A Simple Leaf Step-by-Step Tutorial
Following on from last week’s lesson, where we looked at the problem of the midday sun, I’ve put together a simple study in shaded light.
In this acrylic step-by-step, we look at creating a green ‘colour string’ and working on separating the darks and lights in a leaf-dense subject.
Downloading the reference photograph
The photo can be downloaded, and printed out, and follow the steps below.
Looking at the reference image, there are two main groups of greens.
A warm yellow-green in the lights and then a darker olive green in the shadows.
There are a few sky holes in-between the leaves, creating a lovely pattern of negative spaces. We can use these to help guide our drawing, but they also add an edge that helps define the shape of the leaves in the final piece. There are lots of overlapping hues in this cluttered composition, so it’s a case of trying to simplify the visual information to create a painterly impression.
Materials you will need:
I used a piece of board I found in my studio, which was around 33 x 20cm. I’ve scaled down the reference image above so it fits onto a piece of A4 paper for ease of printing out; it’s the same ratio as my board but a slightly smaller size.
I also prepped the board with a couple of coats of acrylic gesso (I like the one from Golden Paints), but you could also use a canvas or acrylic paper.
- Titanium White (Golden Paints)
- Cadmium Yellow Light (Golden Paints)
- Hansa Yellow Light (Golden Paints)
- Raw Umber (Golden Paints)
- Cobalt Blue (Golden Paints)
You could also use Bismuth Yellow in place of Cadmium Yellow Light and/or Burnt Umber instead of Raw Umber.
- Flat – Jacksons Arts Procryl, size 6.
- Round – Winsor & Newton Galeria, size 4
I start by applying a tonal ground colour of Raw Umber and Titanium White mix to the board. I use a palette knife to mix the two pigments together on a tear-off palette, starting with the white and then adding a little Raw Umber at a time.
The paint I’m using is a heavy body acrylic paint, so has quite a thick consistency. I want a thinner, more fluid application, so I dilute the paint with a mix of 50/50 water and Airbrush Medium. You can just use water, but the Airbrush Medium helps to maintain paint film integrity when working in more transparent applications.
I apply the colour with a flat decorator’s brush in a thin application that creates an opaque covering. I don’t want it too thick because you still want to be able to draw on top of it. Leave that to dry, which will take around 10-15 minutes.
Sepia High Flow Acrylic, FW Mixed Media Marker and 1.0mm hard nib
I’m using a 1mm hard round nib with a Daler Rowney FW Mixed Media paint marker to draw out the main leaf shapes.
I love this pen because the paint marker comes empty, which you can fill with any fluid paint or ink you like. I’m using Sepia high-flow acrylic, which I’ve found is a good neutral brown and fluid consistency.
I use this pen a lot; if you hold it upright, you have the fine point, but if you hold it in an overhand grip, you can use the side edge for a wider chisel mark. It also works well out and about for urban or landscape sketches because if you want to later add a wash effect or more colour to your piece, you’ve already got an acrylic base. You can use the same hi-flow acrylic and the ink is already sympathetic to the painting.
You can judge how thin the ground colour application is but the visible texture of the wooden grain.
I hatch the areas that will be in shadow and try to keep the line work fluid and loose.
Blocking in shadow shapes
Once that’s drawn out, I use a bit of the sepia high-flow acrylic diluted with airbrush medium and a #4 round brush.
I apply it in a thin wash as if it were a watercolour painting. I’m looking at the tonal values to try and group my darks and lights, so I’ve created a first map of where things are placed within the painting.
Adding the background
With Titanium White, I paint in the negative spaces and shapes around the leaves.
Mixing a yellow
When looking at the greens in the reference, I wanted to mix a yellow base that all my greens would come from, that was halfway between a cool yellow (Hansa yellow) and a warm yellow (Cadmium yellow). If you have a Bismuth yellow, you could use that too.
Once I have my yellow base mix at the top, I can mix a range of four greens from it, creating a colour string. I’m looking for small incremental jumps in tone.
For the first green, I start by taking some of the yellow base and adding a little Raw Umber to mute it down. For the second mix, I take some of the first mix and progressively add more Raw Umber each time, and so on down the string.
At the bottom of the string, as well as the Raw Umber, I increase the intensity by introducing a tiny touch of Cobalt Blue to the last two greens.
I wash in a thin application of the lightest green over the leaves I can see in the light.
I then work down the values of the colour string to indicate the light and shadow pattern on the face of the leaves. Notice the brushmarks are definite, maintaining a flat stroke; I use painterly marks, not getting too concerned with blending.
Where the light is hitting the lightest parts, I add a little white into the lightest green in my string, for a cooler tone.
To create this deep olive green for the shadow area, I add more Raw Umber into the darkest green mix on my colour string. I’m applying this in one flat block-in throughout the entirety of the shadow shapes.
Once the darks are in, I felt the lights could have a bit more vibrancy. I can also judge the colours more clearly now, and feel more confident about going thicker with the paint, so I reinforce the saturation of the lighter greens.
At this point in a painting, knowing I’ve got a good foundation down, I can be more intuitive, looking at the painting, what looks out etc.. rather than being so focused on the reference image. I can be freer in my mixes and marks.
So I start to introduce different variations of greens within the shadows and onto the front of the leaves by working up and down the colour string and using the Raw Umber to mute down and darken the hues and the Cobalt Blue to add intensity.
I noticed the top leaves were a too sharper line, so I soften that edge to draw the focus more towards the centre of the painting. I then look for the lightest lights and mix a lighter cool green adding areas of light detail. I’m still painting using the technique of placing a brushmark down without trying to blend it too much to maintain a fresh impression.
Hope you enjoy it, and if you’d like to learn more about mixing greens, you might enjoy these demos: