5 Tips to Paint Fallen Leaves Easier and Quicker

In this post, I will share 5 tips to paint fallen leaves (or anything else) easier and quicker. I will show you how NOT to get distracted by small details. You will learn the principles and techniques I use to simplify the process of painting leaves on the ground.

Lots of Autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground near a lake. A good reference photo for painting leaves in a landscape.

Lots of Autumn leaves that have fallen to the ground near a lake. A good reference photo for painting leaves in a landscape.

Are you struggling to paint a landscape filled with fallen leaves (or rocks, grasses, and other small plants)? When we’re out painting in late Fall and we see hundreds of leaves scattered over the ground, they look so beautiful we want to add them to our painting. Then we get overwhelmed by how many leaves there are to paint.

Too often we jump right in and start painting each leaf or rock we see and we get frustrated.

  • The light shifts and suddenly the shadows and colors change (if we’re painting Plein Air).
  • We spend tons of time painting and then realize the parts don’t feel like they belong with each other.
  • The design is boring and we want to move things around but we’ve already spent so much time on a dozen leaves.

These tips will show you how simplifying and working with shapes rather than objects (like individual fallen leaves) will make painting so much easier and more joyful.

I made the Tips to Paint Fallen Leaves Easier and Quicker video to add to the discussion about painting fallen leaves (and you can watch it below). It is 50 minutes long but I discuss the techniques in greater depth.

 

Now, let’s explore the 5 tips in this blog that I use to paint fallen leaves faster and with greater harmony.

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Tip 1 – Simplify Details into Value Shapes

Some artists love to paint every small detail in a landscape painting. I am not one of them. I’ve always been drawn to the Impressionists and the Expressionists looser, spontaneous feeling and textured brushwork.

So, how do we ‘express’ a foreground filled with fallen leaves and small plants without painting each individual color and value?

We simplify.

Seasoned Sentinel 16×12 is a painting I did of a tree I saw while hiking at Brown County State Park. The contrast between the dark upper area of the tree and the sky is what really drew me in. I was also intrigued by the twisting branches and the fall colors.

Seasoned Sentinel 16X12 ~ dark trunk fall tree with lots of colorful leaves against a bright sky oil painting by Bill Inman

Seasoned Sentinel 16X12 ~ dark trunk fall tree with lots of colorful leaves against a bright sky – oil painting by Bill Inman

The painting itself is fairly simple in design and progressed quickly from start to finish. I eliminated a lot of detail in the painting that was available in the photo.

The reference photo for the Seasoned Sentinels oil painting.

The reference photo for the Seasoned Sentinels oil painting.

Let’s use the reference photo for Seasoned Sentinel as an example of how to simplify.

Notice the thousands of leaves on the ground and in the trees and all the small branches and tree details. Let’s eliminate all those details so we can begin the painting easily and quickly.

To do that squint at the photo and notice how the details begin to melt together. Once you squint enough to see all the major areas of your composition as shapes of light and dark, stop. Squinting does not tell us anything about color, it simply gets rid of distracting details. When we can see everything as shapes and not as specific objects like trees, rocks or mountains, we can move ahead with our painting.

The Seasoned Sentinels reference photo blurred to mimic the technique of squinting. Squinting helps artists simplify a scene into shapes

The Seasoned Sentinels reference photo blurred to mimic the technique of squinting. Squinting helps artists simplify a scene into shapes

See how the small details disappear. Now we are left with mostly large shapes. We can take the overall value of those shapes to use for our initial block-in washes (the specific color is not as important as the value).

I didn’t bother to mark the tree trunk as a shape. For my initial block-in, I will often ignore the smaller shapes and start by painting in only the larger shapes. Then I will come on top of that background with the darker and smaller shape of the tree.

Remember, this stage is all about simplifying into as few shapes as possible to make it easy to get started. Getting started is often the hardest part. Once we have the large shapes painted in with thin washes of color we can start to add smaller refining shapes within those large masses.

