October is Leaf-Painting Month!

Two of these leaves are real, and two on them are my paintings of leaves.

I can’t tell you how the real leaves are made, because I am not a tree.

But I can show you how I made my facsimiles.

Leaf No. 1:

The first thing you have to do when you look at a leaf with a painter’s eyes is to suss out your strategy. You do not paint a leaf all at once, you paint it in sections, sections (I call them “cells“) that are evident in its structure. And in this leaf, I see four cells:

This is how I’m going to paint this leaf; cell by cell.  Step 1:

Step 1: You can’t quite see it in this picture, but I’ve outlined the leaf (I laid the leaf on my paper and dragged a pencil around it so that I have an exact-sized silhouette).

Now I’m ready to begin with the first cell:

While my first wash of the main color (in this case, it’s an ocher-yellow)  is still wet, I will bleed in several other colors — in this leaf, it has green edges and brown rot spots inside the cells. And next, still while the paint is wet, I’m going to get out a straight pin and do this:

This is why I picked this leaf: it has great veins. And I’ve found that by using a straight pin to dig lines into the wet paper, I can make the best veins.

This is not hard to do. Just use the straight pin like an itty bitty pencil, and “draw” the veins into the wet watercolor. (Sorry that you can’t see it well in this pic — but remember, I’m snapping photos with my right hand while I’m painting with my left and we should be grateful that I’m able to get even these crappy shots).

OK. Veins done, we skip to another cell while the first one dries.

Cell 2:

Cell  3:

Note (above): This is a good shot of what the straight pin does to wet watercolor paper — see the veins? Not bad, huh?

The most boring part of painting a leaf is waiting for the watercolor to dry. So, to keep busy, I’ll do the stem:

Cell 4:




Yes, Grumbacher watercolor lightens when it dries: you might want to keep that in mind as you’re painting. Use lots of color! Use lots of red! Like this:

I chose this leaf because I want to show you a trick of the trade, namely Masking Fluid.

Masking Fluid comes in a little bottle (75ml for about $14.00) and it’s liquid stuff that you apply onto the parts of your picture where you want the paper to resist paint. I use a toothpick to “brush” it into small places — use whatever is easiest for you, but don’t use a paint brush. When this liquid dries it becomes waterproof, like rubber, and that is murder to get out of the bristles of your paint brush (I speak from experience).

But since it’s waterproof, you can paint right over it and when your painting is done, you just peel off the mask and voila!

The reason I’m using mask here is because this leaf has some tiny holes in it:

I’ll be putting  Masking Fluid on those little  holes,because I paid $14.00 for the stuff and I want to get some use out of it.

Now we can begin to paint:

Remember, the key to getting your Fall leaves to look real is to paint wet-into-wet, to create bleeds, like this (up-close):

And so on:

And, finally, we peel off the Art Masking Fluid:

I can’t tell you how peaceful it is, to paint these miniatures. I enjoy the concentration and smallness of painting one leaf at a time — it’s like meditation.

Just take your time, look closely at the leaf, get your strategy worked out before you start, let each cell dry before you paint the next one,and get lost in the details.

And here’s another big Merci from moi: if you’d like to have the  4-inch x 6-inch framed and signed original painting of this little red leaf, please leave a Comment below, requesting this prize. This blog is getting close — very, very close — to its 1,050th Comment and if you leave a note here, and you’re the lucky 1,050th Commenter, you’ll win this leaf painting!

See you Friday in the Winner’s Circle.

44 Comments, RSS

  1. Oh great. I was enjoying this little peek into art so much that I thought I would leave a comment, as, you know, an appreciator of art. But then I get to the bottom of the post and see that if I do leave a comment, I’m just a greedy philistine who wants something for nothing . . .

    But I still want it!

