• Inspiration
December 5, 2023

Leaves and Shadows

Ambassador Lisa Spangler shares her passion for painting fall leaves inspired by a recent road trip that took her from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and back to her home state of Texas! She got to follow fall all the way home!

By Lisa Spangler

Paint-filled Folio Palette, tubes of paint, a leaf, brush, and swatch card fanned out on a white background.

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!

Hello, friends!

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!

A 3x3 grid of photos showing a hand pinching the edge of a colorful autumn leaf in nature.
Collage of found leaves.

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.

A person sits on a log in a woodland, sketching wearing a wooly hat with fallen leaves all over the ground.
Sketching leaves at camp at Winding Stair National Recreation Area, Oklahoma.

Color Mixing

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.

Paint-filled Folio Palette, tubes of paint, a leaf, brush, and swatch card fanned out on a white background.
Quinacridone coral + azo yellow = my favorite orange! (On Canson Montval paper.)

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! 

up close of a palette filled with paint

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!

An open sketchbook and paint-filled palette lay on a leaf-covered grassy ground showing sketches of leaves and buckeyes.
An Ohio Buckeye — painted in Ohio! Plus, my current Pocket Palette!
Open sketchbook and palette showing a sketch of a brown oak leaf with the subject overtop.
Adding a shadow can make even brown leaves pop!

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.

Paint-filled Folio Palette, tubes of paint, a leaf, brush, and swatch card fanned out on a white background.
My go-to shadow mix is ultramarine blue + transparent red oxide. Add a little quinacridone rose to lean it towards purple to really make yellow leaves pop!

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.

An open orange-colored toolkit filled with supplies and a sketchbook with a yellow leaf painted all lay on a wooden picnic table.
I leaned the shadow color towards purple to really make the yellow of the leaf pop!
This tri-color maple leaf was so fun to paint!

Watercolor Techniques to Try

A tube of paint, a leaf, brush, and swatch card fanned out on a white background.
Granulating colors like piemontite genuine and texture to your leaves.

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!

Happy fall, y’all! Please, tag us* with your fall leaves, we’d love to see!

~ Lisa

All images courtesy of Lisa Spangler.

* #ArtToolkit, @SideOats (Lisa on Instagram), @ArtToolkit

An artist sites on a rock, dipping a paintbrush in a Pocket Palette.

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