This stage is so ambiguous that it gives us a lot of liberty to change the design. If we want to move a tree or shrink the foreground we can do so quickly and without losing hours of detailed work.

The Seasoned Sentinels painting showing leaves and rocks in the foreground with red circles around them.

The Seasoned Sentinels painting showing leaves and rocks in the foreground with red circles around them.

Instead of adding hundreds of small leaves to the foreground, I placed dashes of bright color or dark accents here and there on top of a middle-value color to give the idea of fallen leaves. That helps keep the main focus on the tree itself while adding interest to the foreground.

Tip 2 – Use Large Paintbrushes and Know the Why

If you want to avoid getting caught up in small details, use a large paintbrush like a size 12 Rosemary Classic Long Flat. Keep using that same size brush for as long as possible – maybe even until the painting is finished.

The thinking process doesn’t change. We can make complicated landscapes simple by grouping details into large masses. Using a larger brush helps us keep that ‘big shape’ thinking all the way through our painting. If we keep that same mode of thinking for the foreground details, the background details, and the individual leaves on trees, we can paint hundreds of leaves in no time.

Now, it’s not just about using a big brush. We need to decide what attracted us to paint a particular landscape. Was it the amazing sky, the atmosphere, the colors? What got us so excited that we rushed to grab our paints and brushes? Knowing the ‘why’ will help us choose which details to leave in the painting and which to eliminate.

Eliminating Leaf Details with a Large Brush

Look at all the leaves on the ground in this photo. In order to know if they should become part of the painting, we need to decide why we are painting the scene in the first place. What’s our goal?

This is the reference photo for the oil painting titled Sunset Park by Bill Inman. It shows lots of pretty fall trees when the sun is beginning to set.

This is the reference photo for the oil painting titled Sunset Park by Bill Inman.

Kristie and I were playing frisbee golf together for a date when the sun started to set. We were both entranced by the light filtering through the fall leaves. They looked like they were on fire. The colors came to life with a celestial glow.

The feeling we experienced from that color and glowing light is what I wanted to capture. Rendering every little leaf in the photo wouldn’t have added anything to that feeling. so, I got rid of or simplified the distracting leaves and branch in the foreground.

Sunset Park - 18x24 - an oil painting by Bill Inman of colorful fall trees at sunset

Sunset Park – 18×24 – an oil painting by Bill Inman of colorful fall trees at sunset

Adding a few large strokes of color with a size 12 paintbrush added energy to the foreground in the painting. Those strokes were then open to interpretation by the viewer. They could be leaves or tufts of grass or anything the viewer wanted. The main thing was to make sure they added to the energy of the painting but didn’t become the main idea.

Another Example of Getting Rid of Distracting Details

Fall Leaves at Indiana University was painted with the same thought.

The reference photo for Fall Leaves at Indiana University. An oil painting by Bill Inman showing a brightly colored landscape with fall leaves and trees

The reference photo for Fall Leaves at Indiana University. An oil painting by Bill Inman showing a brightly colored landscape with fall leaves and trees

See all the tiny leaves covering the gently rolling hills in the photo? There’s nothing wrong with painting all the leaves if that’s what the painting calls for. I was more interested in the contrast of the dark trees against all the sumptuous colors behind them.

So, I painted the foreground with mostly large flowing brushstrokes. I added a few small bright strokes of color here and there just to break up shadow shapes and pull the viewer back into the painting.

Fall Leaves at Indiana University is a 36x24 inch oil painting by Bill Inman. The painting shows a brightly colored fall scene with tall trees and colorful leaves

Fall Leaves at Indiana University is a 36×24 inch oil painting by Bill Inman. The painting shows a brightly colored fall scene with tall trees and colorful leaves

Tip 3 – Break up Large Shapes with Smaller Shapes

While it’s alright to eliminate details from a photo or scene, it can also be a lot of fun to play with all those small shapes of color and value. When a foreground is loaded with leaves, plants, and rocks how do we paint them without spending years doing it?

We use the same process. We begin with large shapes and then break up those large shapes with smaller shapes.

