How to Draw a Forest Background the Easy Way

So many people find drawing a forest intimidating but as we will see it’s far easier than you think. If you want to learn how to draw a forest background, this post will show you how to make your forest drawing look convincing.

Draw forest backgrounds in the far distance as one unified shape. Lighten the tone to add depth to the drawing. Erase gaps in the foliage. Shade the canopy, don’t draw the leaves. Vary the slant of the tree trunks and make them slightly wider at the base.

Sounds easy enough in theory but how does it stack up in practice? Let’s find out how to draw forest backgrounds in the simplest way.

How to Draw a Forest Background in the Far Distance

All landscapes are shaped by the light, and that changes throughout the day and according to the season. Winter trees under a low sun with long shadows are going to look very different from a leafy forest at the height of summer.

Given the obvious variables, drawing a forest background on the horizon line will conform to a pattern. I’m reluctant to say ‘rules’, let’s call them guidelines.

Typically, a line, or bank of trees, will appear to the naked eye as one mass. The individual features are lost in the whole. The canopy line can be disjointed and broken, but the tonal values will remain the same.

Distant trees will generally be more convincing when the tonal values are lightened.

The line of forest trees can be rendered in different ways according to your medium. A thin canopy line may be enough for a pen and ink sketch, while a wall of halftone would look more convincing using a pencil.

Interesting trees are not neat and tidy, they are irregular and broken. It looks far more realistic to have a bank of trees interspersed with taller or stand-alone specimens.

Solid shapes may appear in the skyline, but any trees within a reasonable distance, close enough to discern some detail, will have gaps in the canopy. Adding a few holes in the foliage and stray branches will add authenticity to the forest.

Don’t be a slave to reality. If a solid line of forest trees looks better with breaks, add them. Call it artistic license. You are not drawing reality, you are drawing an illusion of reality and the public loves the romance, so give it to them.

How to Draw a Forest as a Backdrop

Drawing a forest background or backdrop will require a more thoughtful approach. The emphasis must still be on defining the silhouette but now you’ll need to strive for more accuracy. Take the tiger drawing below as a good example.

Tiger drawing with a forest background
‘Daybreak’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

The forest background was fabricated to look real. The real setting was quite different. I wanted her to stand out more so I thought I’d take her out of the jungle and onto the forest edge.

At first, I drew some trees just from my imagination. They were OK but it occurred to me that they may not look anything like authentic rainforest trees.

I flicked through some references and realized that the main difference between my imagined trees and the real ones was the amount of foliage hanging from the tree trunks. With a few minor adjustments, the background forest looked much better.

You will also note how I’ve used an eraser to remove some larger gaps in the leaves. It was all guesswork but by imagining how the branches splayed out and reduced in width as they rise to the top, I’ve made the trees look real.

You can also see how I’ve used a blunt pencil to highlight the grain in the paper. I haven’t drawn any leaves but you still have the leafy impression. Can you see how I’ve used random cross-hatching to shade the trees? It works to give them a faraway out-of-focus feel.

Background forest trees in pencil.

The tone is also fairly flat. It darkens towards the base as it transitions into the more detailed forest floor. In truth, I was in two minds how to do this. I could just as easily have lightened this area and implied a mist. It might have looked better, who knows? Too late now.

How to Draw a Forest Tree

I drew this tree almost 30 years ago. The tree is still very pleasing after all these years although I should ditch the figure.

It looks complicated but it wasn’t at all. When you break it down, it’s just a few major shapes in high contrast.

Single forest tree pencil sketch
How to draw a forest tree

There are a couple of simple tree trunks and a block of very dark foliage. Only one very small cluster of leaves is highlighted. Look how the cast shadow over the tree trunks contrasts against the much lighter bark.

Notice how the top of the dead tree on the right stands out against the darkest shadow and as your eye moves up the main tree, it splits into two huge pillars and lights up against the foliage. The twin branches disappear into the shadowed crown and lose definition.

The shadows work well. They are dark on the edges and lighter in the middle. They make the tree look 3D.

I’ve used soft graphite pencils. It was a long time ago but I can be pretty sure that the tree was drawn with a 3B.

I saw this beautiful tree in Flores Indonesia, in 1990. No doubt this was a remnant tree from the forest that existed there sometime in the past. I wonder if it’s still there. I hope so.

How to Draw Background Winter Trees

I haven’t drawn background winter trees in ink for many years but no matter because Arthur Rackham drew trees in ink better than I ever did.

Three pen and ink drawings of background trees by Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham

He loved to play around with the twisting forms of winter trees. Although his illustrations are stylized and mostly appeared in children’s books they ooze atmosphere and assured skill.

He used bolder lines for the foreground trees and used a lighter touch with thinner lines for the background trees. He simplified everything. You can see how he refrained from adding every twig and branch. He has drawn only those details that convey the message.

