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How to draw top-down swamp tree


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This tutorial is available as a PDF. Click here to view or download it

In this tutorial, it will show how to draw a swamp tree on swamp water.




My image only has a lonely tree in the center, but you can make more trees using same method, but for this tutorial, I only draw one.


In this tutorial, you need to have the following plugins:

Smudge tools by pyrochild

Custom Brush mini by Simon B

TRs Displacement Map by TechnoRobbo


Characteristic of swamp forest is that it has water everywhere, therefore a swamp tree should ideally be grown on water. The roots are vertical and long which lift up the tree to above water.


Please do not merge down layers unless specified.

0.0 Create file with your desire size, for this tutorial, I used 600 pixel width and 400 pixel height canvas.


0.1 Create 13 empty layers with specific name as following

(13) foliage

(12) tree shape

(11)  tree details

(10)  tree colour

 (9)  tree sketch top

 (8)  tree sketch mid

 (7)  tree sketch bottom

 (6)  shadow

 (5)  water reflection

 (4)  sky

 (3)  water layer

 (2)  seabed

 (1)  displacement

where larger number represents higher layer.


1.0 Create displacement map in displacement layer

1.1 fill up whole layer with black colour using bucket

1.2 use Effects -> Noise -> Add Noise to add noise to the black colour with 100 intensity, 0 colour saturation, 100 coverage.

1.3 Repeat add noise for 2 more times by repeating effect. (that means totally you add 3 times noise)

1.4 use Effects -> Distort -> Crystalize with default setting.

1.5 use Effects -> Blurs -> Motion Blur and choose the angle you want, I chose 0 degree, distance is by default.

1.6 Repeat this motion blur for several times until you no longer see distinct crystals.




1.7 Make this displacement layer invisible.


2.0 Create seabed in seabed layer


Depends on how deep the water is, for my example, the seabed is not very distinct, therefore I won't add much shading effect to it but a simple seabed


2.1 mix a dark brown colour and paint the whole layer with this brown colour

2.2 use Effects -> Noise -> Add Noise with default setting.

2.3 (optional) if you don't like this seabed, you can use Effects -> Artistic -> Oil Painting with small brush size setting to make it looks nicer. In this example, I won't use this effect because the seabed is not very distinct.




3.0 Create water layer in water layer layer

3.1 Mix greenish blue colour and paint the whole layer with the colour (497A65 for my colour)

3.2 Adjust layer opacity to 191




4.0 Create sky clouds in sky layer

4.1 set pure white colour as primary colour but set secondary colour to invisible colour (0 opacity)

4.2 use Effects -> Render -> Clouds and play with setting until it looks good to you. You should treat this as what the sky looks like.

4.3 There should be grey colour lurking around, use magic wand with 20%-30% tolerance and select all the grey colour by shift + LMB, then delete them all




4.4 Use Effects -> Blurs -> Gaussian Blur with default setting to smooth out the edge of the cloud. (you can remove some cloud pieces if you think there are too many, you can also lower opacity of the clouds)




Things may get tricky if this is your first time using displacement plugin


4.5 First, click your displacement layer and press Ctrl + C

4.6 click sky layer, which is the one with cloud, use Effects -> Distort -> TRs Displacement Map 3D, change intensity to minimum and change control to maximum while keeping everything else default.




4.7 change layer opacity to 127.


Now you should have distorted clouds.

For convenience in latter part, I suggest making the sky layer invisible after completing 4.0 section


5.0 Time to draw our tree (foliage is not included yet)


Probably you are good at drawing trees, you can draw it naturally and too easy for you. However, there are people who have no idea how to draw tree branches that look like tree branches, especially a top-down one. Therefore, this section will provide an easy approach for you to draw the tree. If you are good at drawing trees, you can skip 5.0 section and draw your own tree body directly.


5.1 Use Brush tools with 50 brush width and 100% hardness. 

5.2 Mix dark brown colour or the tree body colour you want.

5.3 Use this dark brown colour and tap the desire location of your tree in tree sketch bottom layer

5.4 increase the value of the colour by 5 and tap the location a little bit above your first tap in tree sketch mid layer

5.5 increase the value of the colour by 5 again and tap the location a little bit above your second tap in tree sketch top layer


You should have 3 circles in separate layer where higher circles overlap the lower circles like the image.




5.6 Go to tree sketch bottom layer then use Effects -> Tools -> Smudge 

Use 30 brush width (default), 100% pressure, 0% jitter.

smudge out the roots of your tree. As mentioned at the beginning, swamp trees have vertical and long roots, you should smudge the circle with this in mind.




5.7 Go to tree sketch mid layer then use Effects -> Tools -> Smudge 

Use 30 brush width (default), 100% pressure, 0% jitter.

smudge out the middle branch of your tree and try to make them with different directions from your roots




5.8 Go to tree sketch top layer then use Effects -> Tools -> Smudge 

Use 30 brush width (default), 100% pressure, 0% jitter.

smudge out the top branch of your tree and try to make them with different directions from previous branches.




Now you should have something looks like tree. Note that even though a real tree is not so clunky, the foliage will cover all these ugly edges so you can ignore the clunkiness of your tree and they are only sketch.




5.9 Merge these three sketch layers together and name this layer combined sketch layer.




then go to tree shape layer

Use the desire colour of your tree body (for me dark brown seems cool) and then use pencil and outline the tree shape according to your combined sketch layer.




