yew tree, 28mm, mushrooms, scenic base, forest, rat, owl, bird's nest, hollow trunk

How to make wargaming trees – adding that extra bit of realism

It will shock you, but I really enjoy making trees. I know, I know who could have known? No wonder then that I dedicate yet another post to our green (or gnarly) friends.

I already covered birch trees, hazel bushes, oaks and yews, but this time the question is which features make a home-made model tree stand out and more naturalistic than the store-bought ones? What techniques can you use to add this last bit of realism to your trees?

I will address these questions with regard to bark texture, foliage, trunk and crown shape, scenic basing and critters. This is also an excellent occasion to show off my latest tree commission plus some trees I made for my own collection. We will look at oaks, apple trees, plane trees, olive trees and umbrella pines.

Rose tinted glasses? – Nah, dude

 

Do you want to see the first oak tree I made? I am sure you sitting on the edge of you seat, so behold this exemplar of craftsmanship *irony mode off*.

IMG_8514
To be fair, it could be worse, but there is room for improvement…

Well, looking at it this early work is not exactly naturalistic, but we can learn from my mistakes. So why does it not work?

  • The crown of the tree is too densely flocked and looks more like a Minecraft tree than what we can observe in nature.
  • The branches are actually increasing in diameter the farer out they reach. While this is not impossible, it is not the norm with oak trees.
  • The bark texture is not very realistic, at least not for an oak tree. I used sand and PVA to texture it. Accordingly it does not resemble any oak bark I ever saw. That said this could work for a specific tree species, so context is important.
  • The base is boring and does not feature different shades, textures and specks of colour.

Keeping these shortcomings in mind we can now move on to some techniques and ideas to improve the look of the tree.

Gnarly and hard – the secrets of bark

 

The pleasures of gnarly bark are many, but in most cases it is one of the features that simply differentiates trees. Accordingly to improve the look of our trees we need to keep in mind that we are depicting a specific species and avoid generic trees. For instance the bark of an oak will be quite different in comparison to the bark of a plane tree and both again will be quite different to the bark of an apple tree.

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
The bark here is a significant improvement in comparison to the one pictured above. In addition the coloration is more natural using a grey brown base, brown washes and finally a green wash to depict moss.

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

IMG_0343
The plane tree bark is entirely different and resembles scales, coming off in places. This first attempt at such a bark texture is done using several layers of wood filler, each carved in turn to achieve the scale look. I will also experiment with chipping fluid in the future to achieve a similar, but more subtle effect.

plane tree, 28mm, bark texture

wargamign terrain, apple tree, scenic base, tutorial
The bark of the apple tree does not feature long continuous lines or very deep crevasses like the oak, instead I tried to achieve smaller “scales”.

wargamign terrain, apple tree, scenic base, tutorial

It thus pays off to really think about what kind of tree you would like to depict and to model the bark accordingly. Carving the bark in a layer of wood filler as explained in my oak tutorial can be a very time-consuming affair, yet the results a very naturalistic.

If you need a number of trees a slightly simpler method is to cover the wire armature with oven-bake polymer clay (preferably in a colour like grey-brown or beige, depending on the species of tree) and then to directly carve a simplified bark pattern into the clay with a needle tool. Downward strokes in the soft clay work very well. Do not bother to remove any small bits clinging to the clay, these can be easily brushed off using a copper brush after the clay has been baked.

wargamign terrain, olive tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
Using polymer clay you can achieve naturalistic results, without dedicating huge amounts of time per tree.

 

wargamign terrain, olive tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
The bark is not as finely detailed as the oak bark, but still provides a good representation of olive tree bark.

No matter which method you use, the coloration of the bark is very important for a pleasing result. I would always use a reference picture when painting the bark. There are few trees that feature a truly brown bark. In most cases a grey-brown or red-brown with hints of green and off-white moss dominate. In most cases the colours are subdued and very stark contrasts should be avoided. Naturally this is not true for all trees. Birch bark features stark contrasts and the crevasses in the bark of umbrella pines often feature a very dark brown in contrast to the in general lighter brown of the rest of the bark.

bark umbrella pine
The bark of an umbrella pine. As you can see dark brown and reddish-brown provide an interesting contrast.
birch bark
Birch trees are a very good choice for modelling purposes. They provide some interest to the eye due to the white and black bark and the bark can be textured in much less time as it features large, relatively even sections.
Birch, 15mm, bark, seamoss, MiniNatur
A 15mm version of a birch tree. If you use autumnal foliage instead of the one pictured the visual impact can be further enhanced.
wargamign terrain, umbrella pine tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
The two umbrella pines feature relatively dark crevasses, but I think one could add even more contrast.

