Let’s paint palm leaves in watercolor!
We are currently in Thailand and surrounded by exotic nature. So much greenery around that I couldn’t stop myself from painting palms and leaves and sunsets. That’s why today we are painting inspiring green palm leaves in watercolor together! And do not worries, it is more simple than what you think!
Here is a photo reference:
Here is also our sketch of the palm leaves. It is heavily edited in Photoshop so you can see the pencil outline better:
Let’s start with the materials.
- I used 100% cotton paper (Canson Heritage) cold pressed. Feel free to use any paper brand for this painting just make sure it is a cotton type of paper. Some texture (like cold pressed) would be beneficial as well.
- I used a medium size paper sheet, size A4. Larger paper sheet will require larger strokes and layers.
- My watercolors are in tubes, brand Rosa. I mixed all of the greens by myself so prepare your variations of yellows and blues.
- You will need one big round natural brush (like a squirrel or sable) for large watercolor washes.
- A small pointy synthetic brush will help you work on details.
- You might need a flat synthetic brush to create white space and lift the pigment
Use a soft pencil to lightly outline the palm leaves. You don’t need to make a perfect copy of the photo, so feel free to change the size or width or location of the leaves. Just make sure the composition looks good and nothing is sticking out.
Total Time: 1 hour
Let’s start from mixing your own green for this painting. We will need a vibrant green and a calm soft green.
You might as well just use a similar ready-to-go green from your watercolor set. But I think it is much better for educational purposes to create your own green.
For vibrant green I mixed Phthalo blue and Phthalo yellow.
For calm green I used Cadmium yellow and Ultramarine.
repare those colors upfront so you don’t need to spend time on mixing them.
With a big round natural (squirrel) brush I applied clean water on the area of palm leaf. Then I switched to a smaller natural brush and applied a yellow color (Phthalo yellow) with lots of water (so that the layer is pretty transparent).
I use this specific yellow as a base and stick to it throughout the whole painting.
Choose your base-yellow color and stick to it as well.
Pick up your vibrant green (in my case Phthalo blue + Phthalo yellow) and work through the veins of the palm leaf.
While your first layer of yellow is still wet, your next green layer is going to blend a little creating smooth lines.
As we move down the leaf add some blue (Ultramarine) to show the highlights.
Keep working with relatively wet layers to keep your underpainting (first layers) very light and transparent.
As you progress, keep painting yellow base and adding green lines (veins) peculiar to palm leaf.
Now I finished up the first layer of my base yellow all the way down the leaf.
We have been working on one side of the leaf to keep better control over water & paint.
Finish up working on separate green veins.
Each vein should have a little distance from another one, not too much but not too little. Keep it in harmony, we don’t want weird palm leaves are we :).
When your layers get a little dry let’s add “crispy” edges to our palm leaf.
I used Burnt sienna (use any warm brown color) to paint a thin line on few edges of the leaf.
Leave the right side of the leaf to dry completely and move to the left side.
Apply your base yellow color greatly diluted with water to achieve a light transparent layer.
Right after that add some blue (Ultramarine) and let it blend on that yellow layer.
Don’t worry if paint flows in weird directions, at this point it really doesn’t matter.
We need to create a nice layer with gradually changing tones in it.
Now add long strokes of vibrant green imitating texture of the leaf.
Same as we did on the right side.
The colors will blend a little and that’s alright.
With my calm green mix (Cadmium yellow and Ultramarine) I painted over green stokes to showcase the shadow.
With your green and a little bit of brown (Burnt sienna) paint the middle part of the leaf.
Show the shadow with more concentrated color on the left side to make our palm leaves more realistic.
Take a flat synthetic brush, dip it into water, rinse so that the bristols are wet but not dripping wet.
Make strokes lifting the pigment until you see whiteness of paper.
This way we create white (ish) space between the veins.
Repeat the same “lifting” technique on the other side of the leaf.
Make sure to only make one stroke and not come back to it.
If you do you might dilute the painted layer too much and achieve a really wide washed out space.
Take a step back and look at your painting.
It is beautiful! But missing some contrasts.
So let’s add them with a darker green (add red into your green to achieve darker tone). Go over your initial green lines with a darker green creating shadows.
Continue painting those darker lines but make sure they are not too hard.
If they come up sharp use a semi-wet brush to dilute edges and make the stroke softer.
Take your time to finish the whole right side with shadowing.
Make sure your lines are not straight, they should follow the shape of the leaf so be a little curved.
Do the same on the left side of the leaf.
Those strokes should be a little wider than the ones on the right side because of the rotation of the leaf.
Also pay attention to how the stroke is rounded up and gets more blue when close to the center of the leaf.
Now I feel like I need to show the contrast even more so I added shadow with my dark green tone very close to the center of the leaf.
This will create a feeling of volume and our leaf will look 3-dimensional.
If you feel like your leaf has enough of volume don’t add more.
Wait till your watercolors get fully dry and create a shadow (I added a bit of Ultramarine blue to my green for the shadow mix).
The shadow casts from the center of the leaf down on the left side of it.
Finish up the stem and let’s move to another leaf. Same approach, clean water first and diluted yellow base color after.
Cover the whole leaf and don’t wait too long, the next layer is coming!
With a pretty wet brush I applied a mix of bright green color over my first yellow layer.
It all mixed and blended which gave a nice smooth effect to my leaf.
With a darker tone of green and a little touch of Burnt sienna (any brown you have) paint thin lines representing veins on the palm leaf.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t look sharp, let it flow.
With a lighter tone of green paint the veins on the other side of the leaf.
Make sure they are not too dark and visible.
With a flat synthetic brush lift the pigment of the green layer and free up some space.
Be careful and try to keep that “free of pigment” space thin and delicate.
Let’s finish up the painting and work through contrasts.
I mixed the darkest green tone (can add indigo, brown, red to your green, even black if you feel like it) and painted shadows on the leaf.
Remember to leave some space between the veins, don’t cover it all.
Take a break and look at your painting with “a fresh eye”.
See if anything is missing on your leaf and add those final details.
You can also add some white space to create a feeling of air by lifting some pigment with a semi-wet brush or using a white gel pen.
To wrap this up!
Congratulations, You’ve painted amazing palm leaves in watercolor!
We would be thrilled to see it!
If you like watching the process more than reading long blog posts, here is a demo video painting a palm leaf in watercolor on our Youtube channel. You can also take a look at our other watercolor tutorials here and contact us if you have any questions.