Susan’s Hints and Tips for Painting Leaves

Leaves are fascinating to paint. The variety is endless and so very inspirational.

Here is a very useful list of hints and tips I have put together for you to be aware of when you are analysing the nature of the leaves and how best to describe them. You will see at this stage it is all about observation observation observation:

‘Traps for young players’:

– Draw the central spine first. Naturally the rest of the leaf has to follow that.

– Avoid painting the veins too stiffly or too prominently – this is a common error and so easily avoided.

– One of the most common traps is to paint the veins of leaves as if they are stick straight out of the spine – giving a stiff appearance – somewhat like a fish skeleton. Take a good look at how the veins are formed before you begin painting.

– Often veins are painted too wide (too thickly). Generally veins are thin and sometimes ‘lost and found’ if the leaf has an undulating surface. What can you see when you look at the leaves you are going begin painting?

– Remember to observe these things well before you begin to paint. Resolve these questions at the very beginning so you don’t have to compensate and make allowances and adjustments during the painting.

– Sometimes leaves have twisting and turning character which adds interest to the composition. This is fun to capture and of course this it also helps us to identify the type of leaf.

– We need to look for the characteristics of the leaves we are painting. Are they fine and transparent like an apple leaf – or are they thick, opaque and rubber-like (similar to large Magnolia leaves)?

– Interpreting these things will give your painting a true sense of reality.

– Placing leaves behind others gives the impression of depth in a painting.

– Observe your highlights. Where are they on each leaf? Are the edges of the highlights sharp or are they gradually fused into the local colour? Do you know what each of these examples says about the surface of your leaf?

-A sharp edged highlight tells us the leaf has a hard, shiny surface. A gradual fused edge tells us the leaf is likely to have a mat or even velvet-like surface.

– Now let’s take these scenarios one step deeper before we move on:
A hard shiny surface is a reflective surface and so it naturally follows that what we see if a highlight that is reflecting the light source. If it is the sky – you may find the highlight can have a very pale blue/grey appearance.

– If the highlight is diffused because the surface of the leaf is a mat surface – then it stands to reason that the leaf is absorbing the light rather than reflecting the light.  The edges would gently merge into the local leaf colour and the highlight is generally less pronounced.

– The most important things to remember now is to retain your highlights. One of the greatest tools, we as artists have, is the ability to use light and shade to create a true sense of reality. Highlights say so much. I will attach a study to demonstrate the power of highlights. Put your finger over the highlight and see the difference it makes. Now remove it and see the painting come alive! Naturally this is true of all subject matter – not just leaves.

Leaf Surface

– Observe the surface of the leaf – Is it undulating? Are the areas between the veins flat or puffed? Are the two halves of the leaf (either side of the spine) laying flat – or are they at an angle to each other?

Light Source

– The surface of your leaf may be flat and therefore the surface would be uniformly affected by the same light source. However if the two halves – either side of the spine – are at an angle to each other –  each side of your leaf would be affected by a different light source and therefore the colour temperature would be different on each side of the leaf. Once again you can see how we as artists can establish the form of the leaf using light and shade and also with the use of colour temperature. These things help us describe the nature and form of the leaf to the viewer.

Check out the images below and remember to cover the highlight with your finger – then remove your finger and see how the leaf comes to life.


How do we paint undulating leaves?

The photograph of the leaf gives great detail. The leaf we are painting is the small one on the bottom right.


Take a look at the images I have posted. What do you see? Observe the differences between the two sides of the leaves.
One side is light and one is the local colour of the leaf.

What else do you see?

Yes – we have undulations, but we also have a reflective surface. Can you see how I have described this?

Reflective surfaces reflect what is around it or what it is facing. In this case one side of the leaf is reflecting the sky while the other side is allowing us to see the green local colour of the leaf – along with all of the detail.

Let’s begin with the more green side of the leaf.

You can paint as simply or as detailed as you wish. You can use my priming method which will give you the best results – or you can use a wet in wet wash method. I will use my priming method:

Use my priming method and lay in a yellow underwash.

Let this dry completely.

Now lay in my priming method again and using a mix of Sap Green and Translucent Orange (I will refer to this mix as Sap Green from now on), lay in a fine wash of this mix over the entire leaf.


What else can you see?

