Student Resource

Trees Exam Help

From atmosphere and symbolism to textures and abstract shapes, explore how trees have inspired artists

Menashe Kadishman, ‘[title not known]’ 1974
Menashe Kadishman
[title not known] 1974
© Menashe Kadishman, courtesy


Trees as a theme in art – pretty straightforward right? Think again … explore some the surprising ways artists have been inspired by trees and get some ideas of your own tree-themed project.

Trees Please!

Tacita Dean, ‘Majesty’ 2006
Tacita Dean
Majesty 2006
© Tacita Dean, courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

This is one of a series of ancient trees that artist Tacita Dean chose to photograph. It is one of the largest and oldest complete oak trees in England. Dean photographed the tree in high resolution and the photograph was printed and presented on a large scale, giving us the opportunity to examine its features in detail. She also painted out the landscape surrounding the tree with white paint, which makes us concentrate on its details without the distraction of the background. We look closely at the texture of its bark, the gnarled knuckles of its roots, the way its branches spread and feel that we 'get to know' the tree – in the way that we gaze at portraits of people to work out what they might be like. So this is a kind of tree portrait.

Alex Katz, ‘Green Shadow #2’ 1998
Alex Katz
Green Shadow #2 1998
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Alex Katz
Alex Katz, ‘3 PM, November’ 1997
Alex Katz
3 PM, November 1997
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Alex Katz

Alex Katz's representations of trees are very different. They look more like general impressions of trees, rather than lovingly composed individual 'portraits' as in Dean's studies. Katz's cropping of the images (with just the turnks showing or the branches coming in from the side of the picture) have a snapshot feel. They seem delicate, fragile and transient; captured for the patterns or shadows they create rather than to record the details of their features.

Whether detailed depictions of single trees or the impression of groups of trees in landscapes or woods, have a look at some of the ways artists have depicted trees in sketches, prints and paintings:

Paul Nash, ‘Black and white negative, a dead tree, Romney Marsh’ [c.1930–4]
Paul Nash
Black and white negative, a dead tree, Romney Marsh [c.1930–4]
Tate Archive
Thomas Hennell, ‘The Tree’ c.1938–40
Thomas Hennell
The Tree c.1938–40
Raoul Dufy, ‘Olive Trees by the Golfe Juan’ c.1927
Raoul Dufy
Olive Trees by the Golfe Juan c.1927
© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019
Henry Moore OM, CH, ‘Trees V Spreading Branches’ 1979
Henry Moore OM, CH
Trees V Spreading Branches 1979
© The Henry Moore Foundation. All Rights Reserved
Samuel Palmer, ‘A Church among Trees’ c.1830
Samuel Palmer
A Church among Trees c.1830
Chaïm Soutine, ‘Cagnes Landscape with Tree’ c.1925–6
Chaïm Soutine
Cagnes Landscape with Tree c.1925–6
John Downman, ‘A Tree’ 1773–4
John Downman
A Tree 1773–4
Sir Stanley Spencer, ‘Tree and Chicken Coops, Wangford’ 1925
Sir Stanley Spencer
Tree and Chicken Coops, Wangford 1925
© Estate of Stanley Spencer
Ian Hamilton Finlay, ‘Tree Shells’ 1975
Ian Hamilton Finlay
Tree Shells 1975
© Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay

Trees feature in Peter Doig’s landscapes. Figures and buildings in his work are often partially viewed through tree branches or surrounded by a forest of trees. It is the trees that create the essential, often eerie, atmosphere of his paintings and prints.

Trees with Atmosphere

Peter Doig, ‘Concrete Cabin’ 1996
Peter Doig
Concrete Cabin 1996
© Peter Doig
Peter Doig, ‘Red House’ 1996
Peter Doig
Red House 1996
© Peter Doig
Peter Doig, ‘Daytime Astronomy’ 1997
Peter Doig
Daytime Astronomy 1997
© Peter Doig

Martin Boyce's neon trees in his installation from ‘Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours’ 2002 also evoke a sense of atmosphere. The scene looks like a park with its typical simple park-like bench and wire bin. The lit-up trees, which are suspended so they hover just above the floor, create a mood of magic but also sadness. Boyce commented that he wanted to suggest:

... that same feeling, of a space you might have occupied as a teenager, that place you find for yourself. Exterior spaces like a park at night. The kind of urban park, that gap between the city and the suburbs, or gaps inside the city.

Martin Boyce, ‘from ‘Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours’’ 2002
Martin Boyce
from ‘Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours’ 2002
© Martin Boyce

Have a look at more artworks that explore the atmospheric qualities of trees. As you browse the slideshow, think about the way the images make you feel, and how the artists have used media, techniques, compositions and colours to put this across.