    Loved the post. (and the guest one over on BL’s blog)

  2. Janet

    Vivian, if we see leaves like these in Austin, it’s most likely to happen around Thanksgiving. Some years the trees are spectacular, some years the autumn leaves skip the color part, turn a boring brown and just fall off. It’s still very warm here, so having a glimmer of fall color now feels terrific. There is a red oak in our backyard that is thinking about changing colors, but it’s stalled on the switchover and can’t quite get from uninteresting brown to anything else.

    Who wouldn’t want one of your leaf masterpieces? I certainly would. I loved seeing how you create autumn on paper — you make it seem so easy, but that is how it works with people who are so good at what they do.

    I love your posts, and I bet I am not the only one who looks forward to jump starting my Monday and Friday with what you have to say or share.

  3. Shelley

    Your blog is the first thing I check on Monday and Friday ~ it’s my absolute favorite way to begin and end the week!

    I love the step by step de-mystifications of your painting process. I may even get brave enough to try it myself sometime, thanks to you.

    The leaves are beautiful, and I like your paintings even better than the real thing! I would love to be the lucky winner of your little red leaf artwork!

  4. Carol

    I would be so thrilled to have this picture. Autumn is my very favorite time of year and October my favorite month. And thank you for using this blog to give – for most of us – a first time exposure to instruction in the arts. Love to Top Cat and all the gang!!

  5. Great leaves! I would love to be the winner of your watercolor. I think I might even be able to do this with the help you’ve given. I live in Southern California, and the seasons (as seen in the trees) are not quite as pronounced as back east. However, the “liquid amber” (not botanical name) does change and drop its leaves, and my neighbor has two I can see from my front window. Beautiful in the fall! I’m always asking if they’d mind my collecting leaves from their lawn either for decoration (or composting since I need dry matter:-). Thanks for the demonstration. Very cool!

  6. Rachel

    Vivian, the painting lessons are just a treasure. I do hope they will turn into another, already well started, book after you finish France, and yes, you will finish, I am sure of it. Otherwise Betsy will come out there and kill you. 🙂

  7. These are gorgeous. I have no eye for color at all, which is probably why I’ve confined myself to photography. My leaf would probably end up magenta by the time I finished. Like Downith, I feel guilty to put my hand out, but I covet that watercolor.

    Loved your post on Betsy, too. I was hoping we’d hear from you this week.

  8. Carol

    I so love it when you offer your fabulous art work up to a lucky recipient!
    I am intrigued by water color, but have not and don’t think it is probably in future to try.
    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Barbara Lemme

    I love Fall leaves and we get few of them in the AZ deserts! Thanks so much for the tutorial. I’d love to have the original!

  10. Barb

    This is my first visit to the blog portion of your site – I have heard how compelling it is. This leaf demo is fascinating. I have purchased and given away numerous copies of When Wanderers…but it took a young person to alert me to your website. I enjoy every dimension of your painting, subject choice, layout and themes. But what really impressed me was the addition to all that of your embroidered pictures. (Another passion of mine) I am a beginning watercolor painter and your demos are very generously helpful. I am going to my table right now and try it out. Thank you so much for all your shared talents. Best wishes, Barb

  11. Mindy Clark

    I love your step-by-step demos. It makes me think even I have some small chance of painting something I might actually show someone. Thank you!

  12. I liked that you chose two leaves that are “wabi sabi” in their decaying states ….beauty in the imperfect. Thank you for sharing your painting process.

  13. Jacquelyn

    by Robert Frost

    O hushed October morning mild,
    Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
    To-morrow’s wind, if it be wild,
    Should waste them all.
    The crows above the forest call;
    To-morrow they may form and go.
    O hushed October morning mild,
    Begin the hours of this day slow,
    Make the day seem to us less brief.
    Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
    Beguile us in the way you know;
    Release one leaf at break of day;
    At noon release another leaf;
    One from our trees, one far away;
    Retard the sun with gentle mist;
    Enchant the land with amethyst.
    Slow, slow!
    For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
    Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
    Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
    For the grapes’ sake along the wall

    Yes, it IS Coyote month……my 14 yr. old grand-cat may have been gobbled up by one as he went off to morning hunt in coast range vineyard where his person and my son is caretaker.
    What a dear gentleman cat he was. Two weeks have passed, the leaves are falling along with our tears.
    The Frost poem above arrived in writer’s workshop announcement email yesterday. I think of the falling foilage as “post toasties” season. That is what all the leaves from the big chestnut on Madrone Point and the leaves of big island maples bring to mind.
    And reading the blog this morning, vivian, I fancied no other than Jack Frost amusing you on your shoulder.