You can also see how he liked to mirror the sweeping curves of his trees with an undulating horizon. It all comes together as a whole. Brilliant

Drawing of a shetland pony behind a winter tree and dappled shade.
An early drawing of a Shetland pony and tree by Kevin Hayler

My drawing of the winter tree above is not simplified enough. it’s a classic example of being wed to the truth. I should’ve improvised more. That said, I did move the pony behind the tree, it was originally standing to one side.

Winter trees are more atmospheric than trees in full leaf. They have an abstract appeal that Arthur Rackham used to full effect.

How to Draw a Forest Background in an Interesting Way

I’ve mentioned how erasing gaps in between the foliage brings the silhouette to life but there are a few more tricks to add some interest.

Don’t Be a Slave to the Truth

In many ways, perfection and truth are your enemies. It is so easy to get blinded and become a slave to reality. This is particularly true when you work from photographic references.

The skill is in bending the truth to suit the drawing.

When you are in the field it’s easy to step to one side and look around an object that gets in your way. You simply pretend the obstacle wasn’t there. Removing an object in a photo, on the other hand, leaves a blank space and it seems easier just to draw it in.

When it comes to drawing background forests and landscapes, you are almost obliged to edit the scenes. Was there ever a perfect view that didn’t involve finding a convoluted angle or perspective? And there’s always something in the way.

Parked cars, road signs, pylons, and now wind farms ruin the view. You name it, the modern world steps in and trashes the scenery.

Here in the south of England where I live, most of the tumble-down old buildings have long been renovated and the country lanes are neatly tarmacked. There is precious little remaining in the way of genuine rustic charm.

That’s why artistic license should be your constant companion. You have full permission to correct the damage.

Further Reading: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting

We want the countryside that was there in our youth. If that means leaving things out, adding things in, and shifting things around, so what?

Does anyone really think John Constable really saw ‘The Hay Wain’ as perfectly as he painted it? Of course not, it’s a contrivance. We in the modern world must do the same and then go further.

Constables the Hay Wain
‘The Hay Wain’ by John Constable

Add, Subract, and Fabricate

The key to making a landscape interesting is to remove the perfection. Straight lines and perpendiculars are soulless. Get rid of them

No one wants a lollipop tree, manicured and pruned to death. They want a beautifully twisted tree, knarled, and leaning over.

If it isn’t interesting, just cheat a bit.

One of the easiest things you can do is tilt the trees. A dull scene can spring into life just because you played around with a few slanting verticals. Give them some jaunty swagger.

No dead branches? add them, no owl holes? put them in, wrong light? change it!

And don’t stop there, if you find that perfect clump of trees in the wrong place, move them over if the composition demands it. Be creative and adapt. JMW Turner didn’t worry about the truth and it shouldn’t worry you.

I can understand that some artists might be reticent about changing a rural scene too much. A local view has got to resemble the real thing after all, especially if it’s a classic landmark. There is, however, no such constraint drawing a forest background in the wild.

If anything you will have to go into reverse. True wilderness is a delightful mess and you will have to remove some natural clutter, open up the views, and simplify the scene. Some selective logging might be necessary.

How to Draw Forest Reflections in the Background

Forest reflections are not so difficult. When in doubt there is a simple rule of thumb that usually works.

Darks reflect lighter and lights reflect darker

It generally holds true. It’s so convincing that you can add a fictitious lake to a scene and make the reflections look totally genuine. When I first started to paint for a living and needed some extra cash, I would do just that. I knew how to paint trees and reflections without any references. I could paint it by formula.

pastel landscape with a background forest
A simple pastel sketch with background trees by Kevin Hayler

A distant bank of trees can be flipped over and the mirror image is drawn without detail. All you have to remember is to flip the trees from the base, wherever they are in the landscape.

Further Reading: How to Draw Water

In other words, if the trees are set back from the riverbank and there is some land in between, only part of the forest reflection will be visible in the water.

Reflections start at the base of an object

You don’t have to reinvent a landscape you can flood it. I used to live in a valley that would flood every winter. The trees, fences, and farm gates would stand in a foot of water for days or even weeks at a time. The reflections were magical.

How to Create Depth With a Forest Background

Drawing a background forest can frame a subject and give it context. There’s usually but not always, a central feature in a drawing, and the rest of the picture compliments the focal point and provides a compositional balance.

Ideally, your background forest trees will recede seamlessly into the distance. There are two classic ways to indicate depth, progressively lighter tones, and smaller sizes.

As trees disappear towards the horizon they generally haze over. You can use this rule to your advantage. Background trees might be confused in real life but when you draw in the main shapes you can deliberately exaggerate the closer trees by making them darker.

Build complex shapes up in layers from light to dark.

As a rule, trees will look smaller in the distance, always bearing in mind that some trees on the same horizon line will grow bigger. You have to draw what you see and not just what you know to be true.

The illusion of depth can also be achieved with silhouettes. There is no need to add so much detail to the leaves in distant trees, sometimes it is better to indicate the tree in profile with simple shading.

