Painting a Christmas Tree in Photoshop

Christmas-Tree Over in the NAPP forums, last Christmas a user asked about creating textures of pine needles or straw to be able to draw a Christmas Tree. I offered a simple solution using the brush engine, and after a few requests, and enhancements (adding snow) decided to create this tutorial. I posted it on the forums at that time, but now have decided to post it online here for all to share.

Merry Christmas! I hope you’ll enjoy this!

My method uses the capabilities of the brush engine, and so it is important to understand a few things about the brushes panel and some of the settings there. We’re going to start with the brush from the standard set called "Dune Grass." Notice its default size is 112 px, and notice all the boxes that are checked along the left side? We will dig into these to get a sense of what is going on.


First we’ll start with the Shape Dynamics. As you highlight that setting, you can see that Size Jitter is set to 100%. This means that as you paint, although the nominal brush size is 112 px, the actual size of the brush will change, or "jitter," up and down as you paint, so that all the instances are not identically size. Additionally, you can see that the Angle Jitter is set to 9%; this will cause each brush imprint to be slightly askew from every other one. The combination here provides some randomness, as seen in the stroke preview window at the bottom.


Next, let’s look at scattering. Highlight that setting and you can see that scattering is set to 56% and "Both Axes" is checked. This will offset the components of the stroke from each other, left and right, up an down, so instead of a uniform row of shapes, you get a whole bunch of individual objects in the shape of the brush tip scattered about. Note also that "Count Jitter" is set to 4, which will make an uneven number of individual prints – more in some areas, less in others. All in the name of randomness, which is good for our purpose.


Now, let’s take a look at Color Dynamics. This is very important to the look and feel we are seeking with pine needles. Note that Foreground/Background Jitter is set to 100%, which means that the color you are painting with will shift randomly between the foreground and background colors – it takes TWO colors to make this effect work properly, and you should choose both foreground AND background colors before using this brush. For our tree, we will be using a foreground of dark green (25,64,34) and a background of white, and the colors will range between the two providing a very pleasing effect.


Finally, let’s look at the Brush Tip Shape. For our tree, we will reduce the size ("Diameter") to 40 pixels. That is not all, however. We will grab the Angle arrow and spin it around (click and drag on the arrowhead) to set the angle to -98 degrees. This will give the brushed needles the appearance of hanging down and towards the right.


So, what about the left side of the tree? We will simply select the "Flip Y" checkbox, and the brush shape will be mirrored in the other direction for the left side.


Now that we’ve got our brush set the way we want it, let’s save it. Select the menu in the upper right of the Brushes panel, and choose "New Brush Preset…" and let’s name it "Pine Needles." Click OK to save the brush for later.



Now, let’s begin a new document. I used 1600×1200 RGB, white background as my starting size, so if you’re following along, and want to use the same settings, you’ll want to start with the same size. Press "D" to select the default foreground and background colors, then change the foreground color to Dark Green (25,64,34).

Create a new layer above the background, select the Pine Needles brush from before, and paint the rough shape of the tree. Be sure to keep the Brushes panel open, and use the "Flip Y" feature to change back and forth for the left or right side of the tree. In this step, we just want to rough out the basic shape of the tree, so be loose and keep it simple.


Now, let’s add the trunk and some branches. Start a new layer, and call it "Trunk." Choose a different brush, I selected from the standard set the brush called "Chalk 36 pixels." This brush also has foreground/background jitter, so lets set both colors. I used a foreground of Darker Warm Brown (61,46,21) and a background color of Light Warm Brown (125,109,72). Using the Chalk 36 brush, paint in the trunk of the tree, changing to a smaller diameter as you go up. Use a smaller diameter to paint in the shapes of some branches. Keep in mind that Christmas pines have layers of branches, so it is OK to make the left and right side somewhat symmetrical (but not exactly!)


Now, turn off the visibility of your original rough tree outline layer. You won’t need it any more.

Next, create a new layer and call it "Branch." Pick your Pine Needles brush once again, and press "D" to reset the default colors, and once again set the foreground to Dark Green (25,64,34). Paint in one side of the lowest set of branches.


Now, "Flip Y" again and paint in the other side of the lowest branches. When you’re done you should have about 90% coverage, leave some holes and be sure to let the branches and trunk peek out here and there.


Looks good, but we’re going to kick it up a notch. Click the stylized "fx" icon to add a layer style, and click on Drop Shadow. Change the Distance to 10 and the Size to 15. Then, click on "Bevel and Emboss" (leave the default settings).


Now, let’s move up the tree. Add a new layer, call it "Branch 2" and repeat the painting technique to add in the next layer of branches. Make sure the new layer hangs over the previous layer in some areas, covering it up a bit.


What, you can’t see the overlap? Not to worry. Simply select the original Branch layer, right click, and choose "Copy Layer Style." Then choose the Branch 2 layer, and click "Paste Layer Style" and all the settings will be duplicated. This should help you see where the upper layer overlaps the lower.



Continue working your way up the tree. Add a new layer, paste the layer style (you don’t have to hit copy every time, it will be remembered), and start painting the next layer. Remember to leave some gaps and let some of the branches show through. I used 10 layers to work my way up the tree.


OK, let’s add some snow!!!

I selected a brush from the standard set called "Sampled Tip" (90 pixels) and reduced the diameter to about 25 pixels. This brush has color jitter as well, so I set the background to white and the foreground to a very light cyan color (232,241,254). Go all the way down to the original bottom Branch layer, and add a new layer just above it, calling it "Snow." Gently pain in some fluffy blobs of snow along the branches.


Doesn’t look really fluffy yet, right? Layer styles to the rescue again! Add a layer style of Drop Shadow and Bevel and Emboss, using the default settings for both. Then, add a "Pattern Overlay." For the pattern, select the bubbles image, set teh blend mode to "Luminosity," Opacity to 50%, and Scale to 80%. The luminosity blend mode will just provide a sense of texture without adding the blue color of the bubbles image.


Using the "Copy Layer Style"/"Paste Layer Style" technique that we used on the branches, add a new Snow layer above each Branch layer, paste the layer style, and scribble in some blobs of snow. Work your way from bottom to top, and we are just about there!!


After looking at the snow, the shadows were too intense. So, I went to the bottom snow layer, and adjusted the settings. As you can see, I reduced the opacity of the Drop Shadow to 55%, reduced the opacity of the shadows of the Bevel and Emboss effect to 50%, and reduced the opacity of the pattern overlay to 35%.




Now, "Copy Layer Style" from the bottom snow layer, and work your way up the layer stack, using "Paste Layer Style" on all the Snow layers. The effects are updated immediately, no muss, no fuss.

Here is the final image, ready for presents, critters, whatever scenery might be needed to set your Christmas stage. I hope you enjoyed this!


Happy Chrismas to all, and to all a good night!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Very Cool! Can’t wait to give it a try!

    Just watched your Bridge Overview from TipSquirrel – also excellent. Thanks!

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