How to Paint Leaves (Without Getting Caught up in the Details)

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In this post, you will learn fundamental tips for painting leaves. I cover:

Many painters seem to get caught up in all the intricate details when painting leaves. They use a small brush to painstakingly depict every single leaf on a tree. But, despite the effort, the end result often looks overworked and tedious.

These tips will help you take a more efficient approach to paint leaves. Throughout this post, I will use the following painting as an example. It depicts the stunning landscape at Queenstown, New Zealand after I finished walking the Routeburn track.

Dan Scott, Queenstown, New Zealand, 2019
Dan Scott, Queenstown, New Zealand, 2019

Simplify down to the Basic Elements

One of the most challenging aspects of painting leaves is simplifying all the “noise” down to the basic artistic elements (shapes, colors, lines, edges, etc). In the reference photo which I painted from (below) you are confronted with countless shapes, colors and lines.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Below is a rough outline of the basic shapes which I can see in the leaves. These basic shapes help me pinpoint where and how to start; they give me the foundation to build the rest of the painting on.

Queenstown, New Zealand - Shapes

After simplifying the leaves down to basic elements (which I briefly do in my head before picking up my brush) I apply my ideas to the canvas. Below is the result after the initial block-in.

Queenstown, New Zealand, Color Block-in

Use Broken Color

Broken color refers to the technique of using small dabs of distinct color to render form. It is highly effective for painting leaves, as it allows you to easily and efficiently capture all the different colors as they appear in nature.

On my trip to New Zealand, the colors were out in force; rich yellows, greens and oranges filled the landscape. The big idea for my painting was to try and faithfully capture some of those beautiful colors.

My strategy was to apply a general wash of color, then go over the top with small dabs of distinct yellows and greens (broken color) until the trees came to life.

Dan Scott, Queenstown, New Zealand, Detail of Leaves

Note: The broken color technique does not involve carelessly placing dabs of color all over the place. Every dab of color should add value to the overall form of the subject. But of course, there will invariably be a sacrifice in intricate detail, brushwork and edges.

Identify the Darkest Darks and Lightest Lights

If you are struggling with simplifying the leaves down to the basic elements, then start by identifying two of the most important reference points – the darkest darks and lightest lights.

For the Queenstown scene, the darkest leaves are on the left in the background. The lightest lights are scattered throughout the leaves, but there are some light clusters here and there. Below is the scene in grayscale so you can see the darkest darks, lightest lights and all the other values.

Queenstown, New Zealand, Grayscale

Save Highlights for Last and Don’t Overdo Them!

Highlights can really make or break your painting. Be patient and save them for last, after you have painted in all the shapes and mid-tones.

Also, make sure you don’t overdo the highlights. At most, they should be strong accents. They should not start taking over the mid-tones. Highlights are more powerful when used sparingly.

Tip: Many artists default to pure titanium white every time they need to add a highlight. But, most of the time, pure titanium white will look out of place in your painting. Instead, consider using light versions of other colors (light greens, yellows, oranges, etc).

Be Careful with Color Saturation

You will rarely see vivid or highly saturated colors in nature. Most of the time, you will see toned-down versions of colors. All those rich greens, yellows and blues you see in nature are far from vivid colors.

Even for painting the colorful New Zealand landscape, I had to significantly tone-down all the colors I used. If I had used any vivid colors straight from the tube, it would look jarring and out of place.

To show what I mean, I placed a vivid green and vivid yellow shape over the photo below. Observe how dull the yellows and greens of the leaves are by comparison. This example may seem slightly dramatic, but it demonstrates my point.

Queenstown, New Zealand - Saturated Colors

Take Advantage of Negative Space

Negative space refers to the space that surrounds an object; space that the object takes up is positive space.

People tend to only focus on the positive space (the object itself) rather than the negative space (the space around the object). They focus on painting all the leaves on a tree (positive space) but ignore the exposed blue sky between the gaps in the leaves (negative space).

In my Queenstown painting, the small dabs of blue to indicate gaps in the leaves are just as important, if not more, than the leaves themselves. Those dabs of blue provide essential information about the trees; where they are positioned, how dense the leaves are, what is behind the trees, how high the land is in the background, etc.

The following numbers and corresponding notes give you an idea of what the negative space tells us.

Dan Scott, Queenstown, New Zealand, Negative Space Drawing
  1. Just a few dabs of blue indicate there is some exposed sky behind this area.
  2. There are more dabs of blue around this area, suggesting the leaves are less dense and that there is exposed sky behind.
  3. There are dabs of both light blues and light purples. This tells us where the distant mountain stops and the sky starts. The blue is also a touch lighter than the blue at the top of the painting, which helps provide a sense of depth.
  4. This area is fairly complex and a strong feature of the painting. The considerable amount of negative space indicates that the leaves are not that dense and that there are no overlapping trees.
  5. This area marks the end of the tree line. The yellow leaves and blue sky are interlaced at the transition.
  6. This is an interesting area where negative space actually becomes the main focus.

