How to Draw a Leaf with Watercolor and Colored Pencils

green and white leafed plantsThis mixed media lesson is inspired by the pages of an O’ Henry short story. Written in 1907, “The Last Leaf” is a tale of two friends, both artists – one young and one old. The younger artist, stricken with pneumonia, is losing the will to live. From her window, she can see an ivy vine growing up the building across a narrow alley. With winter setting in, the vine is losing its leaves. The sick young woman proclaims to her friend that when the last leaf falls from that vine, she will die.

As winter passes, a single leaf remains on the vine. The young artist’s health improves, but her friend has stopped visiting. When the winter snow melts, he is found in the alley. He had passed away in the cold after painting, next to the vine with a single leaf.

As I write this, Autumn is setting in and the leaves are beginning to fall. These wonderful creations are each a masterpiece of their own. In this lesson, we’ll combine watercolor and colored pencils to create a drawing of a leaf with watercolor and colored pencils.

How to Draw a Leaf with Mixed Media

You will need the following materials…

Surface – Bristol Board (or illustration board, Bristol paper, or another smooth paper). This surface is rigid enough to support a variety of different mediums and strong enough to accept light watercolor applications.

Colored Pencils (I use Prismacolor pencils, but any other brands are fine.) General colors that are used…

White

Yellow-Green

Green

Dark Green

Yellow

Black

Brown

Red-Orange

A Colorless Blender

We’ll use a bit of black watercolor paint to splatter a bit of texture along with tempera paint or gouache to add a few finishing touches. You’ll need a few basic colors of tempera or gouache…

White

Yellow

Red

Blue

We’ll also use a few different brushes…

Small round watercolor brush (size 0 – 2)

Flat atercolor wash brush (¾ inch or larger)

Flat acrylic or oil painting brush (1/2 – 1 inch)

Step 1 – Tone the Paper with A Watercolor Wash

To follow along, print the reference photo from the link below. You can also take your own photo of a leaf.

For both steps one and two, you will need a cut-out of your leaf shape. To create a cut-out, draw your leaf shape on a separate sheet of paper. It isn’t crucial that your leaf match the reference exactly. Focus on the character of the contours (smooth, jagged, straight, wavy, etc.). After cutting out the leaf shape, trace it onto your project paper. For this mixed media piece, we will paint most of the background and draw most of the leaf.

Let’s begin in the background with a watercolor wash.

Step 2 – Watercolor Wash

Moisten the paper by painting around the leaf with clear water. Don’t wet the leaf shape. With the paper moist, brush strokes will bleed/blend together, creating an even layer of color. Dilute the black paint with enough water to make a very light grey.

Step 3 – Add Some Texture

The surface of an oak leaf is smooth. I like how the gritty, rough surface of the concrete juxtaposes with the leaf. Using the cut-out from step one, cover and mask the leaf shape in the drawing. This will protect the white of the paper. Use tape to hold the cut-out in place. Splatter and flick tiny flecks of watercolor paint onto the painting. Use the flat oil or acrylic brush for this. You can also use a toothbrush which also creates a nice splatter pattern.

Splatter the watercolor paint from different directions to avoid creating a distinct pattern. Vary the amount of water in the paint to create different values. Try more that one spatter technique (thumb over the bristles, wrist flicks, etc.). Have paper towels on hand to blot away any splatters that are too large or otherwise undesirable.

Once the paper has been covered, you may remove the mask from the leaf shape. The leaf shape is nearly free from speckles.

Step 4 – Debossing the leaf’s Veins

The small veins of the leaf are a challenging detail. Usually, I save details for last but in this case, addressing the leaf’s veins now will save some work in the end.

Debossing is stamping or pressing down into a surface. Using a hard point, (awl, compass tip, scissor tip, etc.) draw in the smaller veins. They will not show up well now, but after layering color pencil over these marks, the light-colored veins will emerge.

Here’s a closer look at the debossed veins of the leaf…

Step 5 – Add Details with Colored Pencils

The background speckles are a great start but some purposeful marks made with a black colored pencil will make them more convincing. The dark patch in the center of the composition and faint surface cracks add character and specificity to the image. Add small marks that are less circular and mire irregular than the watercolor splatters with the black colored pencil.

Look at the detail below. Can you distinguish the watercolor marks from the color pencil marks?

Step 6 – Adding Color and Value to the Leaf

Most leaves are flat with subtle surface undulations. This means that the value changes that create in the drawing will be subtle.

Starting with the yellow-green pencil, lightly shade near the central axis of the leaf. Develop the thick stem that runs through the middle by adding color along both of its sides. Switch to the green pencil and cover the entire leaf with a base coat of color. (Be sure to choose a natural green for this. Greens that lean closer to yellow-green will produce better results.)

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