Different strokes for different folks–painting the maple leaf

When our children were young one of them misheard the expression ‘make believe’ while reading bedtime stories as ‘maple leaf’. To this day at our house fantasy stories are referred to as such. When I double load a paintbrush to portray maple leaves in a composition my mind often wanders into the magical world that is childhood and fairy tales. There is indeed something extraordinary about leaf shapes and colors that blend right on the paper, truly mimicking the astonishing array of fall color that bursts seemingly overnight from a clump of Canadian (aka. sugar or rock) maple (Acer saccharum).


Fall color in Gatineau Park is always a spectacular sight.

Now I’ve named ‘the maple’ I’m referencing because there are numerous trees, all somewhat similar but also different in significant ways, that people intend to single out with their chosen term ‘the maple’.

I lived in Manitoba for years and there ‘the maple’ more often as not was used to refer to the Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), which is distinguished by a split leaf formation. In Victoria where I now live, leaves of ‘the maple’ blowing about in fall can startle visitors with their sheer size—they are the size of dinner plates, often up to 17 or more inches across! (Acer macrophyllum) And gardeners in conversation using the term ‘the maple’ may be describing any number of shrubs/trees collectively called Japanese maples, that come in a huge array of foliage colors and shapes as well as various sizes.

Then there’s Canada’s oldest maple, a sugar maple variety known as the Comfort Maple, standing in Pelham, Ontario.  Alas, the name comes from a one time farm owner whose surname was Comfort, not because of the tree’s demeanor!

In trying to figure out which of ‘the maples’ is likely to be the subject of Chinese brush painters I encountered the same multitude of candidates in Asian countries. My conclusion is that just about any maple species could be the subject of a composition in which ‘the maple’ figures, and hence there are likely to be different leaf forms portrayed.

To confuse things further, I learned that the ‘plane tree’ is often the designated subject portrayed in traditional CBP landscapes, which employ red-colored, five-lobed leaf structures on medium sized trees.  Just such a tree was featured in one of John Nip’s landscapes we examined at art group last week:


Plane trees have leaves similar to maples, and are also commonly called sycamores in some parts of the world.

Painting resources:

My CPB books have very little about painting maple leaves, yet they do show up as context elements in landscape, flower-bird, or figure/animal paintings. They usually present as a bough showcasing birds or insects, occasionally as a tree framing a horse, goat, or other large animal. Their main purpose seems to be to impart color or suggest the season.

I hunted online and found examples worthy of study, but no dedicated lesson in an instruction book. I found several helpful artists (Joan Lok, Virginia Lloyd-Davies) describing how to paint maple leaves that surely were based on Acer saccharum, our Canadian maple or a near relative. (See examples later in this post.)

Some portrayals show five lobes to leaves, and others show six; some are pointier than others. Where I did find some instruction for portraying maple leaves was in my collection of sumi-e (Japanese) painting books.


My searching led to the discovery of several ‘styles’ for maple leaves:


This is a detail shot of maple in one of my panda painting books; the leaves are very loose and lack veining, but the varied tones and overlapping appeal to me.


Here’s a detail shot of a ‘flower-bird’ composition by Lou Shabai. He showcased two bright blue birds among these strongly colored leaves.


Yolanda Mayall demonstrates how to paint sumi-e maple leaves with a ‘press stroke’ technique in her book and provides a few examples such as this  for clustering them.

When I expressed my frustration in finding so little CBP instruction for creating maple leaves, Delightful Lotus reminded me she likely had notes on file from art classes with master painter John Nip. The handful of lesson sheets she found did not include John’s customary notes (which suggested the method he used was his own and not a traditional one passed down through his fifth generation Lingnan School teacher.) His illustrative maple leaves, complete with a trademark ‘finishing flourish’ were highly instructive! (See Method four below.) Bless you, John; thank you Lotus!

Here’s a marvelous slideshow of what Lotus has done with maple leaves–three compositions and one close-up of the bough above those two crows.  After my lengthy hunt for appealing maple leaves painted in the CBP manner I’d say it doesn’t get any better than this!

