Painting Brilliant Foliage: Watercolor Basics

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Painting Foliage

Recently we discussed the importance of painting from reference.  In that post, I stated that a big part of learning when painting using reference is finding your own way and making your mistakes.  One mistake I regularly make when painting greenery or foliage is what I call 'muddy swamp'.  My values get lost, and the image looks like a muddy mess of greens and browns.  If you struggle with this issue too, I hope today's post will pull you out of that swamp.

For painting foliage (or bouquet garni, in my case), keep in mind that GENERALLY:

  • Lighter, brighter greens (yellow greens) appear close
  • Cooler darker greens (blue greens, blue) appear to recede

 For this study, I wanted to encourage loads of wet into wet blending, and I wanted to really push the green yellow (Winsor and Newton's green gold is great for this- it has a huge range) and the green blue (Winsor and Newton's Indigo in a half pan is a very green influenced blue that works great for this)

When painting foliage, even if you want went into wet blends, its important to allow layers to dry so you can get dramatic value shifts.  It's also important to mix your colors darker and cooler as you go along.

I recommend:

Start light and bright, work towards dark and cool

My palette for this bouquet garni is surprisingly limited:

Winsor and Newton Green Gold
Holbein Hooker's Green
Winsor and Newton Indigo

It was a struggle for me to keep my hand light, and my strokes loose, but I think it paid off quite well.

Strive to maintain contrast- for me, I think of this as visual bounce or bounciness.  I want my eye to bounce around the image- all values should not be the same.  Of course, I painted several failed foliage studies before hitting on the sweet spot, which I've shared below.

Overworked, not enough white, not enough contrast in value.

Overworked, not enough white, not enough light values.

Muddy, messy, mush.  Part of this is the paper- trying to use Strathmore's Visual Art Journal watercolor paper the way I would nice cotton rag papers like Artistico or Arches- there's a learning curve when you practice on nice and then paint on lower end.  These are excellent examples of why it's important to familiarize yourself with your paper, to know its limitations.

Even these failed studies served an important purpose- they were the stepping stones that helped me learn the techniques necessary for successfully painting foliage.

Examples in Illustration

So as you can see, the time I spent completing studies was well spent, as it allowed me to tackle personal projects with confidence.  Before completing a series of foliage studies, my greenery often turned into a muddy swamp, but working from reference gave me the knowledge I needed.

I hope this post has inspired you to tackle greenery, particularly if you set your comics or illustrations in the great ourdoors!

Speaking of watercolor, today's Watercolor Basic post was brought to you by the webcomic launch of 7" Kara, the comic that has inspired this series!  If you enjoy my watercolor art, illustration, or tutorials, please check 7" Kara out on Tumblr or on the 7" Kara site.

If you just can't stand a cliffhanger, Volume 1 of 7" Kara is available on Gumroad and through my web-shop.  Volume 1 contains the first four chapters of 7" Kara, and a bonus story, as well as loads of additional illustrations and a concept section!


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