Can you see there are areas that are darker green than others? This is because the fold of the leaf is sheilding the leaf from the light of the sky. So the colour is not whited out as it is on the other side. The area that is sheilding the light also casts a light shadow over that part of the leaf.

Once again use my priming method – this time drop some richer colour in to deepen some areas as you see in the photograph or in my painting. My priming method will ensure you have a soft transition between the deeper colour and the previous dried wash. You may like to darken your green mix even further by adding a touch of Thalo Blue. Not only will this darken the green but it will also cool it down a little. If your colour looks too blue – or too cool – warm it up by simply adding more Translucent Orange. If that makes your mix too Olive in hue- then what do you think you need to do to bring your green back into a rich luscious Sap Green hue? Yes of course – you simply add some Sap Green. These hues will allow you to mix so many greens. Remember what you are doing and what colours you are achieiving. This will stand you in good stead for other paintings.

I digress – the eternal tutor huh!!!!


The veins

Lay in a clear water wash over the side of the leaf we are working on.
Let it become absorbed – but not dry. We need a slightly damp surface.

Stroke in varying mixes of your shadowed colour or your Sap Green. The lines need to be soft. If they are looking hard or sharp you can either soften them using another brush that is just slightly damp with water – or you can rewet your leaf as you go to keep your working area just damp and the veins very slightly blurred. I use both methods interchangeably.

Now you have your folds and also your local colour. You also have created your veins. Now it is time to form the little ‘puffs’ on the leaf.

Take a look at the leaf puffs. What do you see?

You will see that one side of the puff is shadowed and one side is highlit. You will notice this is uniform. By that I mean the highlights are always on the same side and the shadows are always on the other side.

Work on your puffs individually. Now wet one puff slightly. Pick up your shadow colour and drop it into the darker – shadowed side of that puff. Allow the dampness of the paper to move your colour so it gently floats up and over the puff but stops short of the highlight (or lighter) side. The local colour you have painted in the underwash will describe the highlight for you. So you wont need to paint that at all.

You will see how the amount of water you are using determines how successful you are at this. It is an excellent lesson and once again will help you with all of your future work. The degree of dampness changes the flow of your pigmented wash and will give you totally different effects. Practice. You will find it will become second nature in no time at all.

Continue to work around the leaf until you have described the puffs. You will see some are more prominent than others. Some are lost and some are found. Some are mearly suggested and hardly noticeable. Keep your edges soft. Keep your veins and spine soft.

Now lets work on the other side.

What differences can you see between the two sides of the leaf?

Observe the differences and think about how each side says something about the leaf.

Highlight side

You will see there is a great deal of reflection on this side of the leaf. The highlight looks white but it isnt. There is a very pale wash of thalo blue mixed with a tiny tiny tiny amount of Alizarin Crimson and an infanticimal amount of Aureolin. This creates a blue/grey – but favouring blue. What we have is an extremely pale wash that will cool the highlight down and blue/grey it off slightly. I am sure you get the picture.

Into my priming wash – lay in a wash of this very pale blue/grey. Leave some areas almost white paper.


You will also see there is an area of yellow underwash at the top of the leaf.  Create that with Aureolin as we did on the previous side.


Now lay in your Sap Green mix over that yellow underwash at the top of the leaf. Keep your edges soft. Or soften them with a damp brush just as the edge is drying


Now wet the entire side of the leaf and describe the veins by stroking in your shadowed mix in varying strengths – favouring different colours as before.

The trick is to keep the veins soft.

You know the drill – it is just the same as the other side.

There is nothing difficult about painting leaves – it is about observation and deciding how detailed you would like your leaf to be.

Things to remember
Paint the spine of the leaf yellow. Tone it in when you have completed the leaf

Here’s my mantra again: Keep your edges soft

Create lost and found edges, veins and spine.

Create shadows to mould and suggest form as described above.

Once you have finished your leaf you may like to soften the look. Simply and gently throw a clear water wash over the entire leaf. Allow it to dry. You will be amazed at how it integrates and softens the look of the leaf and gives it an amazing reality.

You can do this because you have used my priming method to create your washes. Therefore your colour is mostly absorbed into the inner areas of the paper. Only a slight residual amount of colour will lift and gently merge over your veins and soften them beautifully.
It really is magic!

Remember to practice first! Get the feel of and become familiar with how much water to use.

Observation observation observation – this is the key to success!

Leave Study by Susan

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