Mat Collishaw, ‘Hollow Oak’ 1995
Mat Collishaw
Hollow Oak 1995
© Mat Collishaw
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Landscape with Trees and a Castle’ ?1828
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Landscape with Trees and a Castle ?1828
Menashe Kadishman, ‘[title not known]’ 1974
Menashe Kadishman
[title not known] 1974
© Menashe Kadishman, courtesy
John Nash, ‘Fallen Tree’ 1955
John Nash
Fallen Tree 1955
© Estate of John Nash. All Rights Reserved 2018 / Bridgeman Images
Adrian Stokes, ‘Olive Trees’ 1958
Adrian Stokes
Olive Trees 1958
© The estate of Adrian Stokes
Rodrigo Moynihan, ‘Dead Tree at Nigadoo Lake’ 1967
Rodrigo Moynihan
Dead Tree at Nigadoo Lake 1967
© The estate of Rodrigo Moynihan

Trees with Attitude (and Meaning)

Zoe Leonard, ‘Detail (Tree + Fence)’ 1998, printed 1999
Zoe Leonard
Detail (Tree + Fence) 1998, printed 1999
© Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Zoe Leonard, ‘Tree + Fence, 6th St. (Close-up)’ 1998, printed 1999
Zoe Leonard
Tree + Fence, 6th St. (Close-up) 1998, printed 1999
© Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne

Artist Zoe Leonard took a series of photographs of trees 'bursting out of' fences in New York in 1998. The photographs are close-up views of tree trunks which have grown around and partially swallowed sections of iron railings. She saw the trees as melancholic symbols of being trapped – but there is also an element of optimism in that rather than shrivelling up or letting thesleves be enclosed they are working out a way of dealing with their situation.

When I returned to New York, the tree outside my window attracted my attention in a whole new way. Once I had photographed it, I began to notice similar trees throughout the city ... I was amazed by the way these trees grew in spite of their enclosures – bursting out of them or absorbing them. The pictures in the tree series synthesize my thoughts about struggle. People can’t help but anthropomorphize. I immediately identify with the tree. At first, these pictures may seem like melancholy images of confinement. But perhaps they’re also images of endurance.

Zoe Leonard

Trees in urban settings are also the subject of Keith Coventry's sculpture. The sculpture is cast from the thin trunk of a young tree that has been broken in half and its wooden support. The tree looks like the sort of tree we see growing out of concrete pavements in shopping centres or housing estates. The broken, stunted trunk is a remnant of an act of vandalism. By casting it in bronze, a material often used for commemorative statues, the sculpture looks like a memorial. As its title suggests, the sculpture commemorates the moment when the sapling was struck by vandals, its trunk and support having snapped at a point beyond which regeneration is impossible. By bringing these damaged fragments of public spaces into an art gallery, Coventry highlights the gap between the vision of an ideal, (making places pleasant by growing trees there) and the reality of urban experiences.

Keith Coventry, ‘Burgess Park SE5, Planted 1983, Destroyed 1988’ 1994
Keith Coventry
Burgess Park SE5, Planted 1983, Destroyed 1988 1994
© Keith Coventry

Like Keith Coventry, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei also uses a tree to symbolise aspects of society. Tree 2010 is a monumental sculpture assembled from the dry, dead branches, roots and trunks of lots of different species of tree that Ai Weiwei gathered from across the southern region of China. The sculpture mimics the form of a real tree, although the cuts and joins are visible. Ai WeiWei's work often explores complex social and political issues affecting contemporary China. The dry wood used to make Tree draws attention to the country’s rapid urbanisation which has resulted in damage to the natural environment and the suppression of traditional culture. Also, the act of bringing together numerous individual branches to create a whole can be read as symbolic of the relationship between the individual and society.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Tree’ 2010
Ai Weiwei
Tree 2010
© Ai Weiwei

This tree-like strucuture is actually a reconstruction of a sculptural body-costume worn by artist Lee Bul during a performance at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul in 1989. The shapes that intertwine to make the costume suggest monstrous animals, but also tree roots. Hidden in the costume are a series of microphones that record her movements as she performs. Lee Bul's sculptures and performances deconstruct ideals of the human body.

Lee Bul, ‘Untitled (Cravings White)’ 1988, reconstructed 2011
Lee Bul
Untitled (Cravings White) 1988, reconstructed 2011
© Lee Bul

Explore more trees with attitude! Discover how trees have been used express ideas, meanings – and make a point.

Jacques Lipchitz, ‘Sketch for ‘Our Tree of Life’’ 1962
Jacques Lipchitz
Sketch for ‘Our Tree of Life’ 1962
© The estate of Jacques Lipchitz, courtesy, Marlborough Gallery, New York
Joseph Beuys, ‘7000 Oak Trees’ 1982
Joseph Beuys
7000 Oak Trees 1982
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© DACS, 2019
Sir Sidney Nolan, ‘The Burning Tree’ 1978–9
Sir Sidney Nolan
The Burning Tree 1978–9
© Sidney Nolan Trust. All Rights Reserved, 2018 / Bridgeman Images
David Shrigley, ‘Fallen Tree’ 1996
David Shrigley
Fallen Tree 1996
© David Shrigley
Paul Graham, ‘Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone’ 1985, printed 1993–4
Paul Graham
Union Jack Flag in Tree, County Tyrone 1985, printed 1993–4
© Paul Graham; courtesy Pace and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York
William Blake, ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ 1824–7
William Blake
The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides 1824–7
William Kentridge, ‘This is How the Tree Breaks’ 1999
William Kentridge
This is How the Tree Breaks 1999
© William Kentridge
Mitch Epstein, ‘Biloxi, Mississippi 2005’ 2005
Mitch Epstein
Biloxi, Mississippi 2005 2005
© Mitch Epstein/Black River Productions, Ltd.
Gilbert & George, ‘Family Tree’ 1991
Gilbert & George
Family Tree 1991
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Gilbert & George

