Main image for Peggy Dean article for DANIEL SMITH, Create Elegant Watercolor Leaves in 5 Easy Steps.

I’m thrilled to bring you my step-by-step process when creating loose, elegant leaves. I find that loose watercolor techniques can oftentimes feel intimidating to many and I’m here to tell you that it’s quite the opposite! In fact, this style will most likely come easier to you than any other that you’ve tried. 

I’m going to take it a step further by not only showing you the very simple brush strokes needed to achieve this style, but also how to create layers of opacity to really enhance the effect and make your leaves demand the attention they deserve. This is a project that can be created as a standalone piece, added to invitations, table place cards, wedding suites, you name it. They never go out of style. 

Supplies Needed

  • Two shades of green watercolor – I’ll be using DANIEL SMITH’s Cascade Green & Perylene Green
  • Round brush – I’m using a #6
  • 140lb/300gsm cold press watercolor paper – I’m using a 7”x10” sheet
  • Jar of water
Peggy Dean Watecolor Palette, close up photo. Article for DANIEL SMITH
Peggy Deans’ Watecolor Palette, close up.

Step One: Get to Know Your Brush

To create leaves, you need to know how to take advantage of your round brush.  A round brush has the ability to execute thin or thick strokes depending on the amount of pressure you apply. When using the tip of your brush with little pressure, your stroke will be thin. When you apply more pressure, the stroke thickens quite a bit. The larger the brush size, the more real estate you’ll cover. 

Notice that on my thick stroke, I’ve set the brush down on its side, while the brush itself it upright, perpendicular to the paper. 

Steps showing how to paint leaves in watercolor, article for DANIEL SMITH by Peggy Dean
Brush pressure used for painting leaves in watercolor.

You can combine those two pressures in the same stroke to create a thick stroke that gradually thins out into a point. This is how we’ll form our leaves. Once that feels comfortable, you can start to slightly curve the stroke to make one side of the leaf, then repeat on the other side to make a fuller figured leaf. You can opt to add some interest by leaving a tiny white space in the center to act as the leaf’s vein.

Photo showing how to paint leaves in watercolor. Peggy Dean article for DANIEL SMITH
Brush pressure used for painting leaves in watercolor.

Pro tip: While you definitely want a good amount of water on your brush, you don’t want too much. Be sure to lightly drag your brush on the edge of your water jar after dipping to remove excess water.

Step Two: Get to Know Your Paint-to-Water Ratio

Want to take control over the transparency that your paint has on paper? First note that not all pigments are created equally. In the case of transparency, this means that some paints are much more vivid right away when using them, while others take some additional prepping with water. You can find more information on the paint you use by looking at its color info, which includes transparency, lightfastness, staining level, and granulation. For more information on color key information, click here to download the DANIEL SMITH Watercolor Brochure that has that information, or you can click on the color names in my article that have links and go directly to that colors page and learn its properties, for example: Green Apatite Genuine.

The easiest exercise for any pigment you choose to use is to create some opacity swatches. I usually do this with a few quick strokes, essentially creating blobs of color. But since we’re learning leaf shapes, I thought it’d only make sense to do this exercise while painting leaves! Here’s what you do:

  1. Fully saturate your brush in water and paint. Do this by rolling the brush on its side while applying pressure. You want to make sure it’s covered throughout, not just on the tip of the brush. When it’s saturated, paint your first leaf.
  2. Now, dip your brush in the water quickly, drag it lightly against the water jar’s edge to release excess water, and paint another leaf next to the first. Note: Do not gather more paint!
  3. Repeat step two until the water runs clear on the paper.

It’s as easy as that! Now you know all the various stages of paint-to-water that you have the ability to create!

Photo showing examples of leaves painted in watercolor, article for DANIEL SMITH by Peggy Dean
Examples of leaves painted in watercolor.

I encourage you to try this exercise with multiple paint colors to experiment with different hues and values. It will help you determine the colors you want to use for your final piece. After I repeated this a few times, I opted for a deep, cool green palette and went with Cascade Green & Perylene Green.

Step Three: You’re Ready to Start Your Painting

Now we’re going to move in the opposite direction. Rather than start with your brush fully saturated with paint, we’re going to want much more water than paint on our brush because we want to create the first layer of our leaves with a lot of transparency. It’s best to have a scrap piece of paper nearby so you can test your stroke before applying the paint to your piece. I usually grab paint and use my mixing well to water it down before I begin painting.

I’m using Cascade Green and Perylene Green for my final piece because they both feature a beautiful cool green and will cover a medium to dark color range. I also love the way that Cascade Green will sometimes separate into a gorgeous blue (more on this later).

When you have a good paint-to-water ratio that is nice and light on paper, begin painting your leaves. First use the tip of your brush to paint a thin stem, then move into your dual-pressure stroke to create your leaves. Some of them may come out almost completely clear and that’s okay! We’re building up depth and we need those super light leaves just as much as we’ll need the dark ones. When you’ve completed your first layer of leaves, LET IT DRY COMPLETELY. This part is very important. If you don’t let it dry, the new leaf layers will bleed into the old ones, defeating the purpose of this pretty painting!

