Acrylic Leaf Printing: A Watercolor Tutorial for Art Journaling

While this tutorial encourages the use of loose watercolor paper, you can, of course, try this technique in your art journal so long as it’s on watercolor paper. So find those leaves you collected last fall and give it a try! ( Don’t have any leaves? Find other objects with texture to try around your kitchen or studio.)

This tutorial was previously published in Exploring Watercolor by Elizabeth Groves, copyright 2007; republished here courtesy of

Printing with leaves is an interesting way to use natural materials to create intriguing patterns using the principles of design and elements of composition. This demonstration allows you to practice the techniques of direct printing, tracing, stenciling, layering and glazing.

Materials List

Nos. 4, 8 and 14 rounds
1-inch (25mm) and 3-inch (76mm) flats
No. 1 detail brush
Daniel Smith: Quinacridone Crimson, Quinacridone Gold
M. Graham & Co.: Cobalt Blue, Dioxazine Purple, Hooker’s Green, Thalo Blue, Titanium White
22″ × 30″ (56cm × 76cm) sheet 140-lb. (300gsm) Arches cold-pressed paper
Additional Supplies
Acrylic gloss gel medium, gesso, newspaper, paper towels, pencil, Plexiglas, small hand roller


Step 1: Plan the Format
Make several thumbnail sketches to determine a pleasant flow of dark and light shapes across the page. Choose the most interesting composition and use it as a guide for the next few steps until the design begins to take shape.





Step 2: Prepare the Background
With the 3-inch (76mm) flat, coat the paper with loose, sweeping strokes of gesso to create texture. Let dry. Load several large rounds with different colors. Work across the page, changing colors often and working one color into another. Continue until the entire page is covered. The painting will become darker as layers build up, so this first step can be fairly light. Paint the entire page with a half-and-half mixture of acrylic gloss gel medium and water to even out the luster on the surface.


Step 3: Print the Leaves
Use newspaper as the surface to paint the leaves on. (Allow them to dry after use. Leaves can be used over and over again.) Choose a leaf with an interesting shape and paint one side of it with gesso. To show more veins paint the back of the leaf, or use the front for a smoother effect. Place the wet leaf on the painting (paint side facing down), cover with a paper towel, and then roll over it several times.
Lift off the leaf and set it aside. Use the no. 1 detail to fill in the edges and veins to better define the shape. Continue printing across the page, using the general flow of your thumbnail to suggest placement. Choose leaves that vary in size and shape as you progress.

Step 4: Further Identify Shapes
Paint around the outside of the leaf edges with a dark mixture of the color that appears in the background behind where you are working. Blend the far edge into the background with water. Continue around the entire leaf, bringing it into the foreground. Paint into the leaf using the leaf printing process as a guide to the leaf texture. If you cover too much of the pattern, either re-print the leaf or paint a piece of Plexiglas with white acrylic and press it on top of the over-painted area to regain the original texture. Continue around the entire page until your first layer of leaves is complete. When dry, add another coat of the gel medium mixture.

Step 5: Add More Leaves by Tracing
Place several interestingly shaped leaves along the flow of the leaves already printed, filling in gaps and sometimes overlapping other leaves to create a new layer. Trace around the edges of these leaves with pencil and then paint them in with gesso. In some places, soften the edges to blend into the background. Apply a second coat if it doesn’t look rich and luminous as it dries.



Step 6: Add More Leaves by Stenciling
Place a leaf with an interesting shape on top of the watercolor paper where the shape will add to the design of the composition. Paint over the edges of the leaf onto the painting in the same colors as the background behind it, blending the far edge into the background. Continue around all of the edges and then lift the leaf and set it aside. You will have a negative print of the leaf. Some edges will be hard and some will be soft, disappearing into the background. If you want more hard edges, paint into the leaf with gesso and texture by pressing Plexiglas over the newly painted area. Continue filling in the design with this stenciling method until you are pleased with the path of the leaves across the painting.

Step 7:Glaze Over All the Leaves
Make washes of all of the colors you have been using and glaze over the leaves. Use colors that are similar to the background in some areas and colors that contrast in others. For variety, change colors within the leaf. Cover the entire page, blending colors into the background to enrich it. Let everything dry. If you want to add texture or veins and stems, work back into the leaf with gesso and re-glaze when it’s dry. When you are satisfied with this initial glazing layer, coat the entire painting with your half-and-half mixture of water and gloss gel medium.

Step 8: Add More Layers
Continue printing, tracing and stenciling leaves, and applying glazes for several more layers. Apply a coat of gloss gel medium every two or three layers. Gradually, the painting will get darker with successive layers. Work until you are pleased with the general design.






Step 9:The Final Version
Add strength to your horizontal design structure by adding twigs and branches with gesso and glazing until the painting is complete.
Autumn Splendor
22″ × 30″ (56cm × 76cm)


Helpful Hint:

Unlike the dry, leftover watercolors on your palette that can be reused by adding water, acrylics are unusable when they dry out. If you still have unused paint at quitting time, cover your palette with plastic wrap and freeze it. You can use it during your next painting session after it thaws. Don’t forget to thoroughly wash out your brushes. If acrylic paint dries in them they are ruined.

Click here to learn how to improve your watercolor knowledge, skills and confidence!

From Exploring Watercolor by Elizabeth Groves, 2007: courtesy of To learn more about or purchase the newly released paperback edition of Exploring Watercolor by Elizabeth Groves, click here.





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