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How to paint a tree and leaves with watercolor, a step by step tutorial: Leaves Lace

Leaves Lace, watercolor on paper

Leaves Lace,
watercolor on paper,
19.5 x 27 inches,


Painting trees and leaves can be tricky, you have to decide what level of detail you want to achieve. When painting a tree from a distance, artists will usually look for areas of the same color. In this particular case I wanted individual leaves to be discernible. I didn’t paint every leaf, but did start with a very detailed drawing and stayed as close as I could to my reference picture.

Here is a link to a post that shows you how to build your own light box to transfer a detailed drawing.


You will need:

  • Watercolor paints, I used:
    • Daniel Smith Burnt Sienna,
    • Reeves Payne’s grey,
    • Holbein Cobalt Turquoise,
    • Da Vinci Prussian blue, sap green, and cadmium lemon,
    • Van Gogh Madder Lake Light.
    • I also used a bit of black from my Yarka watercolor pan set
  • Watercolor paper ( I used Arches hot press)
  • A system to stretch your paper
  • Masking fluid also called liquid frisket ( I used Da Vinci masking fluid)
  • a selection of various brushes as well as a silicon brush for masking fluid

Watercolor painting palette

stretching watercolor paper

Once your drawing has been transferred onto your paper, stretch it with your favorite stretching system. Here I used a stretching board. Wetting the paper carefully won’t remove the graphite. Let your paper dry.

painting leaves with watercolors

Start painting the leaves, mixing different shades of green from sap green, adding yellow, blue or red, and mixing some of the colors wet in wet. Look carefully at your reference picture to paint the different types of green you see.

painting leaves with watercolor

Painting a big very detailed painting can be intimidating but very manageable if you paint it one section at a time, making your way across the painting.

all leaves painted with watercolor

Once you are done with one element of the painting, it can be helpful to stop for a while and assess what you have done. Here I like the result but find I am missing a bit of contrast to get the effect of the light showing through the leaves. I decide to apply a darker wash of green on some of the leaves to increase contrast.

darkening some green leaves

Mixing sap green and madder lake will give you a very dark green, I am applying it as a glaze on some of the leaves I want a bit darker.

painting some leaves darker

Here is the painting after I did darken some areas on the leaves.

painting the tree trunk


To paint the trunk, start by painting light brown washes, that correspond to the lighter color you can see on the trunk on your reference picture. This is the basis layer from which you will start building up your texture.

painting the trunk


Working one section at a time, paint darker washes adding texture to the trunk.

Working more on the trunk


Keep adding layers of texture until you are satisfied with the result.

removing masking fluid


When the painting had time to dry, remove the masking fluid. I usually recommend to  soften the edges after masking fluid has been removed and paint a light wash on the white areas but for this particular painting I want to keep the white areas very crisp to add to the effect of light shinning through the leaves.

close up of masking fluid removed

Here is a close up of an area with the masking fluid removed.

Leaves Lace, watercolor on paper

Leaves Lace,

watercolor on paper,

19.5 x 27 inches,

And here is a time lapse video of the whole process


Have you tried painting trees in watercolor? What was the most challenging for you?

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{ 17 comments… add one }

  • Puangtip April 14, 2015, 3:33 am

    Thanks for ur generous sharings. It is very helpful and inspiring on the beginner like me.

  • Puangtip April 14, 2015, 3:30 am

    Thanks for all ur generous sharings .it is very helpful and inspiring on the beginner like me.

  • Reema December 26, 2014, 7:09 am

    Thank you for the instructions. Its a beautiful work of art. I tried it myself today. And although it felt tedious in the beginning, your suggestion of working in sections made it quite enjoyable.

  • jhon012 September 10, 2013, 9:08 pm

    I really enjoy your work and am so impressed with your methods and how generous you are in sharing them.

  • Susan July 15, 2013, 6:29 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’m pretty new to watercolor and I greatly appreciate your willingness to share. The step by step techniques are so helpful and your work is very inspiring!

  • mercedes June 11, 2013, 6:59 am

    magnífica demostración. gracias. Phantastic demos.. Thankyou

  • Muru May 21, 2013, 1:36 pm

    Thanks for the demo.
    The reference – is it a photo printed on big paper?

  • Christine Holzschuh May 21, 2013, 8:20 am

    I love your work and am so impressed with your methods and how generous you are in sharing them…I learn something every time I look at your work…I don’t even paint in watercolors!

  • Meredith May 21, 2013, 6:09 am

    Love the perspective of this painting.

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