How To Paint Trees For Beginners- 3 Easy Plein Air Tips

terry ouimet plein air painting telluride co

Written ByTerry Ouimet

Plein Air Oil Painter, specializing in mountain landscapes


February 27, 2022


So you’re struggling with plein air painting  trees and could use some helpful techniques?

I’m going to give you 3 easy and actionable tips to paint better trees en plein air , regardless of your style.


Tip #1  Avoid Too Much Contrast Between Light & Shadow


Keep the VALUES of the shadow and light sides of the tree somewhat close or the tree will not look realistic, unless you are painting at sunrise or sunset like I am in this painting below when there are extreme contrasts between light and shadow due to the position of the sun.

We see the light and shadow on a tree as polar opposites or more extreme than it actually is but in reality when we glance out at our plein air scene. Trees are darker than they appear -even the light side. And, the two values are not that as far apart as we think. Plus if your tree touches the sky you want to make sure you maintain that natural contrast between the darker tree, and the lighter sky.

So gray them down a bit, add some alizarin crimson, cadmium orange or cadmium red light (and more than you think) on your palette. Your green mixture will look almost gray or even a brownish green gray and that’s ok, it will look correct on your canvas when its surrounded by other colors and values that are properly executed.

terry ouimet plein air painting telluride co

Terry Ouimet, 20″x16″ plein air


Tip #2  Include The Halftone Color


You need at least threee parts to a tree canopy if you want it to appear realistic and not look amateur; light, shadow and halftone. Many beginner plein air artists have no idea what a halftone is and therefore are really not able to paint great looking trees.

The halftone is the actual color of the tree inbetween the shadow and the light sides of the tree. On the light side of the tree you have washed out color-be careful not to blast it with too much vibrancy by reaching for cadmium yellow and ultramarine blue every time. It’s usually not that brilliant of a color unless the sun is low as I mentioned earlier. So, the halftone is unaffected by shadow or light washout and helps understand how light spreads or moves over an object.









For me , I recommend painting these 3 elements of light in the foreground trees only. If you are painting trees in the distance, the middleground and back round trees should have very little definition and therefore don’t need the halftone,  and they should be described only by shape, value and temperature with no edgwork.

Tip #3  Focus On Design, Not Leaves


Focus on the simple gesture of the tree. At first just look at it as a shape, with no light and shadow like a silhouette or a black construction paper cutout. Which way is it leaning or reaching ? Describe it. Where does it puff out? Show that. How is the canopy shaped on the different sides? Catch that impression as opposed to every leaf.

Keep it abstract and simple (but designed well ) until the very end. Put a few hints of leaves or branches and let the viewers eyes find the rest. Your viewers’ brain will fill in the gaps and know that it’s a tree and it won’t be dependent on the number of leaves that you paint if you’ve done your job with value and temperature.

If you want to see me in a video explain all these points plus a bonus tip, click this link to my YouTube channel after reading this post.

YouTube, How To Paint Trees For Beginners

How to paint trees for beginners, Terry Ouimet

Don’t over branch it, it will look overdone. Don’t let your brush touch the canvas unless you have a specific plan for that stroke, so don’t over noodle it or detail it to death.

So, save the lines on the leaves and branches for the very end of the painting, if you know what I mean. In fact don’t put them in at all. Less is more unless you paint in a realist style. For me, I like to keep my trees abstract if I can , until 80% of the painting is done and then I add a few finishing details.

Use these techniques that I’m about to show you on your next painting and start making some beautiful tree paintings

If you would like to watch my YouTube videos plein air painting in the gorgeous mountains of Colorado, click here below.

Learning Plein Air YouTube channel

Learning Plein air YouTube Channel

Consider subscribing to the channel if you want to join our rapidly growing community of beginner plein air oil painters, we would love to have you!


I’ll see you up in the mountains.

Terry Ouimet


Plein Air Painting For Beginners-The#1 Thing

Plein Air Painting For Beginners-The#1 Thing

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