Textures, Shapes and Abstraction

Nigel Henderson, ‘Photograph showing detail of bark on a tree trunk’ [c.1949–c.1956]
Nigel Henderson
Photograph showing detail of bark on a tree trunk [c.1949–c.1956]
Tate Archive
© Nigel Henderson Estate
Kunié Sugiura, ‘Tree Trunk Bark 3’ 1971
Kunié Sugiura
Tree Trunk Bark 3 1971
© Kunié Sugiura, courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery

The textures of tree trunks and foliage and the shapes found in their branches are the focus of many artists. These are often used as the starting point for abstract artworks.

Textures and patterns

In Nigel Henderson's photograph of a tree trunk, the patterns formed by its peeling bark echo the patches of light shining through the leaves above. Japanese artist Kunié Sugiura's beautiful detailed study of tree bark becomes a delicate all over abstract pattern. The delicate shades of grey look like dabbed watercolour or marks made with a pencil.

Bomberg's painting is a very different take on texture. He was inspired by the bright mediterranean light while on holiday in Cyprus, and painted these trees en plein air (outdoors and on-the-spot). But he didn't want to create a realistic depiction of what the landscape looked like, his aim was to reveal the underlying structure of the land and give a sense of its character and spirit. It is painted with loose, fluid brushstrokes and the range of textures and vigorous marks give the painting an overwhelming sense of movement and vitality

Alexander Cozens
7. A High Foreground, That Is to Say, a Large Kind of Object, or More than One. Near the Eye.
Alexander Cozens
37. [title not known]

It's hard to belive that Alexander Cozens's abstracted depictions of trees in landscapes were made over 200 years ago. The textured images are not based on real places but made using ink blots. Cozens blotted ink on a page and then worked into the blots to create the impression of trees and rocks.


Working at the beginning of teh twentieth century, artist Piet Mondrian was a pioneer of abstraction. He is known for his paintings that combine simple geometric shapes with primary colours. But although his work looks completely abstract, he was originally inspired by the shapes formed by tree branches.

Piet Mondrian, ‘The Tree A’ c.1913
Piet Mondrian
The Tree A c.1913

The organic curves of Richard Deacon's sculpture suggest various things. The title is taken from the Biblical phrase 'He that hath ears to hear let him hear' and relates to Deacon's interest in the way eyes, ears and mouths channel our perceptions of the world. But the shape of the sculpture also resembles forms found in nature, echoing the shape of a hilly landscape as well as the shapes of clumps of trees and tree roots. The sculpture is made from wood and the oozing resin and rings in the wood are reminders that this material was itself once alive, and part of nature.

Richard Deacon, ‘For Those Who Have Ears #2’ 1983
Richard Deacon
For Those Who Have Ears #2 1983
© Richard Deacon

Explore more artworks inspired by the shapes, patterns and textures of trees:

Giuseppe Penone, ‘Tree of 12 Metres’ 1980–2
Giuseppe Penone
Tree of 12 Metres 1980–2
© Archivio Penone
Philip Sutton, ‘The Tree’ 1958
Philip Sutton
The Tree 1958
© Philip Sutton
Howard Hodgkin, ‘Indian Tree’ 1990–1
Howard Hodgkin
Indian Tree 1990–1
© Howard Hodgkin
Robert Medley, ‘A Tree Study’ 1959
Robert Medley
A Tree Study 1959
© The estate of Robert Medley
Ivon Hitchens, ‘Divided Oak Tree, No. 2’ 1958
Ivon Hitchens
Divided Oak Tree, No. 2 1958
© The estate of Ivon Hitchens
Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods’ 1940
Graham Sutherland OM
Green Tree Form: Interior of Woods 1940
© Tate
Norman Adams, ‘Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree’ 1989
Norman Adams
Christ’s Cross and Adam’s Tree 1989
© The estate of Norman Adams
William Gear, ‘Black Tree’ 1950
William Gear
Black Tree 1950
© The estate of William Gear
Stephen McKenna, ‘An English Oak Tree’ 1981
Stephen McKenna
An English Oak Tree 1981
© Stephen McKenna
Sir Terry Frost, ‘Tree, Tree’ 1989
Sir Terry Frost
Tree, Tree 1989
Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of David and Renée McKee 2003
© The estate of Sir Terry Frost

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