Botanical patterns are a favorite among watercolor artists, and there’s no better place to start than by painting watercolor leaves. 

From thick, bushy leaves that would look right at home in a festive painting to delicate, spindly ferns that remind you of spring mornings, there are plenty of options out there for flexing your creative muscles. 

If you’ve never tried to paint watercolor leaves before, we’re here to show you just how simple it can be. 

How to Paint Watercolor Leaves

For most watercolor leaf paintings, you won’t need to use a pencil and sketch out a design first (although you certainly can, if you’d prefer). 

The best tip to remember is that leaves of every kind of tree are all unique, so they don’t need to be perfect—in fact, the flowy, loose style that comes so naturally when you’re using watercolors is perfect for this type of work. 

Step 1: Think About the Overall Shape

Practice painting different leaves to get used to the paint texture and feel.

No matter what kind of watercolor leaves you’re painting, start by thinking about the shape of the leaf as a whole. Is it more like a stretched oval than round? Do you need to have a branch down the middle that acts as the base for a fanned-out leaf design? 

Practice painting a few different shapes that you can add detail to later. It’s best to work from a reference photo or a real leaf, so that you always have something to compare your work to. 

Like almost anything you draw or paint, leaves can be broken down into individual shapes or lines to make your job easier. 

Step 2: Start With Palm Leaves and Fan-Leaf Shapes

Painting palm and fanned leaves is an easy place to get started.

Palms are easy watercolor leaves to paint as their structure is so basic. Grab your skinniest paintbrush, dip it in your darkest green, then carefully drag it across your paper in a slightly curved line. This drag and release method is great to use with watercolors as the water-heavy texture of the paint will naturally spread as you work.

From here, take your next thickest paintbrush and repeat the process going out from this line, or the center of your leaf. Leave small gaps between each line to give some definition to each individual piece of the leaf, a little like a hair comb would look. Once you’re finished with the first side, do exactly the same on the other side of the center line to complete your watercolor leaf. 

Use the drag and release method to create palm leaves

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Step 3: Experiment With Solid, Filled Leaves

Filled leaves are what you probably think of when you paint watercolor leaves.

Now that you’ve cracked the palm leaf shape, your next task is to work on solid or filled leaves. These are the kinds of leaves that you’re probably most familiar with, but you don’t need to stick to the most common shapes when painting watercolor leaves

watercolor flower
Break your painting down into shapes like ovals and triangles to make visualizing the leaf easier.

Purple oxalis leaves have a beautiful inverted triangle shape to them. Start by sketching out six triangle shapes, curving the edges to make them look less perfect once you’ve got the starter shape in place. 

When you’re happy with how the leaves look, you can use your watercolor paint to fill them in. Use a dark pen or your thinnest brush and darker paints to create shadow lines down the center of each pair of leaves.

Step 4: Give Your Filled Leaves a Unique Edge

watercolor leaves
Practice with various leaf shapes to master this skill.

Once you’re happy with your filled leaves, you’re ready to move on to learning how to draw less common shapes. 

Taking out your pencil is probably going to be a good idea for this step. Using your reference image to guide you, lightly sketch the shape of your leaf from the center and move out. The spine and veins of the leaf will help you to keep the structure as you add the outside details.

watercolor set up
Outline in pen to give you a clear, solid boundary to paint up to.

When you’re happy with the outline, you can add in the spiky or rounded edges that make up the sides of your leaf. Go over these in pen once you’re finished to give yourself painting guidelines, but leave the center portion in pencil as this should only appear faintly underneath your paint. Remember that the consistency of watercolor paint is fluid and can be translucent, depending on how much paint you use, so anything you paint over will still be seen.

You’re then ready to paint your watercolor leaves. It’s completely up to you what colors you choose to use–stick with traditional browns and greens, or embrace an autumnal feel with reds, oranges, and purples.

Step 5: Incorporate Your Leaves Into Designs

Leaves are excellent for borders, holiday cards, and prints.

You’ve mastered individual leaf painting, but what about putting everything together? Leaves make excellent borders around writing or beautiful picture frame insert, so put your new skills to the test with a bigger project.

watercolor leaves
Practice individual leaf shapes until you feel confident to work on a bigger project.

Before you begin, take some time to think about what kinds of leaves will work together. You could even paint different types of leaves on small scraps of paper and place them together as a mockup to see what the final piece will look like.

Frame your border first to help you see any missing pieces.

If you’re working on a border for something, use painting tape of a very light pencil line to mark where you want the frame to be. Once that’s mapped out, you can start painting your leaves. Go with the biggest first, whether they’re fanned or solid, and place them at the corners and key points of your border. This will help to make sure everything is visually balanced.

watercolor frame
Fill in spaces with smaller leaves in complementary or contrasting colors.

You can then start to fill in the gaps between your biggest leaves with smaller, more intricate designs. Dainty leaves can look really beautiful, especially when they’re painted in a contrasting color or a darker shade of the leaf next to them. Use your watercolors to build up layers of paint if you’re after a richer, rather than watery, finish.

Once your border is finished, you can fill in the middle of your artwork.

Keep repeating this same process until you’ve filled every space that you’d like around the border. Then you’re ready to either write in the center of the border or put the insert back into a picture frame when the paint is dry.

Let Nature Inspire You

Learning how to paint watercolor leaves takes some time, but by starting with the simplest first, you’ll soon find that you have the ability to create eye-catching and memorable designs using any kind of leaf shape. 

Remember, real leaves aren’t without their flaws, so you have plenty of flexibility to try new techniques, refine your skills, and create watercolor paintings you’re proud of. 

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Written by:

Holly Landis