Combating Cookie Cutter Conifers

You hear the words “evergreen tree” and likely what comes to mind is the stylized shape of a holiday cookie cutter.  It is not surprising then that when we draw or paint an evergreen tree, we default to what we hold in our mind’s eye.  And to be honest, for many years I avoided painting evergreens (conifers).  No matter how I tried, my conifers always looked flat and uninspired, not unlike a green frosted sugar cookie.

But then I realized that I just needed time getting to know conifers better.  Rather than defaulting to what I thought I knew about them, I needed to really look at them.  I have learned over the years that observation really is the key to painting well.  Direct observation is critical, largely because cameras are not as sophisticated as our eyes.  Observation helps us identify what the camera gets wrong.

The camera may exaggerate values, the relationships between light and dark.  A camera can push conifers too dark in a photo, making the dark shadows almost black.

Conifer tree on a sunny day.

Similarly, the camera can shift color (hue).  Most conifers will not be as vibrant as deciduous trees (i.e. trees with leaves).  But a camera can make them too cool, sometimes appearing almost a turquoise.

The first goal of our observation experience is noticing the anatomy of a conifer.  Most conifers are characterized by a strong tapering “leader” trunk, reaching upwards towards the sky. We may see that the branches tend to emerge horizontally as they come out from the trunk.  But the overall shape of the tree will be defined by which direction the branches go from there.  We may see the branches trending upward as in a swamp cypress, horizontally in a mature white pine, the scooping of a blue spruce (our sugar cookie shape) or the draping boughs of a hemlock.

Conifer sketches by Tracey Maras

The needles will be predominately at the ends of the branches but may also run along the length of the branch in some species of conifers.  Stylistically, we may find needles that are the flat lacy fans of the cedar, short and bristly spruce, medium length of the larch or the touchable long soft needles of the pine.

Now that we begin to see the myriad of shapes that conifers offer, we need to move our observation to the values and colors.  This is when I find making color studies invaluable.  Since I cannot rely on the accuracy of a photograph, I will spend 15 to 20 minutes making small color studies (6×8” or 8×10”) to which I can refer when I am back in my studio.

Tree trunks are not just brown.  What colors do you see in the trunk?  The colors you discover will shift if they are in shadow or highlighted by the sun. Your scene may have only hints of trunk and branches.  Or your conifer may be all about the trunk.  Look for colors such as warm gray, cool gray, blue gray, green gray, dark rusty brown, orange brown, peach, sap yellow, pale orange or yellow.  There may even be lichen tinged blue green or lime green.

Whatever colors you discover, work cool to warm as you begin applying pastel.  I begin with cool dark colors to establish the texture of the bark, the crags, and cracks.  I might use dark blue, dark grayish purple or dark grayish green.  Keep it rough.  Use the side of a pastel and apply broken, irregular marks. 

Adding colour to the conifer trees.

Then begin incorporating the slightly warmer mid-values.  These might include grayish brown, taupe, tan, caramel brown, moss or olive green.  Continue to use the side of the pastel, applying chunky marks.  Keep it rough.  Along the edges of the trunk, apply your marks more subtly to help the trunk curve away from you.  Next, identify if any sunlight is finding its way to the trunk.  If so, the sunlight might be a warm light caramel brown or peach highlight.

Painting taped to board, resting against the trunk of a conifer.

Before I begin laying in branches, I add some of the distant needles (as described below).  Then, with the colors used for the trunk, use the side of a pastel to create larger branches.  Make the marks irregular and rather jagged.   For the thinner branches, use rolling or jagged pastel pencil marks.

Overall, conifers will appear darker than deciduous trees because needles have less reflective surface area than the broad surfaces of leaves.  Unless we are painting a close-up, we generally cannot see individual needles.  I begin with the dark cool colors that I identify in the shadows of the conifer.  Some of these will be on the far side of the tree, behind the trunk, and some of the branches.  In general, the darkest values will be in the shadowed parts of the tree and lower to the ground, where sunlight may not be striking as much of the tree.   After blocking in the shadows deep within the tree, I may need to reestablish some of the elements of the trunk or branches.

Then I begin working towards the warmer mid-value colors, using the side of a pastel to create fan-like marks.  We still need to pay attention to the anatomy of the tree.  Are the ends of the branches moving upwards, horizontally, or drooping?

Developing the painting further.

In general, the needles (and any visible trunk or branches) will be lighter near the top of the tree where there is more light.  The light will not only lighten the needles, but also warm them in color.  I take this opportunity to consider adding some subtle accents of orange.  The addition of a dark or mid-value brownish orange into the green foliage will enliven the painting, adding some complementary color accents.  But you will also notice from your observation, there are orange accents already there.  You will discover them in pinecones, dead needles and within some areas of the trunk and branches.

