More choices for dotting in foliage. Note that trees in a row like this are NOT good composition!

Some basic principles to consider before putting brush to paper.

1.  Ground up or top down?  Should you paint starting at the base of the trunk/roots, reflecting how a tree grows up into the “sky” portion of your paper?  The progression from trunk to major limbs, to big branches, to smaller branches, and finally to foliage would suggest yes.  The ancients favored starting at the top,  (i.e. start at the stop of the tree) for what appears to be good reason. If you start at the top then you don’t “run out of room” for your tree. I suspect they meant practice doing that, and you will force yourself into truly internalizing tree proportions given the proposed composition.  Both have merit.

2.  Know the essence of the tree you intend to paint. The scrub oak on the Canadian prairies are, well, “scrubby-looking”.  The massive Garry oaks that dominate my current neighborhood are also oak trees, but much different in character. Many are monstrous in size, sport twisting and tormented-looking limbs, and, depending on the nature of the last growing season, may have noticeably smaller or larger leaves, more/less abundant nut clusters, and their leaves differ in color, lobes, veining.

For one who has explored much of the Canadian Shield by canoe, I have contemplated many a pine tree: Jack pine, white pine, red pine.  And then there’s the garden varieties of mugho and numerous other ornamentals. Flipping through The Pines of Tai Shan, I conclude pine trees are as individual as people.

As a gardener I have learned to recognize all sorts of growing things at their various stages of growth.  For some species there can be considerable difference in the first new shoots, the growth that comes later, and the dried, frost-triggered leaf coloring.  The sections in my manuals that explain painting thinner strokes for willows in spring, thicker strokes in winter, make sense.  The choices of “tien” to convey realistic foliage shapes for pine, maple, birch, ferns, vines, grasses is quite logical and familiar.

3.  A single tree can define the forest.  A few can show a whole landscape.   In the Mustard Seed Manual (MSM) as well as in Li Xicongai’s album, there’s a lot of wisdom concerning how to convey much with less.  Bird Woman reminded me the other day that when working from photographs (her preferred method) one needs to simplify, in the order of editing out one-third of the limbs, branches, and foliage.  This rule of thumb is right in there with ‘less is more’.  So how does one decide what to keep, what to ‘chop’?


This magnificent willow tree is one of several on Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. I have started exploring on paper how to capture the spirit of this tree, knowing I should leave out about one-third of the detail.

The ancients seem to have formulated many principles for composing trees in groups, and some of those ideas appear on first read to be contradictory.  The MSM on one page:  “Trees should twist and turn, but their branches never appear crowded. Branches are few at the tops, but they should not appear scattered. Tree tops should be loose because the branches are fewer: they should not in any way seem thick.”  Then only a page later: “Thick tree tops should be painted in dark ink.”

From our workshop with Neenagh, I recall the idea of using a scruffy brush (highly technical term for an old worn brush with uneven ends according to LB, or one you have purposely hacked at with scissors to render “scruffy”) to dab in the foliage over your framework of trunk, limbs in four directions, and major branches.  The foliage at the top of the tree would be dabbed more heavily, to convey the density of more prolific but finer growth (new leaves).

Tree compositions may be of various kinds in a cluster, or a group of all the same variety.  The MSM wisely advises how to place two and three of a kind, with one behind the other, one shorter than the other. They then jump to advising on clustering five, saying “ it is not necessary to speak of painting four trees; if one knows how to paint five trees, any number can be rendered.”  Indeed.  I think I’ll stick to singles for now.

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