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How to paint autumn leaves in watercolour with Tessa Spanton

Posted on Wed 26 Sep 2018

Autumn trees put on a spectacular show as the greens gradually turn to scarlet, ochre, russet, orange and burgundy. On a clear day the light becomes golden as the days shorten and the sun is lower in the sky. The show lasts a few weeks and I often collect falling leaves for their colours and shapes. Unless I am quick to paint them they soon become like brown crisps. To make a quick record I scan them on both sides and save the digital images.

Demonstration - Autumn Leaves

You will need


  • 200lb watercolour paper or 140lb stretched (20.5x25.5cm)


  • Small hake or 3⁄4in. flat brush
  • Round No. 10
  • Small Rigger

Winsor & Newton’s Professional Water Colour

  • Winsor red
  • Crimson alizarin
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Gold ochre or raw sienna
  • French ultramarine
  • Brown madder or Daler-Rowney’s transparent red brown


  • Pencil
  • Masking fluid
  • Ruling pen or No. 1 Round brush
  • Salt
  • Clingfilm

Step 1

Lay your leaves out on cartridge paper and experiment with moving them around and turning them over until you find an arrangement you like – rather like Matisse did with arranging his cut outs. Try overlapping some and having some go off the edge of the image. Look at the negative shapes made, as these are part of the composition, too. If possible take a photo of the leaf arrangement at this stage.

Step 2

1. Draw the outlines of the leaves and some of the veins on the watercolour paper.

2. Prepare washes of yellow and reds.

3. Wet the paper thoroughly and leave for a few moments for the paper to absorb the water. Then tip the paper to drain off any excess water.

4. Using a hake, brush a cadmium yellow wash over the entire wet paper.

5. While still wet refer to the leaves and drop in some of the reds where appropriate. The colours can run over the leaf outlines as you did in the leaf study. Leave to dry or dry with a hair dryer. This will make a good under wash for all the other colours.

Step 3

1. Make up mixes of French ultramarine with one of the reds or brown madder. Wet the space around two or three of the leaves. With a No. 10 brush paint onto the wet area varying the mix as you go. One variegated wash over another gives lots of different colour combinations, which are harmonious as they come from a limited palette of colours. I only used the cadmium yellow in the base wash, as it is opaque and not so good for glazing.

2. To make some texture to the background, sprinkle salt onto the wash. As the wash dries the salt will make a pattern.

Step 4

Try laying a piece of Clingfilm on the wash and make crinkles in it. Wait a few minutes before you lift the Clingfilm off.

Step 5

1. Do some more work on the leaves. You could mask some veins then paint another wash as you did in the exercise. I didn’t use masking fluid here. I painted the next wash and left gaps for the lighter coloured veins. I wet the area first leaving the space for the veins to dry then added reds and gold ochre and in places a tiny touch of French ultramarine. When dry I painted the darker veins directly with a fine-tipped brush.

2. If you think it needs it, add more washes to the background.

3. The leaves in the background of my version emerged by negative painting as I put more layers of colour on.

4. In part of the background I used the blue much more thickly to add a bit of contrast against the oranges. Even transparent colours stop being transparent when used thickly.

5. I didn’t do much with shading on the leaves, as I was more interested in the glowing colours and the arrangement of the shapes.

The finished painting. Autumn Leaves, watercolour, (20.5x25.5cm).

Tessa Spanton

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This demonstration is taken from Tessa's feature in the November 2018 issue of Leisure Painter

Click here to purchase your copy to read more.

How to paint autumn leaves in watercolour with Tessa Spanton


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