  14. Oh how I would love a little leaf watercolor to tuck inside my first edition of your first book. Thanks for this chance. Since I didn’t win the tea. (Not to be greedy. Just sayin’.)

    I so enjoy your blog. Thank you for writing *and* illustrating…

  15. mo

    i love reading your blog. your stories are just so full of creative details and fun anecdotes. i especially enjoyed this one, about the leaves, because fall is my favorite time of the year. and yes, of course i’d love to have your leaf painting. it reminded me of fall in Wisconsin and all the glorious colors of the leaves. i’ve lived in New Mexico for 30 years and mostly what you see is gold. i still miss those fantastic red leaves!

  16. Anne L

    Thank you, Vivian for the beautiful reminder about drawing and painting. I am in a different part of the country this October, and enjoying the beautiful leaves of all trees that are different than ones I usually see. I have been photographing trees and fallen leaves, and collecting them to scan. I thought of the old trick we used to have in elementary school – iron leaves between pieces of waxed paper to preserve them. But you have inspired me to try my hand at watercolor, and have provided such a wonderful how-to guide!

  17. Thank you so much for sharing this process – and I am going to try it for myself. I think it could vastly improve my daubs!
    I was going to comment on your beautiful leaves in any case – and now I see there is the possibility ………

  18. Vivian,

    Thank you for showing us your artistic process. It’s illuminating for how we can do it in our own work, but also for seeing how you create the work that we love so much. Happy fall to you!

    Best wishes,

  19. Sally

    Another greedy philistine, Vivian. However, I do appreciate your mini-lessons–I send those of my senior-center watercolor class that have on-line access to your site to look at them– and one of my students produced a stunning, larger than a tea bag painting of trees based on one of your demos. I’ll see if she will let me share the image with you.

  20. Marina

    Thankyou so much for this instruction..its so hard to capture the Autumn colours and leaf shapes…maybe with your help I will get a little better at it.

    I am hoping you may do an instructional book of watercolour journaling one day soon!

  21. Ooo, please be ME! I’d love to have one of your paintings! They’re absolutely beautiful.

    I’ve missed a dozen turns this week gawking at all the color instead of paying attention to my driving (but I live in MA so it’s not noticeable). It’s so good to be home.

  22. I would love to win this lovely leaf! Your art is gorgeous and lively and fun. I just found your book last week and am enthralled. I, too, am a first-time-published-author-in-her-50s. Your story is wonderful! Looking forward to more!

  23. Susan

    Hi, Vivian!

    Although I’m probably WAAAY past your leaf-winner-comment point, I did want to let you know that I love your art and your words! A friend turned me on to your blog, and I’ve been reading it from the first post up to today, finally catching up with current events (I’m also reading When Wanderers Cease to Roam, one chapter each night before bedtime). It will be tough to adjust to a few posts a week, rather than the few posts a day I’ve been eagerly reading, but THANK YOU for putting your wonderful world out here for the rest of us to enjoy!!!

  24. Nadine

    Well, go know. Art Masking Fluid. And here I thought Vivian had great brush control and painted around the holes in the leafs in her book. The Masking Fluid is a much better method.

    I read about Jacquelyn’s Gentleman Cat on Monday and couldn’t think of anything wise and comforting to say about her loss, so I thought I’d wait a bit to make a post. I didn’t know so many people would beat me! I hope I’m not too late.

