There you are sketching a forest landscape, drawing one tree after another. You have been drawing trees for the last fifteen minutes and are growing impatient. Your hiking partners are getting antsy too. You begin to wish the forest would end so you can wrap up and head down the trail but you are only one-quarter of the way through the forest. You begin to draw the trees fast, sloppy and more spaced apart and do not like what you see. There must be a better way. There is.
The trick to drawing a forest is not to draw the trees. That’s right, you draw the forest. There are a few places, such as the edge along the skyline or a few isolated trees at the edge of the forest where you can clearly pick out individual trees but throughout most of the forest the branches of trees intermingle and make a mass of branches with deep shadows between trees. Lets look at how we create this effect step by step.
As with most of my drawings, I begin with a pale erasable non-photo blue pencil line that blocks in the basic shapes of the major elements of my drawing. That way when I am trying to draw the details of a tree line, I do not need to worry about where it goes or how long it should be. These decisions have already been made. You make your job easier if you can break down the number of thing you must consider at one time.
Now I carefully draw in the shape of the upper edge of the forest suggesting individual trees. This part of the drawing requires a little care. Look carefully at the treeline. different species of conifers make very different shapes. Avoid symmetrical tree tops that look like dragon teeth. Vary the spacing, height, fullness, and shape as you go along.
The next step is to do the same for the foreground elements, here some smaller trees and willows at the forest edge. These trees will stand in brighter sunlight. Instead of drawing the shape of these trees, I draw around them. Compare the shape of the right hand tree with the trees suggested in the skyline above it.
Now shade in the face of the forest with horizontal strokes. Toward the top of the forest edge, darken the strokes so that they absorb the line you used to create that edge. There should be no line at the edge of the trees.
The next step is really important and is the secret to drawing the forest. You are going to hang downward facing triangles of dark shadow from the treeline. These are the shadows between trees and they will carve the shapes of the trees between them. Give these arrows rough, stepped edges to suggest layers of branches. Let the triangles get darker as you work your way down. This will suggest deepening shadow. It helps to use a dull, broad pencil to avoid too many lines.Vary the width and height of these triangles. Just as you try to avoid symmetry in creating the treeline, the trick here is to be consistently inconsistent.
If your shadows are very dark but the surrounding mass of trees is light, these shadows read as positive shapes instead of settling in as shadows between the trees. They will feel like carrots suspended from the treeline. To resolve this problem, make the value of the rest of the trees darker. As you bring the values together, the forest will start to unify and the shadows will drop back to negative shapes, leaving the positive shapes of the light trees.
Now add shadows and details to the foreground elements. In this drawing I suggested shadows and branching at the base of the willows and small trees. On conifer on the right, I punched some holes through the foliage to the trees behind. Note how it is now the white shape, not the dark line around it that reads as the tree. This is why we outlined the tree at the start.
The background trees were created the same way with two key differences. First they were shaded with vertical strokes, rather than horizontal to suggest trees rather than branches. They also are lighter in value and with less or a range of values to suggest depth.
This approach to drawing a forest is fast, efficient, and does a great job of suggesting the deep woods. However, it is not the only way to draw a forest. It is not the right way to draw a forest. It is just one way of drawing a forest that works really well for me. Experiment with these techniques, adopt them if you like them, and blend them into your own way of drawing.