Photo showing painting watercolor leaves by pulling the brush away. Article by Peggy Dean for DANIEL SMITH
Painting leaves by pulling the brush away from me

Pro tip: I find that painting leaves by pulling the brush away from me gives me a better flow in my strokes and also gives me more control when making the tips of my leaves have a nice thin point. That said, I’m painting upside-down! This painting will actually show my leaves cascading down onto the page, rather than upward. You can create your leaves in any direction that you’d like, of course.

Step Four: Add the Second Layer of Leaves

Once the first layer has completely dried, add the second layer of leaves just as you did the first round. Get creative with placement. This project is meant to feature overlapping leaves because it shows depth. This layer should have a medium paint-to-water ratio. It shouldn’t be packed with paint, but it should have more than the first round. Just as the first layer, let this layer completely dry before moving on.

Photo showing overlapping watercolor leaves to show depth, by Peggy Dean, article for DANIEL SMITH
Overlapping watercolor leaves to show depth.

While this layer is drying, I wanted to show you the gorgeous granulation in the Cascade Green color. Notice the separation of green and blue here. This is one color! It’s so beautiful watching it create its own magic to accompany your painting.

Closeup photo of watercolor leaves painted with DANIEL SMITH Cascade Green by Peggy Dean
Watercolor leaves painted with Cascade Green.

Step Five: Add Your Final Layer

Now it’s time to add your final layer. This is when I’m switching paint colors and grabbing some Perylene Green. I’m going to be using this with its full pigment on display, as it will be used to paint my most eye-catching leaves. You can opt to use the same color you’ve been using and just add more pigment to your brush this round. It will create the same effect.

Photo showing the final layer painting watercolor leaves with Perylene Green by Peggy Dean, article for DANIEL SMITH
Adding the final layer with Perylene Green.
DANIEL SMITH Cascade Green and Perylen Green Watercolors with Peggy Dean's watercolor leaves
DANIEL SMITH Cascade Green and Perylene Green Watercolors with Peggy Dean’s watercolor leaves.

That’s it! You can add as many layers as desired, but keep in mind that sometimes the key is knowing when to stop. When in doubt, take a minute to walk away and then return with fresh eyes. You might surprise yourself! 

We’d love to see your work so please tag @danielsmithartistmaterials and @thepigeonletters on social media and let us know how you enjoyed the process! We’d also love to hear about the colors you choose! You can find me at www.ThePigeonLetters.com. ‘Til next time!

-Peggy Dean

There’s an art to art. I say that because there’s so much that goes into the process of what we use in our creative journey. DANIEL SMITH Watercolors have given me peace of mind that my paintings and sketches with withstand the test of time due to their exceptional quality and dense pigments. I’m also rarely needing to mix and mix and mix some more for that perfect hue because the variety available is never ending. It’s easy to sit down with my palette and feel instantly inspired to create!

DANIEL SMITH colors on my palette:

  • Buff Titanium – This is my favorite fill color.
  • Indian Yellow – The warm undertone of this yellow is so vivid.
  • New Gamboge – I love a light yellow-orange and this one has a gorgeous pigment.
  • Pyrrol Scarlet – Could there be a better red? When can this be a lipstick, please and thank you?
  • Rhodonite Genuine – The perfect soft pink that adds a bit of softness to any piece.
  • Mayan Violet – This hue is to die for.
  • Bordeaux – This pigment is loud and vibrant and rich and mmmm.
  • Mayan Blue Genuine – I love the granulation and greenish undertone of this blue.
  • Prussian Blue – A deep, rich blue that serves every blue purpose needed.
  • Cascade Green – The granulation from blue to green in this brilliant color makes it my favorite color from DANIEL SMITH.
  • Green Apatite Genuine – This dirty sap-like green has a gorgeous granulation of brown and green, perfect for painting nature.
  • Perylene Green – I’m a sucker for deep, rich colors and this cool green hits the mark.
  • Green Gold – A loud, retro color that varies in hue as it builds up more pigment.
  • Sap Green – This is the perfect yellow-green that gets darker with more pigment.
  • Deep Sap Green – Take that yellow-green and make it darker.
  • Jadeite Genuine – This creamy color is the perfect medium green without looking like an annoying grass green (haha).
  • Terre Verte – A transparent, soft green for accents.
  • Garnet Genuine – I love the hue of this reddish, earth color.
  • Piemontite Genuine – This is another earthy red with a hint of violet granulation, so so pretty.
  • Hematite Violet Genuine – This is at the top of my list of favorite colors from DS due to its incredible granulation of earthy brown violets.
  • Burnt Umber – This creamy, warm brown is perfect for landscapes.
  • Van Dyck Brown – With enough pigment, this gorgeous brown can look almost black.
  • Lamp Black – An easy option for a creamy black.

Peggy Dean portrait photo

About

Peggy Dean has always been an artist, but also an educator at heart. In 2016, she founded The Pigeon Letters to pursue her passion of educating others by making creative knowledge more accessible. She has been featured on The Today Show for her award winning online classes and has released several best selling books with a focus on lettering, botanical illustration and watercolor techniques. She runs an informative blog and Instagram feed for that extra step to inspire others daily. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon with her wife and fur babies.

Peggy Dean in her studio
Peggy Dean in her studio