Leaves come in a variety of shapes, colours and textures and yet, as a botanical watercolour tutor, I have found that students tend to shy away from painting the foliage of a plant in favour of the flowers or fruit. This triggered a personal quest to discover what it is about painting leaves that others find so off-putting. The results of my discoveries should give you some hints and tips on how to get started.

Colour and lighting

Before even lifting a paintbrush you need to familiarise yourself with your subject matter. It is very difficult to paint even a basic flower or leaf if you have not observed and understood its structure. As well as the colour (not all leaves are green and not all greens are the same) consider the shape, the pattern of veins and the surface texture.

Even simple leaf shapes are rarely completely flat. One side is often darker than the other, as half the leaf tilts towards the light and the other half is in shadow. The temptation is to start by painting the leaf all over with local colour (the actual colour of the leaf ), but if you can reproduce the highlights and shadows you will make your painting look more realistic and alive. In fact, any figurative painting can be improved by the observation and depiction of light. All the leaves shown here were lit from the top left.

Veins and texture

The veins are quite often part of what gives a leaf its character. They may be fairly straight and parallel as in a beech leaf, or meandering and dividing as in an ivy leaf, and tend to be thinnest at the furthest point from the central vein. Take note of the pattern of veins on your subject – if they are darker than the body of the leaf you can add them towards the end of your painting along with other detail. If they are lighter you can try lifting them out after any initial washes have dried, using a fine, damp brush and dabbing with a piece of kitchen towel or cloth if need be. Or try masking out the veins using masking fluid and a ruling pen on your initial drawing; they can then be ignored until the final stages. If your leaf is imperfect, masking fluid can also be used for any holes or scars. This will mean you can paint over the leaf without having to work round any such blemishes.

If the leaf texture is complicated or bumpy, try to analyse this by looking at how the light falls on to the leaf. One side may be mostly in shadow, as mentioned before, but with light catching any smaller shape on the top edge and to one side.

Conversely, the other half of the leaf may have bumps that are mostly lit, but with shadow on the bottom and to one side of these shapes. By understanding what is going on it is easier to adjust parts of your painting that don’t look quite right.

Materials for painting leaves

These are some of the colours and equipment that I favour. Other good quality paints, brushes and paper would do equally well.

I prefer to use a limited range of colours. I often use the following basic colours when painting leaves: permanent rose, transparent yellow, indigo, (all Winsor & Newton) and sap green (Daler-Rowney)
My priority is for a brush with a fantastic point that holds a good amount of paint. Once the point has gone I tend to demote it to colour mixing. I like to try different brushes but am currently using a Rosemary & Co Kolinsky sable spotter Series 323, size 6.
Hot-pressed (HP) paper is smooth so better for a detailed painting – I use Arches HP 140lb (300gsm), which I always stretch on a drawing board.
However, if you are not very practised at watercolour techniques, cold-pressed paper (Not) is easier to use and more forgiving– try Bockingford 140lb (300gsm).
Palette for mixing pools of colour.
Cotton cloth or kitchen towel to wipe your brush on if you have excess paint or water.
Masking fluid, such as Pebeo
Drawing Gum
A ruling pen (optional)

Julia’s tips for good painting

The following is a useful checklist, whatever you are painting:

  • Accurate drawing – no amount of good painting technique will disguise a poor drawing.
  • Good composition – if your layout is boring or awkward you are less likely to attract the viewer, however good your detail.
  • Highlights – if you can make your subject look ‘lit’ it will have more life.
  • Contrast – make sure your picture has a range of tones from the very lightest to the very darkest. Having small areas of dark, even on a pale leaf, can make all the difference.

Julia Trickey trained in Visual Communication at Bath Academy of Art in the early 1980s and took up painting botanical watercolours in 1998. She now teaches classes in the Bath area and has run leaf painting workshops for botanical painting groups further afield. Julia particularly enjoys depicting autumn leaves, seed heads and fading flowers. She has received awards for her botanical watercolours, including two Royal Horticultural Society gold medals for leaf portraits (2006, 2008).

Read the full article by Julia in the May 2012 issue of The Artist