How to Draw an Old Tree - Charcoal and Sepia Tones

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How to Draw an Old Tree

Capturing The Character of a Old Tree in a Drawing

Every living thing has its own personality and trees are no different. As artists, part of our duty is to capture the personality of the subject - the character of the entity - in our drawings. This can be a daunting task if we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed with details or become too obsessed with realism. But if we look for bits of visual information that can be exploited in the form of a drawing, then we're likely to capture the character, resulting in a drawing that is accurate while still telling a visual story.

When it comes to trees, the character is often found in the shapes, lines, values, and textures - the same things that we would look for if our goal was to create a photo-realistic drawing.

The following video demonstrates the process of drawing an old tree with charcoal and sepia tones. A step by step breakdown, details of the materials used, and more on drawing trees follows further down the page...

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Drawing with Charcoal and Sepia Tones

Charcoal, a black powdery medium from burnt organic material, and the reddish-brown tones of the color, sepia are a match "made in heaven". The earthy tones of any sepia material, whether it be pastel or conte, marry well with the rich darks produced by charcoal. And when you add a little white charcoal into the mix, a beautiful range of value and color can be achieved.

What is Sepia?

Simply put, sepia is a range of color from browns to reds. All sepia tones have a bit of earthy red and brown in them in varying degrees. Originally, sepia ink was widely-used as a writing ink in early Greek and Roman civilizations and was also used by artists - perhaps most famously, by Leonardo da Vinci.

Sepia tones are used in every artistic medium from photography to painting. They can be used as color enhancements in photos to make them appear older or as underpaintings. The softer tones produced by sepia colors add a touch of color to an otherwise monochromatic composition.

Sepia tones are often used alongside charcoal to soften the strong blacks produced the material. The reddish-browns also add a bit of color to the drawing, adding interest. Sepia tones are most effective when used for subjects that already have reds and brown in them naturally, such as portraits and landscapes.

How to Draw an Old Tree Step by Step

In this lesson, we're working on toned Stonehenge paper (Fawn, Vellum surface). Stonehenge papers are 100% cotton which results in a soft surface. Softer surfaces naturally produce a softer mark which may be preferred by some artists.

Related: How to Draw Trees with Pen and Ink

We'll begin by lightly drawing the contours of the tree with a Red Chalk pencil from the Gioconda pencil line from Koh-i-noor. Although this pencil is labeled as a "chalk" pencil, it feels and behaves like an oil pencil.

The marks at this stage are light and loose as we try to find the boundaries of the subject. The most important element at this stage is the core of the trunk and the branches of the tree. We'll also exaggerate the contours a bit, making them bumpier. This will add some character to the tree and make it appear a bit older.

Drawing the trunk of the tree

It may be helpful to think of the branches as tubes or cylinders. It's easy to add branches that extend from the edges of the trunk, but some of these should bend and turn towards and away from the viewer. Drawing the branches in this manner adds depth.

Draw the branches as tubes

Once the contours are loosely sketched, we can enhance the line quality. Line quality refers to the thickness or thinness of the line. There should be some variety here. Generally, portions of the tree that are thicker can be defined by a thicker line. This means that we can revisit the core of the trunk and make the lines that define it a little thicker.

Enhancing line quality on the tree trunk

Now that the contours are in place, we can start to develop the texture on the trunk of the tree. Mostly, this texture is defined by line applications. The directional lines that we add here are important and should flow with the form of each section of the tree. Lines that flow over the form of the subject are referred to as "cross contour lines". It's important to point out that the texture of the tree changes throughout. In some areas the lines are predominantly straight, while in other locations the lines may be made up of smaller circles.

Now we're ready to begin addressing the value range. Value is the darkness or lightness of a color. Value communicates the form and texture of the subject. We'll start by applying an application of white charcoal over the majority of the tree. By doing this, we can preserve the lighter areas before developing the darker ones. The stroke of the mark should be considered here as well. Just like in the last step, we'll make marks that flow with the cross contours.

Adding white charcoal to the tree

We'll begin introducing darker tones and midtones with a Sepia Light pencil from the Gioconda line. This pencil is powdery and behaves in a similar manner as a pastel pencil. Since the light source originates from the upper left, darker tones are concentrated on the right side of the tree. However, since the tree is curved, some darker tones are also found on the left side. Again, strokes applied with the pencil flow with the cross contours.

Developing darker tones on the tree

Before going even darker, the white charcoal pencil can be used to soften areas where the contrast may be too demanding.

Now we can push the darker tones with a charcoal pencil. We shouldn't cover the applications made with the Sepia Light pencil completely, but instead focus on the locations where the value should be very dark. Again theses locations exist on either side of the tree, but are more dominant on the side opposite from the light source.

Adding shadows to a tree

We can now go back with a sharpened white charcoal pencil and enhance the highlights further. This broadens the range of value and increases the contrast. Edges are then refined and blacks deepened using a Negro pencil.

Adding highlights to the tree

We can then fill in loose indications of leaves and grass at the bottom of the tree and throughout the canopy using a combination of the white charcoal pencil and Negro pencil to complete the image.

Drawing of an old tree

While the combination of charcoal and sepia tones can be used for any subject, they work best when applied to those that naturally contain reddish earth tones like our tree. The process is quick without sacrificing much control. And when it comes to drawing trees and capturing their character, focus on the basic shapes, lines, and textures - exaggerating them when possible.

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