Build up a Sense of Movement

If you want to add a level of complexity to your painting, then try to capture a sense of movement in the leaves. Ask yourself:

  • What paths do your eyes follow?
  • How are all the leaves connected?
  • Which way is the wind blowing, if at all?

You don’t need to make it obvious. In fact, subtle is usually more effective.

Below, I indicate the general movement captured by my brushstrokes.

Dan Scott, Queenstown, New Zealand, Movement and Lines

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

95 comments on “How to Paint Leaves (Without Getting Caught up in the Details)”

      • Here you’ve shared such critical information to consider when creating a sense of real depth, enough about the form of the leaves, and various colours
        Within the specific areas of the tree. I’m sure I’d have tried to tackle this image in the most tedious and painstaking fashion
        Without your insights.

        Reply
      • Agree, Tom. I won’t write another comment because you said exactly what I wanted to say. Thanks, Dan, for giving us useful examples in a straight forward way.

        Reply
    • Thank you for this detailed lesson. It is one that I have looked to have from professional artists that I have come teach to my Artist’s Guild. They have not captured the whole lesson like you have. The marked paintings have helped me really get the lesson fully. It has been a difficult transition from icons and pen and ink to oil painting. I’ve had to learn to go from tight, exact to loose and impressionistic. This lesson could have saved me some agonizing turns of Paint-swear-throw away-paint-again! I now do a daily painting and it has taught me a lot. Thanks again!

      Reply
    • Dear Dan, everytime I read your advice I a surprised about your generosity. You are a very kind teacher whom’s painting ‘rules’
      I happely follow.
      I would like to thank you for all that from the other end of the world. Belgium is where I live

      Reply
    • Hi Dan,

      I have been your blog and I did email as well. I have been looking for someone who can teach like you have been doing.

      Manoj

      Reply
    • So helpful!! I always struggle with leaves ! Great and easy advice , thank you , will definitely apply this lesson to my art.

      Reply
    • Hi Vanessa. Dont forget that with watercolour you work light to dark. Dan’s process would still apply in that you would look for shapes and values. But you build with different value washes. Leave highlights at the beginning and add darks at the end.

      Reply
  1. Hey Dan! That was a great post about painting leaves. Simplify is key. I do get lost in detail a lot of times. Your post was very helpful. Thanks again.

    Reply
  2. Thank you very much for this post Dan!
    I like to paint landscapes from the photos I take and hopelessly struggle with details.
    I try to follow your tips next time

    Reply
  3. Excellent ! Quick question . The cast shadow in the photo is dead . The cast shadow in your painting is alive … and much more convincing . How do you determine the hue and tone ? THANKYOU !

    Reply
    • Hi Russ. Interesting question. I made the assumption the photo was underexposed in the cast shadow. My thought process for the cast shadow color was to use a dark and cool version of the local color of the grass. Cool because it was getting hit by light from the cool blue sky. So I mixed green with blue and toned that down with some red.

      Hope this helps!

      Dan

      Reply
  4. Gratitude for your time, passion, knowledge as well as your effective way to explain a process. I’ve learned loads with you, man.
    Liz Coyle

    Reply
  5. You gave a lot of information. Straight forward, easy to understand and mist important if all…REMEMBER. You are a gifted teacher. Thank you.

    Reply
  6. Very good lesson in painting trees! Probably the most important thing is to see the tree shapes and forms as you have demonstrated. That I believe is the KEY. I sort of paint as you have except that I could not explain how or why to paint in these ‘steps’ as you have shown very clearly.

    Evergreen trees give me the most trouble where I sometimes make them too dense. Hope you will show how to paint these in your landscape course.

    Reply
  7. I have just faced the leaves dilemma in painting autumn trees round Lake Taupo. What you state in your advice is so apt. I found looking at them as shapes with value variations worked for me.

    Reply
  8. You’ll never know how much I appreciate your email lessons! This is an important one for me–I tend to get too much into detail even when I don’t want to. I think it must be practiced to be able to free up one’s painting. Thanks again!

    Reply
  9. One of the best art instructions I have come across. I am a retired person living in Srilankan and have taken up acrylic painting as a hobby. Your instructions have helped me so much. Can you have an article on how to paint water lilies and water bodies specially the reflections. Thanks once again for the most valuable detailed lessons.

    Reply
  10. Thanks Dan,

    Very informative as usual. You make sound all to simple.

    I guess a little bit of talent helps also.

    I love trees (who doesn’t ?) so this one really appeals to me.
    Thanks ,Dave M (AUSTRALIA)

    Reply
    • Hi Dan,I always learn something from what you post,much
      appreciated that you take the time to share your knowledge
      with others.
      Many thanks,Judy

      Reply
  11. Hi Vanessa. Dont forget that with watercolour you work light to dark. Dan’s process would still apply in that you would look for shapes and values. But you build with different value washes. Leave highlights at the beginning and add darks at the end.