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Maple Leaf painting:

I discovered there are at least four different ways to compose maple leaves. The first two are shown in my sumi-e books and online in Youtube videos. The third I discovered demonstrated online. The fourth I discerned from John Nip’s lesson sheets with input from Delightful Lotus.

Now all of these methods can be used to portray maple leaf boughs, but if you are intending to portray a larger tree, then scale becomes an issue. Chinese brush painters sometimes ignore realistic proportions of objects in order to draw attention to some element through exaggeration. Tiger and Eagle eyes are made larger to emphasize ferocity; human figures in landscapes are often made small and featureless to contrast with the grandiose nature of mountains and forests.

One of my horse-painting books includes this composition showing a tree that can only be intended as a maple, given the leaf shapes, and the scale appears to be correct.


Color combos in the painting are not so great; the horses are well proportioned. The leaves here could be painted by using any one of the following four methods:

Maple Leaf Method One: Press stroke

This is the method described in Yolanda Mayhall’s The Sumi-e Dream Book and is demonstrated in a bookmark painting on Youtube here.

It also appears to be the method used by another experimental artist who posted a Youtube video of maple leaves painted with food coloring. The result simply glows with color but I’m sure it wouldn’t survive the glue-mounting procedure done to stretch and preserve Chinese brush painting (food color would likely bleed once you started to wet-mount.) The dark ink veining is also very effective in this little vignette.


You simply load a soft paint brush with yellow, dip it in some shade of red or orange and then place the brush tip where you want the main leaf tip to begin, and press the brush to the paper. You then repeat the press-stroke to either side of the first stroke, and then two more (smaller lobes) either side of that.

The overlapping part blends together and the five points to the leaf lobes will hold the darker red tone. (If you want that color at the lobe intersection you’ll need to use one of the other methods described below.) You arrange leaves in sizes and gestures as wanted to form a cluster, then vein with ink or a darker color, and connect with branching. It takes practice to control the amount of water in the brush and to visualize a pleasing arrangement of leaves for a cluster on a bough.

Asian maple trees have a mostly smooth bark and the branches are best rendered in a medium to light grey wash. (The trunks on our older Canadian maple trees should look textured with grooves and similar grey coloring.)  You can mix green in with the grey for a fresh spring branch, and you can add green to your yellow-red leaf color scheme.

The press stroke method of painting maple leaves for a tree is illustrated in Chinese Landscape Painting Made Easy by Rebecca Yue.   The shape and coloring of her tree would suggest she had an Asian variety in mind, not the Canadian Maple.


Maple Leaf Method Two: Wipe/Side strokes

This technique is described in one of my Japanese sumi-e books and the demo is in ink tones. Basically the same five-pointed leaf is created by loading a brush in light ink dipped in darker ink, and then creating the leaf lobes (same order as in method one, starting with the larger central one) using side strokes. Each one is begun with the brush tip either at the point or at the leaf centre and wiped on an angle. One of my books describes this stroke more completely: plant the loaded bush at the point of intersection of the five lobes, and then while moving the brush sideways, lift your elbow so that the paint/ink trail diminishes to a point as you lift off the paper.


Maple Leaf Method Three: Bamboo strokes

I’m including this method because should you be aiming to portray a realistic looking spray of some Japanese maple variety this method works well.   I first observed this executed in a Youtube video using shades of ink.

I later tripped over an attractive composition employing dark red maple leaves that were obviously painted in this manner.  These leaves closely resemble those on a Red Emperor Japanese maple growing next to my front patio, right down to the consistent glowing deep red color and the slightly serrated edges.


Basically you create a five-pointed leaf by placing five successive (slightly modified) bamboo strokes intersecting at a single point; from that intersection you paint in a small stem. Those bamboo strokes need to be sized appropriately to render the leaf with five lobes., and you can curl the tips ever so slightly.  Order for painting again seems to be the centre one first, then one to the left and one to the right that are slightly smaller, and then two more even smaller ones to the left and right of those, angled appropriately.

