How to Draw A Forest

Part one: Seeing the wood for the trees

Look for depictions of forests in art and you won’t find many. Sure, there are plenty of landscapes with trees. But look closer and you’ll notice there are only a few trees, probably to one side of the picture, and the rest is open country. Or it is a parkland, some type of woodland, with scattered trees, not a forest. And in many pictures, the trees are just scenery, just background to the main subject of the painting – be that people, or a building, mountain or water feature. In many paintings the trees are decapitated – you might see the base of the tree, but the canopy is cut off. We would never depict a person like this, if we wanted to paint their portrait. Why is it that trees, and especially forests, get treated this way?

A few years ago I was engaged to write management guidelines for a range of Queensland forests and woodlands (e.g. rainforests, eucalypt woodlands, mulga and brigalow). The guidelines would describe the ecology of each vegetation type and outline how to restore these systems for carbon farming and wildlife conservation. This was part of the CATER project (Carbon Accumulation Through Ecosystem Recovery), back in a more enlightened time when the Federal and State governments took climate change a bit more seriously, and were willing to invest in innovative projects to tackle it.

I like to express concepts in pictures as well as words, so as I reviewed the literature, and drafted the guidelines, I looked for images of the forests and woodlands I was writing about. I found very few good photographs and almost no drawings or paintings of these types of Australian vegetation. And I found this rather curious.

Of course, when we humans, at our pitiful height of 1.5 – 2 m, take pictures of forests, they are almost certainly distorted, with the bases of the trees huge and the canopies either shrunken or simply cut out of the photo. Usually the bases of one or a few trees block most of the picture. And that’s fine if we want a human-perspective view of the forest. But what if we want to capture the forest in its entirety? Or at least a range of trees, not distorted, from base to canopy?

To illustrate the ecology of each forest type I wanted to produce a state-and-transition diagram for each one. This shows the main ‘condition states’ of a forest – different successional stages if you like. Queensland has excellent vegetation mapping, including pre-European vegetation mapping, so for any given site we can determine what native vegetation used to grow there. My task was to describe how you could bring it back to the maximum-carbon and/or maximum biodiversity state (which are almost always the same thing). So I was looking for ways to illustrate these states visually, as well as in words. Co-writing these guides with me was my now good friend and ecologist extraordinaire, Don Butler. Which was just as well, because even though I had a thorough grounding in plant ecology and wildlife conservation, I was relatively new to Queensland. Don on the other hand, had spent many years exploring and mapping the vegetation we were writing about, so I would often ask him about a certain fact or theory I found in the literature, for a reality check. Don also understood the carbon-farming side of things a lot better than I did.

I ended up sketching some very simple profile diagrams of the forests and woodlands in felt-tip pen. 


You can find the finished guidelines through these links: Eucalypt woodlands, Eucalypt open-forests, Wet sclerophyll forest, Rainforest, Mulga, Brigalow

These pictures were intended to be a guide for the ‘professional artist’ we were going to employ to do the final illustrations. But since the CATER project was axed only halfway through its intended life (when the LNP government came to power in Queensland) this ‘professional artist’ was never employed. My sketchy pictures became the final product, and I am still a bit embarrassed by their simplicity and roughness. But although they could be far more polished, I still think they do a good job at conveying the information, and giving an impression of each forest or woodland type. 


But I was still left with the question – why don’t people paint forests? And I felt sad that our wonderful forests and woodlands – although many have been beautifully photographed over the years – still mostly end up depicted from the human, distorted perspective. I wanted to see them in their entirety, I wanted to look upon their different structures and textures, and colours and tree types. To compare the way the light passed through them, the way the trees were shaped, the differences in understorey: grassy, shrubby or a mixture of both. Although I could imagine this in my mind from the forests I had walked through, I couldn’t easily compare these differences by looking at the images I had found so far. And if a person had never visited these forests, how could they understand and appreciate their different forms, beauty and variety? So I decided that I would try to paint some forest portraits myself.

Part two: My first forest portrait

When it comes to doing art I’m largely self-taught (up until recently I would always hesitate to call myself an artist). But I do like a challenge. Trying to draw forest portraits would require me to brush up on everything I had ever learnt about colour and tone and whatever else goes into making a good picture. And I had very few examples of this type of picture – a forest ‘portrait’ – to go by. And perhaps most challenging of all, even though I wanted to make it as realistic as possible – with species that were recognisable to those who knew their plants – I would need to invent the picture.

