We loved hearing your enthusiasm for Lisa Spangler’s Falling for Fall live demo in November, so she offered to go into more depth on the topic and share some tips and prompts for painting leaves, so here it is!
I started painting fall leaves in 2017 and I look forward to it every single year. There’s just so much to explore in a single leaf! This practice continues to teach me so much about watercolor, from color mixing to wet-on-wet and glazing techniques. I’ve also learned about trees and how to identify them!
Painting a leaf while on a fall hike is one of my favorite things — it gives me that connection to a place that a mere photo can never do. I love painting away under a glorious canopy of reds, yellows, and oranges. And if you’re pressed for time, you can always take the leaf back home with you to finish a sketch later.
Let’s start off by talking about color mixing for fall, specifically my favorite color: orange! As someone who has an orange camp chair, an orange tent, and drives an orange car, you can bet I love the color orange.
We all learned in school that yellow + red = orange. Still, I struggled with mixing a clear, vibrant orange until I learned about warm and cool colors. In order to mix a vibrant orange, you’ll need a warm yellow and a warm red. Since blue is the complementary color to orange, if there’s any blue in either color (yellow or red) you’ll neutralize the mix and wind up with a boring dull orange — and we can’t have that! I like to use Azo Yellow or Hansa Yellow Medium and Quinacridone Coral for my red.
My Folio Palette
I’m always tinkering with the layout and paints in my palette, but here’s the current version!
Key: (H) = Holbein, (WN) is Winsor & Newton, all others Daniel Smith
1st Row: Azo Yellow, Hansa Yellow Medium, Monte Amiata Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Quinacridone Gold, lavender, Chromium Green Oxide, Cobalt Turquoise Light (WN)
2nd Row: Phthalo Blue, Cerulean Blue Chromium, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Indanthrone Blue, Neutral Tint (H)
3rd Row: Permanent Rose (WN), Quinacridone Coral, Perylene Red, Pink Pipestone (WN), Quinacridone Burnt Scarlet, Transparent Red Oxide, Van Dyck Brown, Piemontite Genuine
Let’s Talk Shadows
Adding a simple shadow will really bring your leaf painting to life!
Sometimes, I even add the shadow first while I’m out in the field and then finish the leaf up at home from a photo. Don’t be afraid to turn your leaf to different angles to find the most interesting shadow.
I like to use “palette gray” for my shadows, or if I don’t have one already on my palette, I’ll mix Ultramarine Blue and Transparent Red Oxide to get a granulating blue.
Here’s a pro tip: Lean your shadow color to the complementary color of your leaf to really make it pop! For example, if your leaf is yellow, give your shadow color a slight purple tinge. If your leaf is orange, lean your shadow color towards blue.
Watercolor Techniques to Try
Here are some fun techniques to try:
Paint in the base color of the leaf, then tap in other colors while the paint is still wet, and watch the magic happen! (Yeah, I like to watch paint dry!)
Use granulating colors in your first wash to add texture. Two of my favorites are Piemontite Genuine and Lunar Earth.
Let your leaf dry completely, then go back and add little details — but don’t overdo it.
While your paint is still wet, sprinkle on some dirt from the trail for a neat effect—sometimes, you’ll even get bits of mica in the soil to add sparkle!
Live Demo Recording “Falling for Fall”
See it all in action in the live demo that I did with Maria last month!