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An Autumn Palette | Arts & Activities
Oct 2017

An Autumn Palette

An Autumn Palette

Mrs. G, I’m pretty sure we did this in elementary school.” My student was right: They probably did print leaves as youngsters. I immediately launched into the reasons that this would be not only different from grade-school efforts, but also suitable for high-schoolers.

First, they would be producing an acrylic painting in a color scheme of their own choosing. The substrate would not be construction paper, although that’s a fine background for the lower grades. My class would be creating advanced, more complex pieces that I was sure would be satisfying.

A blended background painting in low values, before printing.

BEFORE BEGINNING, ask your students to bring in fresh leaves in various sizes and shapes. Leaves with prominent veins on the back are best, of course. I always gather a variety of species in September and press them in old books for later use, but dried leaves are very brittle and I prefer fresh, pliable ones.

Acrylic or mixed-media papers work well for this activity, as well as canvas panels. Have students sign their names on the back, and then cover the front surface with paint, using two or three dark or medium-dark colors that they like together.

When the background paint is dry, demonstrate the use of white and light-colored acrylic paint on the veined side of a leaf. Show the class how to dip a wide, flat brush into slightly thick paint and then run it over the texture lightly to bring it out.

Remind students that the paint dries quickly so they must print the leaf promptly. Lay scrap paper over the (paint-side-down) leaf on the canvas, and press well to achieve a good imprint. Use of a brayer is optional.

Colors that harmonize with the background shades are best. Overlapping leaf prints helps tie the piece together. And it’s okay to add a few pops of a bright color, too!

Sometimes there will be enough paint left on a leaf to print it again, producing a “ghost print.” Encourage the wise use of negative space and variety.

DEVELOPING THE PIECE. When the leaf prints are dry, provide small, slender brushes—such as liner brushes—so the students can enhance their acrylic paintings. Refining the artworks, adding interest and definition where needed, will take them to a new, more mature level. I displayed a finished piece that included a few grasses, vines, and branches in and around the leaves. One of my students found my stash of paint writers, perfect for adding tendrils, stems, and evergreen needles.

Teachers of large classes in the lower grades might simplify this project with white tempera stamped onto black paper. When that’s dry, they could color in some areas (such as parts of the printed leaves) with bright oil pastels.

So even if you don’t teach at the high school level, be sure to get your leafy greens—and purples, reds, and more—with this project. Build up some botanical beauties layer by layer. Celebrate the loveliness of leaves with nature-print paintings. 

A finished print.


Tendrils and stems can be added with fine brushes or paint writers.


Overlapping leaf prints ties the piece together.


High-school students will …
• understand and apply media, techniques, and processes.
• reflect upon and assess the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others.
• make connections between visual arts and other disciplines.

• Creating: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

• Leaves (fresh or pressed)
• Canvas panels (or sturdy multimedia paper)
• Acrylic paint, palettes, paintbrushes, water containers
• Paper towels
• Paint shirts

A&A Contributing Editor, Paula Guhin, taught high-school art in Aberdeen, S.D. She is now busy with her art, photography and writing. Visit her blog: mixedmediamanic.blogspot.com.


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