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How to draw a Gnarled Oak

Draw Like a Boss - illustration

How do you draw a tree that stands out in a forest, commanding attention with its unique character and energetic presence? In this tutorial, I'll attempt to demystify the process, making drawing trees as easy as possible. From the intricate details of leaves to the sturdy branches that weave stories of resilience, I'll guide you step by step through one really good process of creating a realistic tree portrait with just a pencil.


There's an abundance of complexity here, but I have also embraced the simplicity of making this about a single, fairly big tree amid a blurred and relatively simple backdrop. Let's get on with exploring the techniques borrowed from portrait drawing, adapting them to bring out the gnarled branches, folds, and textures that breathe life into the drawing. 


To depict this majestic ancient oak tree, I begin by outlining a chaotic shape that will serve as the foundation for the trunk. Once the outline is established, I focus on delineating the inner shapes, allowing me to develop a clear understanding of the tree's underlying structure. This initial step lays the groundwork for adding value and creating a sense of depth in the artwork.


By defining the shape of the trunk, we establish a solid starting point for the overall composition. As I delve into the inner shapes, I gradually build a visual blueprint that guides me in adding value and texture to the tree. This strategic approach enables me to plan and execute the shading process effectively.


Creating a realistic representation of a tree requires careful observation and attention to detail. By mapping out the internal shapes, I gain insight into the tree's anatomy and how light interacts with its various components. This, in turn, informs the subsequent steps of adding value and refining the details of our artwork.


Let's move forward and explore the next stages of bringing this ancient oak tree to life, as we delve deeper into the process of adding value and infusing our artwork with a sense of dimension.


In the second step, I employ loose lines created with a 3B pencil to initiate the process of blocking in the values. These preliminary lines serve as the foundation for establishing the overall tonal distribution in our artwork.


Taking advantage of the loose lines, I interlock hatches to create large blocks of value.


I also pay attention to the smaller shadows, but these are less of a priority right now.


Next, I utilize a smudge stick blender to gently move graphite material across the larger areas of the drawing. It is important to exercise caution and avoid applying excessive pressure. The objective is to diminish the distracting white paper value to a certain extent.

The smudge stick blender not only helps reduce the white paper value but also introduces a captivating sense of texture to the drawing. As I gently maneuver the smudge stick over the graphite, it blends and smears the marks, creating subtle variations and adding depth to the overall composition. This technique lends a touch of realism and tactile quality to the artwork, enhancing the visual experience for the viewer.


Continuing from the blended area, I employ the 3B pencil to add smooth and simple shadows on top. This step further refines the framework of light and dark areas, allowing me to gain a clear understanding of the drawing's progress. With a visible sense of what is effective and what needs adjustment, my confidence grows—a vital aspect as I venture into the next phase of the artwork.


In retrospect, I realize the usefulness of the chisel-tipped pencil for quickly blocking in shadows. Incorporating this tool earlier in the process would have saved considerable time, as it excels at efficiently establishing large areas of value in a single stroke. Its effectiveness in creating broad swaths of shading is a valuable lesson learned for future drawings.


The 4B mechanical pencil comes into play to accentuate the craggy details. By working over the rough shadow foundation already established, I can effectively stay on track and maintain consistency throughout the drawing. This approach ensures that the intricate textures and rugged features of the subject are brought to life with precision and clarity.


The process of creating intricate details continues until the entire trunk is covered with fine lines. It is crucial to work in a manner that prevents the picture from appearing flat. Therefore, it's important to keep the concept of a cylinder in mind while working. Not all the details should receive the same level of focus. The ones near the edges of the trunk should be slightly fuzzier, creating a sense of depth and adding dimension to the drawing. By implementing this technique, we can achieve a more realistic representation of the tree's texture and form.


Meticulous attention is given to ensure that even the smallest details align consistently with the top right light source. While a strong and well-organized picture may tolerate a few minor inconsistencies in the smaller details, it is best to minimize these hiccups as much as possible. By maintaining consistency throughout the artwork, we enhance its overall quality and create a more harmonious and cohesive final result.


When drawing from my imagination, I frequently employ a back-and-forth technique. This involves darkening certain areas and then lightening them with erasers to achieve the ideal balance of darkness in the drawing.


A key focus of mine is to convey the sense that the tree is a rounded object. By reinforcing the outlines in this region, I create a visual effect where the lighter section just below appears to recede into the background, enhancing the impression of the tree occupying three-dimensional space.


Maintaining the rounded form of the tree is essential in evoking depth and realism. Through careful manipulation of the outlines, I can emphasize the curvature and shape, imbuing the drawing with a sense of dimensionality.


By employing this interplay between darkening and lightening techniques and prioritizing the three-dimensional nature of the subject, I strive to strike the perfect balance and bring forth a captivating and lifelike representation of the tree.


More demos like this can be found  in DLAB 2! 

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