The reason this is important is that we are still thinking in terms of ‘shapes’, not specific objects. When we use shapes we are more likely to notice when a value shape or color shape works well with the shapes around it. When we get caught in thinking about a tree as a tree, rather than as a value and color shape, then we are prone to forget about its relationship with the other shapes around it.

With the reference photos for Misty Mountain, the ground was covered with fun leaves and plants that I just couldn’t resist. The trick was to make the foreground feel like it was covered with leaves without painting a lot of small intricate details. See how interesting the leaf shapes and the bits of light and dark values are in these reference photos?

reference photo

fall reference photo

reference photo fall leaves

There’s so much intrigue and energy created by the contrast of the foreground details with the atmospheric light in the background trees. That concept became the focus of the painting.

I began the painting exactly as we’ve discussed. You can read in detail about the full process in a previous blog post, but here are some photos to show you the progression.

start of an oil painting of fall trees and fallen leaves

Misty Mountain oil painting beginning the block-in stage with simple shapes of color

See – all it took to start was a large middle-value shape of color for the thin block-in with just a touch of variation in color and value using large brush strokes.

Misty Mountain oil painting - continuing the block-in stage by adding simple strokes of color and value

Continuing the block-in stage by adding simple strokes of color and value

Then I began to add the idea of fallen leaves and other plants with quick strokes of thinner and thicker paint. I made sure to constantly change the values and colors of the strokes. The brushstrokes were also longer and shorter in length and moving in different directions. That helped increase the feeling of chaos and randomness to mimic the way leaves fall from trees and build up in layers on the ground.

stage III of painting - increasing the amount of detail by adding thick strokes of paint

Increasing the illusion of detail with thick and thin paint strokes, dark accents, and bright highlights

After that, it was simply deciding how much or how little activity I wanted in each area throughout that large initial foreground shape. Little bits of light blue became rocks, or light glancing off moist leaves. Adding a concentration of darker values in one area and lighter values in another using small dabs of color created even more variety.

A close up detail of the abstract quality of the paint strokes in the Misty Mountain oil painting

Close-Up detail of the abstract quality of the paint strokes in Misty Mountain

If you really analyze the final painting you will see that all those leaves on the ground are simply dabs of lighter and darker valued colors. That’s how we can give the viewer the feeling of lots of intricate detail without spending months painting it all.

Misty Mountain 20X24 ~fallen leaves and fall trees oil painting by Bill Inman

Misty Mountain 20X24 ~fallen leaves and fall trees oil painting by Bill Inman

The foreground details added interest and energy to the final painting and worked in harmony with the more subdued atmosphere in the background to create a balanced feeling of peaceful chaos. (is peaceful chaos actually possible? Sounds like art-speak to me…).

Tip 4 – Create a Small Painting Study to Work Out Design Challenges

Another way to make a challenging fallen leaf landscape easier to paint is to begin with a smaller Alla Prima study. In the study, we can work out all the design problems and figure out how to simplify the details into engaging shapes before we attempt the scene in a large painting. A big brush stroke in a small painting describes a lot more than it does in a larger painting so we can see the overall success of the composition more quickly.

painting study

study for Summer Sonata 10X12

This 10×12 study for Summer Sonata was painted in less than two hours. I wasn’t concerned with getting all the rocks and details exactly the way I saw them. I knew the photo would supply all the details I needed. The purpose of the study was to capture the colors, values, and feelings of the scene. The leaves along the riverbank gave me sparks of pure color I could use to spice up the painting.

Notice how bleached out the colors look in the reference photo? The small study showed me the more true colors and values that I felt I was seeing when I was there.

reference photo stream

Using the combination of the study and the reference photo I completed the final 20×24 inch painting of Summer Sonata.

finished painting of a river

Summer Sonata 20X24 ~ Bill Inman

The study helped me decide what details to get rid of and where to focus the primary attention with greater details, contrast, and strong color. A lot of the small rocks, grasses, and leaves were left out.

