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How to Draw Foliage with Colored Pencils

Let’s take a look at how to draw foliage today.

The topic comes in response to a reader asking how to draw the leaves on a tree.

How to Draw Foliage with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Foliage

The first thing I want to mention is that unless you’re drawing one or two leaves as a study or part of a still life, it’s best not to draw leaves on a tree. Instead, draw the shape of the tree. Drawing individual leaves on a tree is a fast track to frustration and discouragement. Don’t do it!

“So what do I do?”

I’m glad you asked!

Two Simple Principles

There two simple principles to consider when it comes to drawing trees.

First, rather than looking at leaves, consider the overall shape of the tree. Don’t draw individual leaves; draw the shapes that make up the tree.

Second, focus on the values within that shape.


Everything in the world can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes. Circles, squares, and triangles. Circles can be squeezed into ovals, and squares can be stretched into rectangles or twisted into other four-sided shapes. Triangles are pretty much always triangles, but they can take a number of different configurations.

So the first thing to do is look at the overall shape of the tree you want to draw.

The trunks are usually some form of rectangle, with smaller rectangles as branches. The canopy of the tree (the leafy part) is usually some type of circle or oval at it’s most basic, but it can also be broken down a collections of shapes.

In this illustration, I’ve very roughly sketched the shapes of a few of the trees. You can include more detail if you wish, but the idea is to keep the first step simple. All you need is the basic shape of the tree and its size and position relative to the other trees in the composition.

NOTE: I don’t usually do detailed line drawings of landscapes. Instead, I’d sketch these shapes directly onto my drawing, then develop details as I work. The reason is that my landscape art usually takes on a life of its own as I work out values and add color. Landscapes are also not portraits, so they don’t need to be exact.


The thing that makes a shape (circle, square or triangle) into form (something that takes up space) is values. Light areas and dark areas.

These light and dark areas reveal how light falls on the shape. The parts of the shape facing the light are getting direct light. The parts of the shape facing away from the light are getting very little light. In between is a variety of lighter or darker values known as middle values.

Values are just as important with trees as with anything else you might want to draw.

What makes trees look so complex is that they have so many different, smaller shapes within the larger shape. At first glance, they can look too complicated to draw, but use the same principle of values with each of the smaller shapes as with a larger shape and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to make trees look real.

How I Draw Foliage

I draw foliage pretty much the same way I draw anything else. I begin by establishing the shadows within the shape.

Then I continue layering color until the darks are as dark as they need to be to make the lighter values stand out. If I started with an umber under drawing, I do a lot of this work before adding any color. If I start with the local colors, I use light pressure and sometimes lighter shades of the colors I want on the finished drawing.

As I layer, I also develop detail. With each layer, I add a little more detail, breaking the larger shapes down into smaller and smaller shapes.

The only individual leaves I actually draw are around the edges of the main tree and I usually add them with blunt pencils, firm pressure, and stippling (tapping) or random (scribbling) strokes. That’s usually enough to make the tree look like a tree.

Don’t stress too much over drawing every leaf unless you’re goal is hyper-realism.

Then you really do need to draw every leaf!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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