Autumn is here, full of conkers, jam making and long nights drawing in. The hedgerows are full of life; the trees turning gold to drop their leaves, but most of us spend a lot less time in the natural world than we once did, missing the magic of the changing seasons. I always feel that the autumn months are the beginning of a time spent in quiet craft, a form of creative hibernation, but this is interspersed with brisk walks to blow away the cobwebs and remind me of the inspiration of the world outside.
So many of us have turned to nature for solace during the pandemic, and this has really brought into light the benefits of walking amongst the natural world on our physical and mental well being. The links between walking and mindful activities on your health are widely studied and have been shown to improve your sleep, mood and self-esteem, as well as reduce stress and anxiety. Forms of art are the perfect balance to this; they are a fantastic way to incorporate nature into our lives and appreciate it in a different way. They also add an additional opportunity for quiet and mindful practice, perfectly suited to a blustery afternoon, cup of tea in hand and paint at the ready.
I am one of those people who unconsciously picks leaves and flowers as I walk, half a mind constantly keeping an eye out for things that inspire my work. So, whether its a blustery day where the wind whips up the leaves; a mild one, when the sun sets off a fiery display across golden hills and woodlands; or an early cold snap, with a crunch on the ground and a nip in the air, scented with wood-fires and leaving me rosy cheeked, I'll return home feeling flushed, exhausted, ready to put the kettle on and examine my collection. My pockets overflow with leaves, brambles, conkers and feathers as well as some long-lasting Sweet Peas and Nasturtiums. If you are a interested in nature journaling, sketch-booking, or painting, then this project is an ideal way to fill a few pages and pause to look at the season around us. This is a great activity to record the landscape without committing to a traditional picture. You can choose a leaf with interesting colours to fill a single spread in your journal or create a full page of assorted hedgerow finds. Observational drawing is a good exercise for any beginner and can be an inspiring activity for children, for whom a walk to collect things like conkers and autumn leaves can be a staple of childhood.
Aim: To paint an accurate and beautiful page of autumn leaves to record the season.
Duration: 1 – 2 hours after walking.
You will learn: Techniques for composition, proportion, drawing, colour mixing and watercolours.
Paper suitable for drawing and watercolours - good cartridge paper will stand up to a few watercolour washes where very cheap watercolour paper may not. If you find that your paper crinkles and pills like a woollen jumper, it's probably holding you back. One of my top tips is to invest in some simple but good materials and avoid the likes of WHSmiths.
A B/HB Pencil
A waterproof fineliner - I used a UniPin 0.3 for this example.
A water pot
Kitchen roll - use sparingly to adjust your water to paint ratio; a dry brush will suck wet paint off a page.
Watercolours - you can use any set of student or artists' watercolours for this project. I mix various brands of artists' grade tubes for optimal vibrancy.
A Watercolour paintbrush sized 8-12 - in this example I used an R2 Kolinskey Sable travel brush from Rosemary and Co, but synthetic student brushes are fine. Steer clear of water-brushes.
Somewhere to walk and find things - this could be a park or arboretum, a stretch of trees, a garden, or a walk encountering hedgerows.
1. Set out to walk somewhere and look for things that inspire or interest you. This could be a 20 minute wander or several hours spent exploring.
2. Once you have returned from your autumnal nature walk, choose a few leaves to paint and place them directly onto your paper. Move them around until you find a composition you're pleased with. At this point, note the placement of each item by putting a few light pencil marks around them. Observe them carefully, then connect these marks to create simplified shapes. These guidelines will help you to form the proportions and check the composition.
3. Take a step back to confirm you're happy with the placement and size of your leaves on the page. You don't want to end up with a beautiful drawing only to realise it's far too small or too far to the left. Once you feel your shapes are correct, add more detail in pencil, defining the leaves. I tend to do this step quite quickly as limiting the pencil can mean the pen has more 'life' and movement, but you can take as much time as you like here to perfect the under-drawing.
4. Next add the pen. In this example I've drawn the detail with a fineliner after doing only the basic proportions in pencil. I want this to be recognisable so I'll really focus on distinctive features. One tip I always recommend is to avoid 'fluffy' lines; a slightly-wonky confident line will look much less noticeable than a dark, fluffy one that you've gone over multiple times. Make sure to rub out your pencil at this stage if you don't want it to show through the paint.
5. When approaching the watercolour, look closely for a few minutes at the colours on your leaves, don't be tempted to only use bright pigments. Lots of beautiful plants have browns, greys, and dark greens in them too. In this example, I have painted the leaves with a wet-on-wet layer. This allows the colours to blend and dry without hard lines, which mimics the colour graduation of the actual plants. Try not to fiddle with the colours once you put them on as moving them around the page too much will make them muddy. If your colours dry lighter, a second layer may be needed, focusing on the darks.
6. After the main painting is dry, you may choose to add shadows, creating more dimension in your leaves. Take note of the direction of the light and only paint shadows where you can see them. If an object is casting more than one shadow due to overhead lights, pick the strongest and ignore the others. This is always easiest in natural light. Watercolourists don't really use black because it's overpowering and dulls paintings, especially if you mix it with colours to darken them. Instead you should darken and mix greys with a bit of easy colour theory, by mixing complimentary colours. For example, I prefer my shadows to err on the side of blue, so in this painting, I mixed cobalt blue with a small amount of burnt sienna (orange-brown) to dull it down slightly.
To create the soft colour gradient it's important to have the right water to paint ratio. I recommend making test swatches for each colour in your palette in addition to a few mixes relevant to your subject. This will help you understand how much water is needed to properly activate the pigments and allow your colours to mix and dry fluidly.
Build your colours from light to dark, using a mixture of pure pigments and mixes. If you have some bright and unrealistic pigments in your pallet, try mixing them with colours that are similar to their complimentary to achieve more natural results.
Although this article's focus is on Autumn walks, the same can be enjoyed all year round. Happy painting!
First published Artists and Illustrators Magazine October 2021