To keep our conifers from looking like cookie cutter versions, we need to incorporate some sky holes.  Adding elements of sky color peaking through the foliage instills a sense of light and air. 

Adding more colour and detail.

I work on sky holes throughout the process of the painting.  Through observation, identify where points of light pass through the tree.  When observing a single conifer, there may not be many sky holes, being primarily around the periphery of the tree.  But if standing in a forest, underneath the canopy, you will be surrounded by sky holes.  There is generally more “air” in the center of a conifer since new needles are added at the ends of the branches. 

Back in my studio, I will make use of reference photos and these color studies to develop a painting.  By creating color studies, not only was I was able to “correct” the value and color errors made by the camera in painting “Stepping Onto Nature’s Stage” but I was able to spend a lovely day out in nature.  Not a bad way to combat cookie cutter conifers.

Completed conifer painting showing the variety of shapes in the trees.

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25 Responses

  1. Thank you for this wonderful ‘lesson’ ! I am trying hard with pastel but have had some tough times. Wish I could ‘loosen up’ a bit more but patience, trial and error are all part of the learning process.

    1. Pauline – You are absolutely correct. It’s all a learning process. First comes learning how to handle the medium. Learning how to actually use pastels. Then comes learning how to make the drawing or painting look like what you are painting. Then comes the opportunity to develop your own particular style and the ability to “loosen up.” It does take patience and trial & error. But what a wonderful journey it can be!

  2. Thank you Tracey for this informative lesson on trees. I need to pay more attention to differences and light. This will be a good resource.

    1. Jerri – Thank you Jerri. I’m very pleased you found this lesson helpful. Sometimes, seeing how others have navigated a learning process paves an easier path for ourselves.

    1. Thank you Rosemary. These little drawings were completed en plein air, with the purpose of creating color studies for future paintings. When I approach them as such, it allows me to work quickly, capturing the essence of the moment rather than getting lost in the details.

    1. Thanks David! I always appreciate your feedback. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve been working on lately.

  3. Thank you for the primer on evergreen trees! It’s what I have been looking for. And it totally makes sense out of it all.

  4. Thank you so much for your tips for painting conifers. They are one of my favourite trees and as you pointed out I tend to treat them as Christmas trees when drawing them. I will try much harder to finish with a three dimensional real life look.
    Thank you once again.

    1. Thank you Barbara! Enjoy your adventure discovering conifers! There are so many variations and personalities.

  5. Thanks, Tracey, for all your tips to make more realistic images of conifers with pastels. I am heading out today for a weekend in the woods. I will be taking my pastels and following your suggestions for color and avoiding cookie cutter trees.

  6. Thank you so much for this session. It definitely will help improve my conifers which I have not liked when following other artists who are more ‘free’ with their marks and ‘painterly’ approach. Just not me. I can see loosening up but I am headed to my easel to work on a couple of small studies and gain more confidence. Very helpful. And yes thank you Unison also
    !

    1. Jeanne – I understand. Mark-making, whether “painterly” or “controlled,” is highly personalized. And at the same time, both approaches can be perfection. I have painted at both extremes and have now settled somewhere in between. But what I have found, for myself and for many of my students, is that we tend to begin more controlled in our mark-making, particularly when we are first learning a new medium. But then as we become more comfortable and accomplished with that medium, we settle into our own personal style. And that is the beauty of pastels. We can use them to create anything from loose impressionistic paintings to hyper-realism. Enjoy creating your studies and mastering your own personal style!

    1. Thank you David! When it comes to pastels and to nature, yes, I am enthusiastic. And when I can combine both. it is truly a happy day!

  7. This lesson on conifers came just at the right time. I am trying to complete a tree line scene along the Michigan waterfront in Door County. I have been struggling to finish these trees and make them look natural. There is a mixture of deciduous and conifers along the rocky cliffs. I am now inspired with confidence to complete these trees once and for all. The step-by-step process Tracey laid out makes it look real easy. Thanks for the valuable lesson.

    1. Thank you Debra! Door County in Michigan has such incredible beauty and inspires so many artists. While this lesson specifically addressed conifers, the basic principles apply to constructing deciduous trees as well. Enjoy translating all that Michigan beauty into paintings!

  8. Огромное спасибо Трейси за бесценные советы по рисованию деревьев! Для меня рисование дерева самое трудное и непостижимое занятие. Бесконечная благодарность команде Unison за возможность узнать что-то новое для себя и знакомство с художниками!!!

    1. Natalya – First I would like to thank you. I used my Google Translate for the first time. And it worked! Wow! I am very happy that you found this lesson to be helpful and hopefully will make drawing trees less daunting for you.

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