The details in the reference photo gave me ideas for sparks of color that I could sprinkle in between rocks and along the shoreline. It also reminded me of the variety of colors that were available to use in the rocks.

Tip 5 – Modify Boring Fallen Leaf Foregrounds with Big and Small Shapes

Do we ever need to change something in a photo to make it more exciting – yes! Sometimes a lot of fallen leaves in the foreground are outright boring to look at. At those times I add more details (shapes) into the foreground to increase the interest in the painting.

Here are the reference photos I used to create Legacy, an oil painting of some gorgeous trees we saw while camping in Nashville, Indiana.

A reference photo for Legacy, an oil painting of some gorgeous trees we saw while camping in Nashville, Indiana

A reference photo for Legacy, an oil painting by Bill Inman of some gorgeous trees we saw while camping in Nashville, Indiana

A second reference photo I used for the oil painting Legacy

A second reference photo I used for the oil painting Legacy

Leaves are everywhere in this photo, but they don’t really add anything exciting to the scene. They become primarily a blanketing color and value without any interesting movements or contrasts.

Of course, there are paintings that call for a foreground with very little activity or interest. Sometimes a quiet foreground helps keep all the attention on the focal area.

This painting, however, was a large 36×48 and I wanted to make sure there was plenty of paintbrush texture, active variety, and nuance throughout the foreground to keep the viewer coming back.

The finished oil painting Legacy by Bill Inman of colorful fall trees, an old barn and a path

Legacy – 36X48 ~ an oil painting by Bill Inman with colorful fall foliage and an old barn

The foreground also took up a large part of the painting, so it needed to be interesting while still letting the viewer enjoy the colorful fall trees and foliage.

Closeup of foreground details from the fall trees oil painting Legacy

Closeup of foreground details from the fall trees oil painting Legacy

Combining vigorous and calm brushstrokes in the foreground created a sense of movement that I used to guide the viewer from one area to another. Larger and smaller shapes of color, value, and texture formed fallen leaves, rocks, and bushes.

A close up detail of loose brushstrokes and colors from the fall trees oil painting Legacy

Closeup detail of loose brushstrokes and colors from the oil painting Legacy

Even though the brush strokes are loose and jumbled when seen up close, when the viewer steps back they melt together into the illusion of grasses, rocks, and fallen leaves.

Keep in mind, that if the brush strokes seem haphazard and spontaneous they are not (well, some of them are). Sometimes I have to scrape or redo an area over and over until I get the colors, movement, and feeling that I want. It’s a lot of mental work to make a painting feel quickly rendered without losing control of the design.

Here’s a popular fast-motion video I did called How to Paint Trees with Fall Leaves. It’s 32 minutes long and an entertaining diversion when you’re on your lunch break. You can also watch it right here:

Conclusion

Whether you’re working from photos or painting Plein Air, the process is the same. I hope these techniques and ideas will speed up your painting time and eliminate some of your struggles.

A recap of the 5 tips to paint fallen leaves:

  1. Squint to eliminate small distracting details and group leaves into shapes
  2. Use large paintbrushes to fallen leaf shapes and know the ‘why’
  3. Break up larger foreground shapes with smaller color and value shapes
  4. Create a small painting study to work out design challenges
  5. Modify boring foregrounds with big and small shapes of color and value to increase viewer engagement

It’s all about capturing whatever it was that inspired your painting in the first place. The details should always support, not detract from, the primary goal. This method of painting works even if you intend to paint every little detail possible. It will help you instill a greater feeling of harmony throughout your painting.

What are some tips you can share that help you keep your head when faced with an army of details like fallen leaves in the foreground?

Oh, and here is a reference photo that you can use to practice these 5 painting tips:

 

This is a beautiful photo of trees just beginning to lose their leaves in the Fall. This is an excellent painting reference for leaves, branches, and plants all over the foreground.

This is a beautiful photo of trees just beginning to lose their leaves in the Fall. This is an excellent painting reference for leaves, branches, and plants all over the foreground.