Painting Backlit Leaves with Watercolor

Yesterday was my monthly paintalong, and in the spirit of the season I decided it would be fun to paint an autumn forest scene with glowing backlit leaves. It’s one of the harder things to do with watercolor, so I tried to keep it pretty basic. Consider your first try a warm-up sketch!

Painting Backlit Leaves with Watercolor – Step by step

Here’s my typical workflow for tackling a scene like this. If you prefer to watch the tutorial, you can find it on my Patreon page! I have tons of painting tutorials available for only $5!

Quick sketch – focusing on definding the main tree trunks.
Begin by tapping the tip of the brush quickly to create clusters of yellow/orange leaves. On the path below, start with warm, light tones such as yellow, light green, and potters pink.
While it’s still wet, touch in some shadow color. I used perylene green.
While it’s wet, touch in hints of warmth (yellow or light orange).
In the foreground next to the tree trunk, I touched in a little quinacridone magenta and yellow.
This is how mine looked after touching in those colors (wet into wet).
Next start touaching greens and shadowy blues (I used anthraquinone blue and perylene black) into the canopy. Some of it will bleed with the first layer. I also painted in more leaves in front of the foreground tree on the left.
Mix up a decent amount of “shadow color” – I used anthraquinone blue, a bit of phthlalo blue, and perylene green. Make sure you have more than enough mixed. Start painting around the highlighted leaves. Some of it will bleed, unless you let your first layers dry completely.
Continue this from left to right, making sure to paint around the leaves that you want to remain visible.
Paint in some shadow color to the grasses directly above the path.
Paint the shadow color of the foreground ferns. Let hints of the first layer show through. I used perylene violet, quinacridone magenta, quinacridone burnt orange, and potters pink.
Continue painting the foreground ferns, varying the colors here and there.
With your darkest value, paint the tree trunks. Don’t just use solid lines – allow a bit of the first layers to show through. This will make it look as though the leaves are in front of the trunks.
Using a stiff-bristle fan brush, dab some oranges, reds and pinks over the yellow leaves. Let the yellow show through here and there, especially at the fringes below.

I hope this was helpful – try it yourself! I recommend painting on 100% cotton cold pressed paper, as it will allow you to have more time to get the wet into wet effects, and provide a lovely texture!

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

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