No. 23: An Obsession with Leaves
A foray into painted work and an ongoing project of mine that you might not be familiar with, plus two October classes.
Back in 2016, around this time of year, I found some ochre-colored leaves that had fallen in front of our family’s house out on Long Island, and I thought about how they felt like paper between my fingers. These leaves were thin and delicate, not yet completely dried. I was going to draw them in my sketchbook using some of my Micron pens but then thought it might be interesting to see if the pens would work right on the leaves. The ink flowed smoothly so I proceeded to make some line patterns on them. It was a fun experiment, but that was that.
I left the leaves on the table in the house, and when we returned a few weeks later, the leaves had fully dried out and the patterns I had made had also dried completely. It was as if my lines and the veins in the leaves were one and the same. After examining how my marks had set into the surface, like a tattoo that has been on the skin for years, I knew I wanted to explore more. This was the beginning of my ongoing leaf-painting project.
I started collecting dried leaves to paint on—only fallen leaves, never any that were pulled from trees. It didn’t take me long to discover that thicker, more leather-like leaves were best for embellishing, as they are sturdier and easier to work with. Magnolia leaves, specifically, are perfect. Acrylic paints, paint pens, permanent fine-liners, Gelly Roll pens, and metallic Krink paint like this are just some of the materials I have experimented with. The leaves I painted on became little works of art, small triptychs (I usually paint a set of three at once) that satisfied my urge to paint outside of my sketchbook with no expectation of the end result. It was fun to play with color and line and get my fingers messy. It fed the abstract artist in me that sometimes needs a break from rendering things as they are, the way I normally create art.
Photographing the leaves became a project in itself, and whenever I would share the leaves on Instagram, they would get a really nice amount of attention. Slowly my followers would expect these posts to pop up on my feed, and the leaves became a regular part of my work. People would ask to buy them, and sometimes I would sell a series. Usually I would give them away to friends. But then one day a big architecture account reposted one of the leaf photographs and that was the beginning of an unexpected amount of attention. More design and art accounts started posting my leaves. Then more. Then there were nail artists and people in other countries making art in the style of my leaves, and there were many posts on Pinterest. Pantone used my leaves for color inspiration.
Many of the posts did not credit me. Many people copied. This is an example of what I began to see (that is not my work but a copy). I saw tutorials like the one on this page using my leaf photograph. A friend sent me a photograph of framed leaves in a hotel lobby that looked just like mine. I also had a handful of press happen around the series (two articles are linked below). My leaves kind of went viral…so I pulled away.
I dropped the project for about two years because the attention and the lack of credit really bothered me. I am used to people working in the style of my books because I invite people to; my books teach my way of thinking and creating in a sketchbook. But somehow this felt different, more invasive. Painting on leaves is not my own idea—so many others have painted, sewn, crocheted, and drawn on leaves—but the style and the patterns that I paint on them are unique to me. Instead of having the attention fire me up to create more, it caused me to retreat and go back to the work that felt more comfortable—the work in my sketchbooks.
After a break I decided to come back to the project, and I started creating and experimenting again. I introduced hanging them by string and worked on larger series. I even partnered with a close friend, Micòl, who is an incredibly talented ceramicist to create a collection of ceramic leaves. These did really well, and we sold many together. (I still have a bunch; if anyone is interested, please reach out!)
Now that some years have passed, I love revisiting these images, and I am happy for others to create their own. I have dozens of painted leaves in flat files in my studio, and I am always thrilled when people want to look at them when they visit. I do sell them, but only from my studio, as I don’t want to risk any breaking in the mail. They are sturdier than you might think, but they will still break if not handled with care. They do not change or age or break down once the leaves are fully dried --since they are no longer exposed to the elements, the sun, rain, etc, they stay as they are dried, and I imagine that the paint protects them more. All I know for sure is that the leaves I painted five years ago still look the same today.
This is an evolving and ongoing project that I will keep exploring and working on. Making art out of fallen leaves will always fascinate me. Finding a new life for a piece of nature that would normally seep back into the earth or be discarded feels important and really special. Making a piece of art that may or may not last forever also interests me, as most things in nature do eventually decay or die. It is art for art’s sake.
I love the shape of leaves, I love the lines in them, I love everything about them. And painting on these bits of nature is a passion project I will always relish working on.
Now I invite you to paint on some leaves!
In this piece I have answered most FAQ’s. All you need is to collect some thick, fallen leaves, bring them home, wipe them off with a damp paper towel, and then let them sit in a cool dry area until they are fully solid and dried out. Then have fun painting on them with acrylic paints and paint pens!
Please share your leaves with me if you are inspired to paint on some yourself.
Two Upcoming Live Classes
Painting Clouds with Watercolor and Gouache Live with Skillshare
Thursday, October 12th at 1pm EST
In this one-hour Skillshare Live Session I will walk you through a few techniques on painting clouds, a subject that many people find to be a challenge. A few reference photographs will be provided to be used as a rough guide, while we work on the class projects together. If you are a Skillshare member, use the code SKLive2023SDB for 50% off. Book your spot here.
Painting Pumpkins and Gourds with Derwent Inktense Paints and Pencils
Tuesday, October 17, 4-5pm EST
To celebrate the fall season, in this one-hour free class we will first sketch a few pumpkins and gourds in light pencil, just to plan our composition and to build the shape and form. Then we will build layers of color using Inktense pencils and paints. Some details and shading will be added with fine-line permanent pens, and some highlights may be added using opaque white paint. We will talk about color, light, and shading as we complete our paintings. Book your FREE spot here.
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All Canvas lights and accessories are 10% off with my discount code: SDB10.
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