  25. Why have I waited so long to find your blog??!!

    My sister-in-law told me that I had to read “When Wanderers Cease to Roam” but my 85 year old Mom was spending a month at my house and by the time I’d taken her back home and got her moved into a senior housing apartment, I forgot.

    Now Margaret from marancat blog mentioned your leaf painting tut and I came over and have spent way too long reading backward through your last couple of months.

    Needless to say, I’ve subscribed,

    So nice to “meet” you. Oh, and I just happen to be one of those Class of 1970 girls. I had to miss my 40th reunion this summer due to an illness. I’ll surely make the 50th.


  26. Wow! Thank you so much! I love painting leaves but they always seemed to lack some realism when finished… probably because I was taking a “whole leaf” approach. I can’t wait to try the cell approach you showed here. Super inspiring thank you- you’ve got a new regular!

  27. Joan/Jesse

    What a pleasant surprise to find a link to your blog on the EDM listserv. I have your delightful book which I read from cover to cover in one sitting. Lovely of you to post your artful methods and little tricks, like the straight pin.
    I love fall, love the leaves, and just finding out that it’s Coyote month…my favorite mammal who I get to see frequently living in the high desert.

    Hope I win this painting!


  28. Ruth Olson

    I love Fall leaves! Oh how I regret I did not know these tricks to painting them when I lived in Vermont – they were everywhere and now here I am in Florida with palms, pines and palmetto. I’d love your painting. And I’m off now to try my hand at copying yours!

  29. Gemma Hoskins

    Vivoan I attended your presentation at Charlestown yesterday and am totally mesmerized by your triscuits. I am reading the book all over again and marveling at your skill. Can’t wait to try this with some leaves. And can’t wait to continue reading your blog each day. And can’t wait to read the next book! Thank you for sharing your life and your gifts with us. You rock big time. And that lady on Amazon needs to get a life.

  30. Wow, I haven’t been here in a long time. (I lost the blog when you got moved off Wisdom Woman). This is a great tutorial. Thanks bunches! I have to share this with my granddaughter who is learning to paint with watercolor. Now I too, have an excuse to use that expensive bottle of masking fluid!

  31. Smush

    Don’t even remember where I found the link to your blog, but I’m obsessed with leaves — and finding journal painting a lot less intimidating than painting canvas (which takes me forever!) — I was looking to paint some in my journal! Thanks for the lesson!

    The leaves here don’t really change with much color, they usually go from green to brown. But I’m going to go for a walk in a few minutes and see if I can come across something interesting. Thanks so much for the inspiration! I mean it!


  32. Diane

    I just followed a link from Faint Heart Art here and am so glad to find you. I already have your book and have been reading it a month at a time. I did not realize you had a blog or I would have been here sooner.
    This leaf painting demo is perfect. I have been trying to paint some leaves and can now see the many things I have been doing wrong. Thanks for such a clear demonstration!

  33. Came here through a link on Melanie Testa’s blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together. LOVE IT! May many happy things come your way as a consequence of your generousity!

  34. Linda Jacks

    Your step-by-step of the leaf is very helpful since I’m working on drawing/watercolor. I also gave your book to my next door neighbor’s daughter before she left to be first year photojournalism student. Needed to know to look first where she is to get interesting things. Great book. LJ

  35. Jeannie

    I am also here from Melly’s blog. Thank you so much for the tutorial. I have never used watercolors but I am game to try now. Thank you!

  36. Patricia

    I’m actually TAKING an autumn watercolor class where we learn to paint leaves … but since mine won’t have the lovely veining and bleeds that yours does, I really want one of your perfectly imperfect (as real nature is) paintings of a leaf. Please.
    And thank you for sharing “how to paint a leaf” even if mine will look more like what gets stuck to the bottom of your cast …

  37. Vivian
    Glad you are enjoying your new paints-there really is an enormous difference in the color of your newest paintings!Thank you for the continual inspiration to paint the small things that are around us that mark the miraculous events that occur all the time.Thanks Vivian
    Oh and I totally love the photo of the vermillion ochre umbrella girl!

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