The appeal of bare branches


Andrew Wright enjoys sketching and painting the complex silhouettes and unexpected colours of trees in winter.


Whatever the season, trees are an important part of the landscape, but during the winter months they are perhaps at their most fascinating.

In high summer trees often have little variation of colour and it can be a real struggle for the painter to cope with the profusion of greens. The freshness of spring is usually easier to handle, and autumn produces a riot of colour which is a challenge to portray. Yet, whatever the attractions, the scene is always dominated by foliage – the underlying structure of trees is obscured to a great extent and they are often massed together, their outlines softened and rounded.

The skeletal trees of winter, on the other hand, provide endless variations of trunk and branch shapes, silhouetted outlines and dramatic contrasts of light and dark. There is also the added benefit of being able to have a break from the greenery for a while and get involved with the subtle colour and varied tones of winter.

The value of sketches

Pencil sketch. These trees had been cut back at some stage producing lots of twiggy growth which appealed to me. Ivy growing on trees can produce fascinating shapes.


When painting trees at any time of year it is important to gain experience by observing nature directly. Obviously the main drawback in winter is the weather. This is where the sketchbook can come into its own. With just a pencil and pad it is a simple matter to make small, or even quite large, drawings in minutes, without having to stint on observation. I stood alongside my car to do the sketch above. It took only 20 minutes or so but I was able to capture the character of the ivy clad trees in that short time.

It may also be worth experimenting with charcoal or charcoal pencil (which I find less messy) both of which can give a thicker line and provide different effects. The sketch shown below was done from my car using a soft charcoal pencil. Looking for trees silhouetted against the sky is a good idea because there are no distractions created by colour or tonal variation and it is possible to concentrate entirely on studying and recording the branch shapes and general outline of the tree.


Charcoal pencil sketch. Trees in silhouette are ideal for concentrating the mind on shape. There are no other distractions.

Of course it is possible to paint outside in cold conditions and, on occasion, it can even be mild and spring-like. Many different media can be used successfully outdoors, and even an oil can be completed quickly. I would suggest working on a small scale, particularly when the weather is cold or unpredictable.

Accentuate the negative!

Trees may either play a subordinate role to something else in a painting, for example a backdrop to some buildings, or they may be the main subject, or part of the main subject, themselves. Either way it seems good sense to make studies of individual trees or interesting parts of them. They are not easy subjects and problems can arise through concentrating on a particular branch, until it is virtually complete, moving on to the next and so on. This approach makes it difficult to get the overall shape right as it is hard to relate one branch to another accurately.

It is better to keep the painting progressing as a whole, constantly relating one part to another. This can be made easier by learning to see negative shapes. This means looking for the shapes between branches as opposed to the shapes of branches, in effect becoming more aware of the various shapes of bits of background and sky seen through the tree.

Tree Study, oil on primed hardboard, 16” x 12”. The ‘local colour’ of this tree was a mid-greenish grey but bright sunshine made it look very light with some subtle colour variation.

In Tree Study (above) I paid a lot of attention to the negative background shapes which are most obvious around the lower, thicker branches. This helped me to avoid inaccuracies that may have arisen by looking only at the tree itself. Negative shapes are particularly useful where there are two or more trees together and getting the correct relationship between various tree trunks and intertwining branches is important.

Colour observation

When painting the trunks and branches of trees many inexperienced painters automatically reach for brown paint. This usually means they have not looked properly and have a preconceived idea of what the colour of a tree should be. In fact, although they are sometimes brown, it is far more common to see various shades and versions of grey. Very often they have a green tinge, which can be pronounced, especially on the areas that are most exposed to rain and where lichen and other plant life grows.

This is really about ‘local’ colour, or the colour you would expect to see under what might be called ‘normal’ lighting conditions. In reality, the quality of light is always changing and affecting everything it reaches in different ways. The winter sun playing on branches may, for example, bring out all sorts of unexpected, subtle hues, such as pinks and yellows. Mist and fog can make colours greyer, and distance will perhaps add a hint of blue or purple. The afternoon sun might imbue the whole scene with a golden glow.

In Tree Study the tree was lit by the sun from the front and I used more white than anything else to paint it. I tinted with various colours to produce yellowish greys, pinkish greys and so on, to achieve the pale colouring and variety I was after. The shadowed parts of the tree help to enhance the sunlit areas.

In contrast, when trees are strongly lit from behind they may well appear almost black but I would prefer to mix a strong dark from, say, a combination of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue rather than use an unvaried black straight from the tube. If there is strong sunlight immediately behind trees it will tend to ‘eat into’ the edges of branches, making them appear paler and less distinct.


Snow adds a totally new dimension to everything, including trees. Normally, the ground is more or less a middle tone, but the lightness of snow provides a backdrop to all the intriguing tree shapes. If it is a reasonably heavy fall there is the added bonus of snow built up against trunks and resting in the forks of trees and along the branches, all of which can help to introduce excellent counterchange, light against dark, dark against light.

Midwinter, Footscray Meadows, oil on primed hardboard, 16” x 24”

There is a little snow on the branches in Midwinter, Footscray Meadows most noticeably on the branch that crosses in front of the dark, ivy clad tree.

I am not always content with a scene exactly as I see it and I sometimes alter the weather conditions where I think it will add something to the picture. Early Snowfall was a winter scene, but there was no snow. I felt that changing it to a snow scene would enhance the tree and the picture would have more atmosphere. Like the other parts of the landscape snow is always affected by the prevailing lighting conditions and although it may sometimes appear pure white, it rarely is. In both of the snow scenes here I tried to keep the snow interesting and varied with some careful use of warm and cool colour.

Early Snowfall, water-soluble oil on primed hardboard, 13” x 16½. Changing this view to a snow scene added emphasis to the base of the tree and gave the painting a different feel. I kept the background simple so as not to detract from the main tree shape.

The outer edge

It would seem logical to deal with the finest, outer twigs of a tree last. Unfortunately, many a good tree has been spoiled at this stage through over-emphasis. It is usually virtually impossible to make out the individual twigs at the extremity of a tree, and attempting to paint finer and finer lines is not necessarily the best way of tackling them. Certainly, adding lots of little dashes, which is quite often seen, can be a disaster. Aiming for an impression of lots of twigs usually gives better results. I sometimes use a drybrush technique, dragging a lightly loaded brush over the textured painting surface so that little flecks of paint are deposited. Or perhaps while the sky colour is still wet I may blend in some darker colour to indicate masses of twigs. In a pencil sketch, a little judicious shading is often all that is needed.

Although technique is an essential part of painting, it is not a good idea to develop a habitual way of working at the expense of good observation. For example, always painting twigs (or anything else) in a certain way. Observation is all-important.