Further Reading: How to Create Depth in Your Drawing

Photographers are particularly keen to photograph trees silhouetted in fog. You don’t have to wait for a foggy day to create the same effect, you can contrive it.

Drawing distant trees in pastel presents the added problem of using color. As a rule, adding a blue cast to distant trees will make them recede into the background.

In certain conditions, distant trees will have a purple tint. Be careful, purple is a strong color and contains red. Mute the color with grey.

Art Materials for Drawing Forest Backgounds

Drawing Pencils

I use Derwent 3B, B, HB, 2H, and 4H. They are the standard drawing pencils I want to have ready.

I also use Pentel 0.3mm 2B, B, HB, 2H, and 4H leads. I rarely use the wider grades but that is only because my drawings are on the small side and there is no need.

First and foremost, I’m a graphite artist and that’s my real area of expertise. I use both Derwent graphic pencils and Pentel mechanical pencils. They are my preference but don’t feel that they are essential.

Buy a good pencil brand and stick with them. Buy a brand of pencils that supply individual pencils. The last thing you need is to run out of a grade and be forced to buy a new set just to replace one item.

If I didn’t use Derwent I would buy Staedtler or Faber-Castell. They are available all over the world.

I chose Pentel mechanical pencils because they were reasonably priced. They have a wide range of leads but you must remember that each grade and width of lead requires a separate pencil holder.

This can get expensive but you only need to buy them once. After that, you are only buying lead refills. I used to have a reliable supply locally but as with so much in life these days, I have been forced to buy replacements online in the last few years.

Further Reading: How to Draw With Mechanical Pencils?

In general, I use softer grades to draw the foliage. As the forest recedes into the distance I use a combination of a lighter touch and harder grades.

On occasion, I will also use a 4B or 6B graphite stump. I use them to brush the surface and create random grainy patterns. They simulate twigs and foliage. Use them sparingly because they don’t erase well and leave graphite shine.

Pencil Erasers

I mainly use a kneadable (putty) eraser. Not so much for erasing mistakes, more for lifting out the texture. Likewise, I use Blu-Tak to dab at the graphite, it kneads to a fine point and lifts off tone cleanly. You don’t rub with Blu-Tak.

For fine lines, I use a Tombo-Mono eraser pen.

Further Reading: How to Draw White Lines

For precision erasing I use a Jakar battery eraser. I use them to lift out gaps in the canopy. They are the best erasers for restoring the paper surface back to its original state.

Pencil Sharpeners

I use a standard pencil sharpener. I will use a blade sometimes but I don’t require a long lead for my techniques. It’s a matter of preference.

I do use a small sheet of ‘Wet and Dry’ fine sandpaper to keep the tip sharp. I will twist a nib over the surface every few minutes. It’s a good habit to get into.

I also use the same sandpaper for my Pentel pencils, but this time I use them to chamfer the nib. For the most part, I use the flat plane of the chamfer to draw. If I need a razor-sharp line I will twist the end and use the tip.

Drawing Paper

I like using a fine-tooth cartridge because it’s a good all-rounder. The tooth binds the graphite and you can get a rich dark line. It also allows you to create very smooth blended tones, ideal for clouds and still water.

Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing?

I use Canson Mi-Teintes paper if I want a rougher feel. The advantage of using coarse paper is instant texture. Tree foliage will look authentic instantly as your graphite highlights and extenuates the grain.

A tinted paper is a good option. I used a mid-grey Canson Mi-Teintes for my pastel landscapes. Strathmore makes a great mid-grey drawing paper in their 400 and 500 series. They are ideal for sketching and adding white highlights.

I don’t use Bristol board but many artists seem to love it. If you don’t already know, Bristol board is perfectly smooth and has no tooth, or grain, whatsoever. It’s possible to blend graphite with a subtlety almost impossible to achieve with other papers.

I don’t use it because, without a grain, I can’t create textural effects and the graphite doesn’t bind to the surface. The lines are pale and it’s hard to make rich dark tones. It is however suited to pen and ink and if that is your preferred medium it could be the best paper for you.

In the days that I drew with pen and ink. I drew on a Daler illustration board with a ‘Not’ surface.

Let me explain the jargon. Hot-pressed paper is smooth watercolor paper, and ‘not’ indicates that it’s not smooth. It’s a convoluted way of saying it has texture.

I like to draw on fine-grained paper and the board takes watercolor washes

Conclusion

The best bit about drawing trees, including drawing a forest background in a landscape, is how forgiving it is when things go wrong. You have endless scope for making errors. You can change and alter anything you like. No one will ever know or care.

When I painted landscapes, years ago, I couldn’t walk in the countryside without seeing new landscapes, and potential pictures, everywhere. You’ll never be short of ideas.

Further Reading: How Do Artists Get Their Ideas?

If you’re a beginner, there is no better way of building your confidence than to start by drawing trees in a landscape. Not only will your drawing skills not be so critical, but also your compositions will improve immeasurably.

Whatever your level, I hope this article has given you a fresh insight into creating convincing trees and forest backgrounds.



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