An interesting touch to any bark are symbiotic or parasitic plants growing on it. A common example is ivy.

yew tree, 28mm, mushrooms, scenic base, forest, rat, owl, bird's nest, hollow trunk
Ivy and moss on this yew tree add realism and once again provide some variety and focus to the eye.
wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
Some light growth of a parasitic plant where the tree is forking breaks up the grey-brown of the bark and adds a second leave shape.

To summarise:

  • It really pays off to actually model the bark of your trees. No matter if you carve it or sculpt it directly the results will be vastly superior to a sand and PVA mixture.
  • Use reference pictures to get an idea of coloration and texture of the specific bark you would like to represent.
  • Add moss or generic growth to the bark to add that extra bit of realism.

The canopy – a matter of taste

 

With the bark being as naturalistic as your time allows, it is now important to choose a matching technique to depict the canopy. In my tutorials I clearly propagate the use of MiniNatur foliage. I still stand by this choice as I was not able to find a suitable replacement and my own attempts at making a similar foliage net were disappointing.

That said, there is no reason why you cannot use clump foliage. I would only suggest to use filter wool as a base material and then to sprinkle on the finest turf you can get. Large clumps of foam will unfortunately look exactly like that and destroy the illusion somewhat.

Miniature Photography, 28mm, 15mm, Scenic Shot, framing
This comparison picture shows you the olive trees with clump foliage and then again with MiniNatur Olive Tree foliage. While the clump foliage works to some extend it does not feature singular leaves and the overall appearance is less naturalistic.

Wargaming Terrain Olive Tree Scenic Base MiniNatur foliage 15mm 28mm

yew tree, 28mm, mushrooms, scenic base, forest, rat, owl, bird's nest, hollow trunk
Using filter wool and very fine turf can result in realistic foliage, depending on the tree species. This method might be good for pine trees. The wool is not as resilient as the foliage nets and does not keep its shape as easily. With a coat of acrylic medium stability can be improved.

Another important factor is the density of the foliage. I prefer a less dense, airy look. Not only does this save material, it also looks more realistic and shows off ramifications better. Once again, this will also depend on the tree species. Some trees have very dense crowns, while others only feature sparse foliage. Naturally, if you go for autumnal trees there will be overall less foliage.

IMG_0337
The same tree, with slightly different foliage densities. I prefer the version with slightly less foliage. It is easier to see the ramifications and it is more pleasing to the eye. Finally it looks more naturalistic to me.

plane tree, 28mm, bark texture

Flexible wargaming terrain, tutorial, caulking, 28mm, 15mm, rough terrain FoG
The autumnal oak tree uses less foliage to account for fallen leaves. Depicting an autumn scene is thus not only visually interesting, but can also be a budget friendly decision.

The shape of the crown is also an important consideration. Within a species of tree the crown shape can be quite distinct, but natural variation of growth, the effect of location, exposure to wind and the elements and many other factors will influence the growth of any tree and thus the shape of its crown. The four oak trees below, all with different crown and trunk shapes, will illustrate how you can achieve variety within a tree species.

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

Diversity in crown shape and trunk growth adds realism to your trees. Bought trees often feature very similar shapes, with forking, gnarly or wind-swept trees being hard to find. If you make an effort to create your own trees, I recommend to really go crazy and come up with all kinds of different shapes. It pays again off to work with reference pictures, after all you want your oaks to be still recognisable.

To summarise:

  • For realistic results use MiniNatur foliage nets or filter wool with very fine turf. Avoid large chunks of clump foliage.
  • Avoid extremely dense crowns, rather try to achieve an airy look that shows of branches and detailing.
  • Vary both the shape of the tree crown and of the tree trunk.

Scenic basing

 

With all this talk about bark texture and crown shape it is easy to forget an important element of free-standing trees: the base. Investing some time here can really enhance a tree model. You can add a variety of bushes, fallen leaves, critters or fruit. The goal is to combine textures and colours to round off the model.

Hazel bush, wargaming terrain, scenic base, squirrel
A few bushes, fallen leaves and hazel nuts and finally a squirrel complement the hazel bush nicely and further emphasise the tree species for easy identification on the gaming table.