As mentioned above, the human perspective of a forest is usually distorted because of our small size. To avoid this distortion, I couldn’t just draw the whole picture from real life, or from a photo – my forest portrait needed to be invented. I had to imagine I was viewing the forest without the distortion, as if I was sort of floating halfway up the trees and also looking at them from a distance, so I could capture their entire height. Of course, one can clearfell a forest to achieve that perspective, but needless to say, I wasn’t keen on such destruction. But I did make good use of road cuttings and elevation wherever I could, to increase my height with respect to the trees, so that I could try to reduce the distortion.

For some reason I started with the tallest forest type that exists in Australia – the wet sclerophyll forest, also known as tall open eucalypt forest. The mountain ash trees (Eucalyptus regnans) which dominate these forests in south-eastern Australia are the tallest flowering plants in the world. The tallest living specimen of a mountain ash is 99.6 m tall. In south-east Queensland (where I’m based) wet sclerophyll forest is dominated by other tree species – including the flooded or rose gum E. grandis, Sydney blue gum E. saligna and blackbutt E. pilularis. These species don’t grow as tall as the tallest mountain ash, but they can still grow up to 50 m in height. Here’s a simple profile sketch of wet sclerophyll forest that shows the type of forest I set out to draw:

Simple profile diagram of wet sclerophyll forest in south-east Queensland - by Paula Peeters

Simple profile diagram of wet sclerophyll forest in south-east Queensland – by Paula Peeters

The forest portrait would need to be a composite picture, made up of many separate impressions. So I went out to places in south-east Queensland, such as Bellthorpe State Forest, Brisbane Forest Park and Mount Mee, that still had patches of wet sclerophyll forest. Always with the lovely Ray, but once also as a volunteer with the Queensland Herbarium, assisting with their monitoring of the horse trails network (thankyou to Michael Ngugi for having us along). It was helpful to go out with botanists who knew the plant species much better than I did, and to ask them about typical forest assemblages and growth forms. I decided to focus on wet sclerophyll forest dominated by flooded gums. I took lots of photos, tried to estimate the dimensions of the trees, and scribbled many small sketches and notes. Here’s a few of them:

Then I took all of this back home and tried to transfer it to a large piece of pastel paper. I drew with soft pastels because they were the colour medium I’d worked with the most. They are forgiving if you make a mistake – usually you can just remove the pastel and start again. They also suited my work style – which was extremely slow, since I needed to do lots of thinking and imagining to invent my picture, and stop-start, since I also had a day job. But one of the drawbacks of pastels is that their resolution isn’t great – it’s hard to achieve fine detail.

It took about 9 days of working about 5 hours each day, spread over several weeks, to finish this first forest portrait. There was much trial-and-error, much contemplation, and many cups of tea. This is what I finally came up with:

Flooded gum forest - a type of wet sclerophyll forest - pastel on paper, by Paula Peeters (52 cm x 72 cm)

Flooded gum forest – a type of wet sclerophyll forest – pastel on paper, by Paula Peeters (52 cm x 72 cm)

Wet sclerophyll forests can be a bit gloomy, especially in south eastern Australia. But in Queensland they are often full of bright sunlight. I depicted mine with morning sun shining slantwise through the trees. These forests are usually in mountainous areas, so the picture has mountains in the background. The flooded gums are the tallest trees in the picture, but there are a number of other tree species in the understorey – I’ve labelled them in the figure below. I also made sure to put in important habitat features, like mistletoe, a dead standing tree with hollows, and woody debris on the forest floor. A human in the bottom left corner is included for scale, and is dwarfed by the towering trees.

Selected features of a wet sclerophyll forest dominated by flooded gums - by Paula Peeters

Selected features of a wet sclerophyll forest dominated by flooded gums – by Paula Peeters

Am I happy with the finished product? Yes and no.

No, because parts of it still look sketchy. Precise details are limited in places – which is a function of the pastels, the scale of the picture, and my limited technical skills. The picture looks naive, but this is ok because there is enough realism for the tree species to be recognisable.

But mostly yes. This picture makes me feel happy – I can’t say exactly why. Something about the tall majestic trees reaching up, the bright sunlight and vibrant colours, and the richness. It gives an impression, a glimpse, of a certain type of wet sclerophyll forest, in a certain type of light. And it’s a glimpse from a perspective that I’ve never had before.

But I was keenly aware that there were so many other types of forest, including more ‘flavours’ of wet sclerophyll forest. Now that I had done one portrait, I imagined how wonderful it would be to compare a series of them, side by side. I was itching to do more.


The story of Paula’s forest portraits (eight have been completed so far) continues on her website where you can purchase greeting cards, colouring books, and fine art prints: 

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