    Reply
  12. It is really helpful!
    I find myself improved my painting from all aspects after reading Dan Scott’s ebook and post.

    Reply
  13. Thank you so much Dan. This is very helpful for me. Sometimes I just do a practice on canvas paper of trees, or rocks….I think I will try that exercise again after reading this. So much to learn! It’s a process!!!

    Reply
  14. Hello Dan,
    I just want to thank you for your blog! I absolutely love reading it and have learned a big deal since I started reading. You make easy to see your point and are helping us to improve our painting.

    Reply
  15. Hi Dan,
    Once again another post for my archive. I enjoyed it immensely and learned a lot. Thank you for your hard work! I hadn’t appreciated how important the negative space is. So very helpful indeed.

    Thank you so much
    Allyson

    Reply
  16. Just as i’m wondering how to begin painting leaves in something i’m working on now, this post arrived! I couldn’t believe it! Thank you!! So helpful!

    Reply
  17. Hi Dan,
    Thank you again for your wonderful help. I signed up last year for your painting academy but have been sidelined with some health issues. I am going to start my painting efforts again and will be checking in with your lessons in the painting academy. I look forward to learning and expressing myself on canvas. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Sounds good Keran, you have lifetime access so the information will be there available when you are ready to get stuck into it! Thanks, Dan

      Reply
  18. Hi, Dan:
    I, too, enjoyed reading this informative post. Did you do an underpainting first? What were your colors for the various areas?
    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • Hi Anita

      Yes I did a rough underpainting which was basically just blocking in the color shapes. I used yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, viridian green, cadmium red, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue and titanium white.

      Thanks!

      Dan

      Reply
  19. Dan, I wish I’d seen this before doing my latest painting, although I was aware of overworking the trees and bushes because of taking your courses. What I especially liked about this lesson on leaves was the lines drawn for capturing the areas and shapes, as well as the lines drawn to show movement. I’m learning so much from you. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    Reply
  20. Hi Dan, Thanks for the tips . You have certainly started me on a pathway that I’m thoroughly enjoying. Your painting course is great. Discovered when I look at trees I look for depth or what’s hidden. I think it comes from my counselling experience because I’m always looking for what’s not obvious. Playing around with gradients of colour and experimenting so important. As well as taking notes and then exploring what I’ve learnt and what requires more work.

    Reply
  21. This article and your Rocks and Cliffs post have been life savers for me. I painted years ago and am starting to get serious about it now that I am retired. I have lost my knowledge and am so grateful to you for helping me relearn so many things!

    Reply
  22. Hi Dan,

    I started to read your several post recently. But I learn a lot from them. Thanks so much for sharing the knowledge.

    Regards

    Tessa

    Reply
  23. Well timed here as I am about to attempt a streetscape with a couple of trees in the painting.
    The advice you give here is really good. Now I just need to follow it….
    I lived in Arrowtown for several years, (39yrs ago), just down the road from Queenstown. Lovely spot.
    Thank you again for all the inspiration!
    Kind Regards Dianne in St Helens.

    Reply
  24. Thanks Dan. I am so happy with the course and all these extra. Glad I found your school. You are very generous with your insights.

    Reply
  25. I know that beach. It is the main beach in front of the town. Down to the very left is a huge and very amazing old bent tree. Thanks for the interesting tutorial. I lived in NZ for 12 yrs.

    Reply
  26. Thanks Dan that was a very very helpful lesson! I love painting landscapes so this especially has been helpful.
    Regards Ingrid Repetti.

    Reply
  27. Thanks for your expert advice. I have only done one scene with landscape and animals. It is much more work and time consuming. But I want to get better at landscapes, trees and live animals and people which are a challenge.

    Reply
  28. Dan, thanks for the lesson! I am a pensioner, I live in Kazan, working with oil is my hobby. Your lesson has completed and streamlined my knowledge, especially about negative pop viewing. I really liked that the theory is accompanied by a demonstration of pictures, everything is very clear. Thank you!

    Reply
  29. Enjoy these insights and I follow them faithfully. You are so generous with your knowledge in a great way. Definitely a talented teacher. Thank you.

    Reply
  30. Thank you Dan. This is just the advice I needed. Absolutely love your paintings, especially because the colours are gorgeous and believable and the style is loose.

    Reply
  31. This is the most articulate ,articulate , detailed instructive article which explain and step, by step demostrats of how to paint leaves . acually these procedure , especailly about Positivr and negative effects, could be applayed to all subjects.

    I usually paint intutively with abstract , and enjoy playing with colores. I like to learn about color
    relations and effecs. I would like to register in your painting schoo. Because you are a generous and competent and very patient teacher. thank you very much.

    Reply

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