Maple Leaf Method Four: Hook strokes

As in the first three methods described above, this method involves defining full maple leaves with a five-lobed formation, and also creating partials (three points only), new leaves (smaller and not fully formed), and old leaves (dried ones as well as lacy, transparent ones with skeletal veining).

John’s method was to start with a single down stroke, followed by two hook-strokes on either side. The last two points would be added with simple pull strokes, either away or toward the intersection of the five strokes as needed to create a leaf. Here is one of John’s original lesson sheets showing subtle variations to consider:


He used the double load of an orangey-red medium tone dipped in a darker shade of that tone in such a way that the darker color would suggest the ‘valley’ for the veins. The little hook on strokes two and three was necessary to create the proper leaf shape. John’s lesson shows veins done in ink and in color (see below). His own preference was for dark red tones done after the leaves were mostly dry.


Now I did find in one of my Japanese sumi-e books reference to this ‘hook-stroke’ in the instruction for painting grape leaves, but the accompanying illustration had sharp angles to the lobes and looked more like a maple leaf than a grape leaf to me. Note the different ordering of strokes here, moving left to right instead of from centre out.


Lotus told me that John was a stickler for students ‘finishing’ their maple leaves. His trademark ‘finish’ for maple was to dab spots on all leaves using pale mineral yellow (or yellow mixed with white). It was amazing to see on my studio table how his ‘finish’ truly enhanced the appearance of the leaves!!! I painted these leaves with a large bamboo/orchid brush.  Just look at the difference those light spots made in my bough of maple leaves–pure magic!

maplemagic1           maplemagic2

Veining for Effect:

While hunting for compositions with maple leaves I found at least two artists–one a sumi-e painter and the other a Chinese brush painter–who seem to have perfected their own distinctive ways of portraying maples. Joan Lok seems to be painting the larger maple leaves indigenous to the eastern United States; on her web site you can find this helpful demo sheet as well as a few compositions where she has employed the method.


The second American artist with a distinctive ‘fall color’ leaf that surely is maple is Virginia Lloyd-Davies. At her web site you’ll find this composition using maple in an effective manner with dark ink veining:

VLDfall colormaple

Both Lok and Lloyd-Davies appear to drop in veins in a curved manner, while the leaves are slightly damp. One can learn a lot by studying the detailing of their leaves and trying to replicate them. Overlaps, color variations (deeper values come forward, lighter ones fade to the background), leaf parts, leaves that are dried or bug-bitten, how they attach to stems—all these things can be carefully examined.

I spent an afternoon exploring the different ways to render a maple leaf, then another afternoon concentrating on John’s method, and finally most of a Sunday afternoon working on different cluster combinations for a setting featuring a horse.  Here’s my first bough (not yet ‘finished’ with the sparkle) that I considered to actually resemble maple. It was painted with a small soft brush.


The leaves tend to point in a similar direction–mostly down when not in a wind–and should overlap.  Varied tones and sizes add interest and branches should be lightly defined.

I tried to apply my understanding of cluster creation to a full composition; here it is still on my studio table.  I think I will try and add a falling leaf or two on the left and then color in the grass with some pale gold and orange tones to tie the elements together.


While hunting online for images of Canadian maple leaves I found many wonderful photographs where raindrops had beaded on the leaf surfaces (hydrophobicity is the technical term).  My guess is water droplets are the explanation for John’s clever dotted leaf finish! How curious that both photographers and artists observed the same remarkable phenomenon that enhances their images. Mind you, the dotting could also be evidence of bug bites; I prefer to think of it as ‘fairy dust’.

A final surprise while researching maple was to learn that an individual maple tree had been the inspiration for Alexander Muir’s much-loved song, The Maple Leaf Forever.  See this article.

Painting ‘the maple’ is truly fascinating, no matter which method used or which ‘maple’ emulated.  It is the perfect way to counter the gloom of an overcast weekend with endless five-lobed leaves in cheery shades of yellow, orange, bronze, and red.  Don’t forget the ‘fairy dust’.




This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, maple leaf, sumi-e painting. Bookmark the permalink.

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