Before you begin: print this exercise out or access it on your digital device. Ideally, take it with
you as you go for a walk to observe a tree. The type of tree does not matter.
The exercise is simple: we will go on a walk, stop by a tree and go through a series of
questions about the tree. Together these questions and your answers should serve to
help you gain an understanding of the tree we are looking at, at a deeper, more detailed
level – this type of understanding is required to create a beautiful drawing of a tree, or
whatever else you choose to observe and draw.
The goal is to learn to observe things in more detail, on a deeper level, so that this
newfound knowledge can then be taken with us onto canvas or drawing pad. Overtime,
you will learn to observe everything in this way, always evaluating and analyzing objects
in our world for the best way to depict them on canvas.
Let’s observe a tree together:
We have been walking for some time and we have come up on a tree. Let’s look at the overall
for a moment and then consider each detail separately. Stand back and observe the overall
silhouette of the tree. But before we get lost in the wholeness of it, let’s begin to consider the
As Leonardo Da Vinci warned, deep observation must be done in steps. Look at each detail
- What is the shape of the tree? How big is the trunk compared to the branches?
- Can we group the branches, into big, medium and small? Or into medium and small? If you had to group them, how many groups would you make to both simplify and best represent the tree?
- Are some branches pointing up and some down? Why is that, is it because of the weight of the branches or the type of the tree? And what is the shape of the branches? More importantly, do they remind us of anything else in nature? What is the gesture, the main movement of the branches? What is the best way we can depict that movement on paper?
- Is the tree blooming, has it bloomed? Is it dying? Do you want to depict that aspect of the tree? Do we want to depict the stage of the cycle and it’s life, and what indicators would we need to draw to show that?
- How is the trunk entering the ground? Can we see some of the roots on the ground? Do you know how far the roots reach, and what does that say about the posture of the tree, does it impact how the tree stands?
- Is the tree healthy, is it hollow on the inside, and what visually tells us if it is and how
can we depict that?
- What is the color of the bark, are there changes in color throughout the tree, or is it
more or less the same tone? What is the texture of the bark? Is there a pattern to the
texture that we can relate to anything else in nature? How do we depict that pattern on
paper in a way that would be true to the spirit of the tree that we see?
- Is the bark stripped from the tree in some places? What are the colors of the inside of
the tree? Do we need to know about the inside of the tree to be able to draw
convincingly its appearance on the outside? Does the inside help us understand how the
branches connect to the trunk? Or how they weave out of the trunk? (yes and yes). Is
there a pattern to how the branches are extruded from the trunk? Is there a pattern we
can identify and follow on paper?
- Where is the sun or light coming from? Is it above us to the left or the right or behind
us? How does the position of the sun dictate how the tree is casting shadows from the
branches on itself and also on the ground?
- How does the time of the day dictate how long the shadows are? What is the difference
in tone between the shadow and the light of the tree, what are the major sections that
are in the shadow? How can we group shadows? Can we group them so that the
drawing does not look patchy, while keeping the spirit of what we see alive in our
drawing? Where are the darkest darks of the shadows? Where are the lightest lights of
the light areas?
- What simplification can we get away with without losing the major details of the tree
we are trying to depict? What can we get rid of to highlight and accentuate strong
design? What details can we exclude, and what details must be included?
How can you ask deeper, more meaningful questions about the visuals you are depicting? Did this exercise allow you to see a new level of detail you would not see unless you went through the questions?