After you are done, set the combined sketch layer to invisible


5.10 prepare three brown colours which consist of: brighter dark brown, mid dark brown, darker dark brown (or any 3 colours that covers bright and dark range of your tree body colour).

Go to tree colour layer and start to paint your tree with mid dark brown according to your tree shape layer. Imagine the source of light and shade your tree with brighter and darker dark brown to create 3D feeling.




5.11 go to tree details layer and use brush with brush width 2 or 1 with a colour between your mid and darker dark brown.

scratch the tree branches with correct directional flow using this brush to create rough surface.




5.12 use Effects -> Noise -> Add Noise with low intensity in tree shape layer then lower opacity of the layer to value that looks nice for your tree body.

Basically tree body is finished, if you are not satisfied with your tree colour, you can create an additional layer with overlay blend mode, use white and black colour to improve the shading.




However, as mentioned before, foliage will cover the clunkiness of the tree body, it is better to spend effort on improving foliage.


6.00 Foliage time


Finally, we are going to draw the most distinct part of our tree. (Oh no !!!! too hard for me... =,=) No worries, with custom brush, foliage is too easy.


6.10 Obtain custom brush for your foliage.


This part maybe tricky for you but I will try to explain it. If you have browsed through all the effects, you should find out something weird laying around. Yes! The fractals are sitting there and are isolated :( 

They are perfect for foliage custom brush.


6.11 You can choose to open a new file or do it in just a new layer of this file. Create a layer and then use Effects -> Render -> Mandelbrot Fractal. (Note that if you intend to create a round shaped foliage, julia fractal maybe a better choice, but I will use mandelbrot set)

6.12 Select part of the fractal using selection tools, then press Ctrl + C




6.13 This time, you must open new file because you are creating a custom brush. Open new file, do not touch the dimension and just create it. The new file dimension should fit the section you copied.

6.14 use magic wand and select unwanted grey colour, adjust the tolerance until your desire shape remains.

6.15 use Adjustments -> Hue/Saturation, change lightness to -100 and click ok

6.16 You may use low opacity eraser to further adjust your brush shape

6.17 adjust layer opacity to 127 then merge this layer down to a new bottom layer (because adjusting layer opacity doesn't change the opacity of the pixels, you have to merge it down to a layer to make real transparent pixels)

6.18 save this file as png and name it foliage brush or whatever name you want


u9D6TSy.png (This is the brush I chose for my foliage brush)


6.19 use Effects -> Tools -> CustomBrushesMini then click add brush, choose your foliage brush and add it.


Congratulations, now you have obtained your foliage brush


6.20 Draw Foliage

6.21 go to tree colour layer and use Effects -> Tools -> CustomBrushesMini

6.22 Select appropriate brush size and your foliage brush (Try not to choose a large brush, 36 seems to be good for me)

6.23 Mix a green colour you wish but adjust it to darker green colour.

6.24 brush the shape of your foliage you want with this darker green colour.

6.25 adjust the colour to brighter and brush the convex area of your foliage with accordance to light direction.

6.26 adjust colour to even brighter, choose smaller brush size than currect brush size, then brush the bright spot of your foliage.

6.27 lastly, adjust colour to very dark green colour with same small brush size, then brush the concave area of your foliage.


These steps are recommended order, you can use your own order and create your own foliage.


6.28 After you are satisfied with the result, click ok so that the custom brush will put the pixels into your tree colour layer


0JDb2Sa.png (screenshot in custom brush window, this is what you need to brush)



6.29 Press Ctrl + Z

6.30 Go to foliage layer, press Ctrl + F (hotkey for repeating effect)

This is how you separate custom brush result into a new layer!!


7.0 Deal with water reflection by the tree


7.1 copy your foliage layer into water reflection layer then move the whole image into position of the correct reflection position, which means move it downward to appropriate position.

7.2 add some brown colour at the center of the foliage since those are branches of the tree.

7.3 make the foliage darker by painting some darker green colour on it.




7.4 click displacement layer, press Ctrl + C

7.5 go back to water reflection layer then use Effects -> Distort -> TRs Displacement Map 3D with 0 intensity and 1.15 control (if you think this control value is not good, you can change it to something else, the quality of the effect greatly depends on your displacement map)




7.6 change layer opacity to 127.

Now you should have distorted reflection of the tree.


8.0 Dealing with shadow

8.1 copy your foliage into shadow layer

8.2 use Adjustments -> Hue/Saturation and change lightness to -100 then click ok.

8.3 use move tools to resize the image to make it looks like shadow.

8.4 draw tree body shadow using brush with black colour




8.5 adjust this layer's opacity to 127


If everything is positioned correctly, you should have the following image, if you don't, adjust position or opacity until the image looks nice to you!




9.0 Final Detailing

Perform following steps after you are very sure your image looks good to you, if not, adjust each layer until things look good to you. 

9.1  remove combined sketch layer and displacement layer or anything else that should not be in the image, use Image -> Flatten.

9.2 create new layer and draw some white curved lines on the water surface near the roots, add shading effect you want for the whole picture.






My image only has a lonely tree in the center, but you can make more trees using same method, but for this tutorial, I only draw one.

If you think the tree is too small, you can make a big one, but the method is more or less the same.


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non-existence made one, one made two, two made three, three made matters.


well-defined principles are not eternal principles, names that can be named are not eternal names.

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