 

wargamign terrain, apple tree, scenic base, tutorial
Fallen apples add some colour to the base and once again make it quite clear what kind of tree we are looking at.

 

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
The oak tree bases use a combination of brushes, flowers and fallen oak leaves to add an interesting texture.
wargaming terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark
Moss is present on both the base and the tree trunk, leading to interactions between base and model.

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

wargamign terrain, oak tree, scenic base, tutorial, realistic bark

To summarise:

  • Use a variety of products to maximise visual interest.
  • Use visual hints on the base to emphasise the tree species: e. g. leaves, fruit or critters.

Critters – run for your life!

 

Critters can be a real problem, especially if you get a spine projectile directly into the face. Gladly our critters are of a much more benign variety: birds, lizards, squirrels, and so on.

Often our model landscapes lack ‘life’. Adding a bird’s nest with eggs, a lizard on a rock or a squirrel coming out of its drey can add the last bit of realism and really finish off a model.

yew tree, 28mm, mushrooms, scenic base, forest, rat, owl, bird's nest, hollow trunk
A small owl can be the final touch on a model tree, making the beholder (not the one with the death rays) look twice searching for further hidden details.
Oak Tree, 28mm, 15mm, Squirrels, MiniNatur, Silflor, bark, Anirion
It seems Anirion approves of squirrels.
raven nest eggs
A raven perched close to its nest might not be easy to spot, yet if your friends know you include such details they might actively search for these scenes.

To summarise:

  • Adding critters complements any model tree and adds ‘life’ to the gaming table.
  • If your trees often feature such details beholders will spend more time looking at your creation making it even more rewarding to make your own trees.

I hope these suggestions were of use to you and give you some ideas how to add that extra bit of realism to your trees. If you have suggestions or questions please comment below.


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16 thoughts on “How to make wargaming trees – adding that extra bit of realism”

    1. Thank you for your concern Mark. Yes, all is well. Auckland was not really affected by the quake and seldomly is (instead it is built on non-active volcanoes, but not a fault line). I am sad that once again a quake led to casualties, but also glad that this one did not have such devastating effects as the Christchurch quake years ago.

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  1. I’m really impressed by the techniques, thought, and effort you put in to breathe life into the trees. I’ll have to try some out with my next set of trees I work on.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Daniel. Glad the tutorials are of use to you. It is true that I am always keen to improve on my designs and techniques, only catch is that I am often very critical of my older creations.

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  2. Your work is most inspiring indeed. Talking of which, since thinking of Sharp Practice in 10mm scale, I’ve run into realism problem. Have you ever thought how big trees should actually be in various scales? A terrain maker’s challenge. How to build realistic terrain of French Indian war wilderness?

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    1. Thank you for commenting Tichy. I think this is a problem that affects any scale, really.

      I had to limit the height of the oak trees, not only to keep the material costs reasonable, but also to make them look right both with miniatures and ground scale in mind.

      I would say that with 10mm you could try to model the trees in scale, but in the end it will be important if it looks right to you. I think model railroaders normally reduce the scale of trees to make them look in scale with the sourrounding terrain, which normally is scaled down (e. g. mountain ranges, dimensions of houses etc.). I think this is a good strategy for our gaming tables, too.

      Maybe fashion some wire armatures and see how they look like with the 10mm miniatures and the sourrounding terrain. If they tower over everything they will likely look out of scale, even though they might be perfectly in scale.

      Given you may need to depict some wilderness areas I would suggest to use trees that can be mounted using magnets, as described in my earlier tutorial. This way you can always take them away or rearrange them should units move through heavily forested areas.

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  3. I always love reading your arboreal-themed posts. While I think I’d do an ok job at best, and not having the time to ever really try my hand at making some of my own, it’s always both entertaining and eye opening to read the thoughts and see the work of someone with such extensive knowledge and skill to match.

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  4. I’m with Azazel, I’d never manage to achieve anything quite like this, but I am enjoying reading the tutorials and marvelling at the results. It’s like watching a nature documentary!

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    1. Hi Subedai. Glad to read this. I think it is really all about how much time you have at your disposal and what your focus is. I do not get much stuff done in terms of miniature painting, but focus more on terrain pieces. I could see that for one tree you can paint two or three minis. I think in one point I will have all the trees I need and focus more on the painting side.

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