Photo to Painting: Autumn Foliage

I spent much of October painting autumn foliage. Much of it was outdoors/plein air/in person, but sometimes I saw a great tree and took a snap to paint later at home, and I actually did. This is the first month where I did a lot of painting from my own, very recent photos. Let’s see how it went!

The Mailbox

This tree was striking in person and I felt the photo did a good job of capturing that flame-colored look, especially against the gray sky. I was especially enamored with the gradient from a deep, warm scarlet color to a bright, bold warm yellow.

I’m not sure what kind of tree this was. The leaves were simple. An ash, maybe? Something notable about this mail box is that it does not appear on the USPS website and also once I mailed my rent check there and it didn’t arrive. So maybe it’s fake!


  • I think the mailbox is very legible and I like the color contrast with the tree. I made the logo too blue at first but I rescued it by readding some negative space back in with white gouache.
  • The shadow of the tree on the upper trunk.
  • The leaves on the ground look pretty good and I’m pleased I was able to keep them more muted. Leaves on the ground are a different color from leaves on the tree; crispy and browned, rather than bold colors.
  • I did the background foliage after studying the photo but without looking directly at it, which I think helped me to get the general spirit but without sticking too close to the original. Without trying to get it “picture perfect,” I was able to think more about how to arrange the composition.


  • Perylene Maroon, which I used in the upper branches for the dark scarlet, is a “love/hate” kind of color. It made a lot of interesting califlowers, which I left because I felt they looked pretty good for loose foliage, but I had no control over them and no confidence in how to do a second layer without losing what I loved from the first.
  • I found it difficult to make “holes” in the tree so it doesn’t look like one big unbroken unit, without making it overall too dark. The bottom part of the tree loses some of the legibility and effortless appearance of the top.

The Maple

Again I was struck by the color gradient, this time on a red maple which was mostly red. The photo doesn’t capture how bright it was, though the painting is of course also exaggerated.


  • Flame effect of the tree’s overall shape and color
  • Most believable fallen leaves yet
  • Dark red in the upper branches


  • The light gray background was not as effective at offseting the tree as the dark background above.
  • I needed a better plan for the background; I omitted so much more (cars, power lines, houses, etc.) and it’s really not replaced with anything. Perhaps I should have included more of it.
  • I had hoped the falling leaf would give a sense of movement but it just kind of looks odd.

Serviceberry Through the Bathroom Window

There’s an absolutely stellar, radiantly red serviceberry behind my house, and the best view of it is through the bathroom window! Naturally we typically keep the shade down on this window, but I pulled it up to admire the tree and was pretty amused by the entirety of the view (toilet reflecting the red leaves and all).


  • Exaggerated huge window, fiery tree leaves; it truly looks like an amazing show.
  • Red reflections on the toilet paper and toilet seat.
  • Contrast of inked interior and freeform outside the window.
  • The gray-green interior color of the bathroom is the right medium value and low chroma to offset the tree outside; better than the weird lime of my actual bathroom.


  • A couple of fixes on the under sketch might have helped me to have a more realistic toilet shape; there are a few impossible lines on there.
  • I’m finding it hard to nitpick this one. I weirdly really like it.

The Mulberry

The photo makes this tree look as deep yellow as the others above, but my perception of it in person was a much cooler, lighter yellow. I ventured out of my Autumn Palette for a lemon yellow (PY175) for the base color.


  • Cool tree color and contrast with gray background.
  • Getting better at creating appropriate shadows with muted versions of the same color.
  • Again the mix of ink and uninked foliage is interesting here.


  • Adjusting the placement of the stoplight would have made it stand out more; I feel it gets lost against the trunk right now.
  • As with the maple, including some kind of background detail (e.g. the Dumpster, cars in the parking lot, or something nice and fake like shrubs) would have grounded the painting more in a sense of place.
  • Use a ruler when making telephone poles, even (especially) when broken by foliage.


I was awed by this giant oak which was mostly green but turning orange/amber at the tips. I tried this in a very loose style, using some colors outside my usual autumn palette.


  • Striking ultramarine shadows.
  • Just a touch of PY129 green for moss on the trunk.
  • Loose style does have energy.


  • This is probably my least favorite of these paintings, I just tried to do it too quickly and too wet.
  • The Perylene Green shadows looked nice wet but dried with lots of cauliflowers and backrun lines.
  • Again if I could be a bit less lazy about the backgrounds I could hint at something other than a featureless void.


A couple of repeated lessons:

  • Bright colors in foliage are fantastic and do best when offset by muted or dark backgrounds, and muted leaves on the ground. In reality, leaves on the ground are quite a bit duller than leaves on the tree, and overcast days really do make foliage look brighter.
  • You don’t need to include every bit of detritus from the photo, but at least a few specific background features can give a really strong sense of place; just ground and sky is not enough.
  • No need to be too close to the reference; making different choices about placement and shape of items can help to improve the overall composition.

I’ve long felt that I need to “get better at deciduous trees” but didn’t spend much time practicing them; that seemed boring. I didn’t set out this month to do that practice, but somehow I became so obsessed with the foliage that it didn’t seem like practice: it just seemed like fun. The moral of the story is that if something seems too boring to paint, just wait. Eventually it may be a joy.

Overall, I’m pleased with how much I allowed myself to bask in foliage and really enjoy it this October. I don’t have to wonder “did I really enjoy it?” I did!