Foliage is the Cherry On Top of Your Landscape Paintings

Foliage is the Cherry On Top of Your Landscape Paintings

Spruce Up Your Landscape Paintings

Regardless of the season, adding foliage effects can take your landscape paintings to the next level of success. And, when it comes to seasonal foliage, I love it all. I am equally entranced by the lively greens of spring and summer foliage as I am with the rich oranges, golds and browns of fall and early winter.

Although, perfecting the colors of the seasonal foliage you are trying to portray in a painting can be daunting, worry no longer, artists! Below, Albert Handell demonstrates step-by-step exactly how to add some crisp, lush foliage to your landscape paintings.

A Flutter of Foliage

Most of my students, once they begin a landscape painting, will continue to noodle on and on, in an attempt to take the artwork to the finish. My way of working is simpler.

The background portions of the block-in, painted boldly, transparently and without details, I leave alone. The foreground portions of the block-in, which are then painted opaquely, I strengthen a bit, but avoid overworking.

Then I’ll bring the two areas together with a flutter of foliage, creating intriguing rhythms and details while resolving the painting.

The following landscape painting demonstration explains how I apply this method to a spring or summer scene. For autumn and winter landscapes, I treat twigs and thin branches in the same way as I do foliage. (See Evening Glow on Palace Avenue, Santa Fe, above.)

1. Establish the Composition of the Landscape Painting

First I blocked in all areas of the linen canvas, establishing the design and composition of the painting. Notice how the opaque shapes of the rocks and tree stand out from the transparent, scrubbed-on darker colors of the background.

I varied the background colors with a combination of ultramarine blue, burnt sienna and viridian green. I applied these with just a touch of Gamblin Gamsol on the brush, which diluted the colors slightly.

Then I scrubbed the mixtures onto the canvas, basically “cleaning” the color from my brushes. The colors dried quickly with a transparent, luminous quality — in sharp contrast to the more opaque application of paint in the foreground.

If you paint these background colors on a white surface, they will at first look very dark. But if you scrub them on as I described, they’ll weaken, becoming transparent and luminous.

You can easily see that the background colors are more green and blue above the rocks. Colors under the rocks are warmer and redder.

2. Add Foliage to the Landscape Painting

With the composition established, I strengthened the central rocks and the tree with opaque applications of paint. Otherwise, I left the composition alone. I ended up with the two large contrasting areas, foreground and background.

At this point, I had painted the rocks painted opaquely and the background transparently. How could I marry these two dramatically different areas without noodling them to death?

The answer is the introduction of a third element: foliage. Delicate foliage is all it takes to bring together the two large, contrasting areas. I think of it as the flute that ties together the different dramatic themes of a symphony.

With this in mind, I used warm and cool greens, applied with a palette knife, to simulate a flutter of leaves. The foliage dances with a life and rhythm of its own. When I apply the foliage in this way and leave it alone, I avoid belaboring and weakening the painting..

2a. A Closer Look

Above is an enlarged detail of the foliage in my landscape painting. You can see how transparently I painted the background. This creates a sense of space and atmosphere.

You can also sense the flutter of the foliage, which I applied with different pressures of a palette knife. I began with middle-tone, cool greens, varying the color slightly.

Then I followed up with lighter, warm greens placed sparingly on top as final touches. Although I painted intuitively, I kept in mind a movement from upper right to lower left. I was also careful not to add too much foliage, which would weaken the painting.

3. Finishing the Landscape Painting

I added a few touches to the surrounding rocks and tree, but I still left the transparent background alone. Finishing the painting was basically a continuation of painting the foliage.

I was careful not to overdo it. This fluttery element not only stands out as a separate element, but also marries the two large contrasting areas of transparent background and opaque foreground. This resolves the piece without further noodling.

Quick Fall Foliage Tip: If you’re ready to break out your radiant red, orange and gold palettes and work on some autumn landscapes? This interactive map tells you when you can expect to see the very best fall foliage this year — perfect for some seasonal landscape painting inspiration.