Create an abstract watercolor painting inspired by nature, such as the leaves from plants or trees. Visit the Japanese Tea Garden, or any garden, for inspiration. Finish this two-part project at home by adding watercolor to your nature sketches.
Watch Nature-Inspired Abstractions
Although she’s best known for her abstract wire sculptures, artist Ruth Asawa (1926–2013) also created beautiful paintings on paper, including these watercolor leaf paintings. In Untitled (Stem with Leaves), ( c.1948–1949), she abstracted the leaf shapes and focused on the negative space—the unoccupied or empty space in an artwork, to create a different perspective. By repeating some imagined shapes occupying the negative space, Asawa was able to create an intriguing pattern. Look at the flow and movement in Untitled (Stem with Leaves: “Background” Painting), (c. 1948–1949)—another example of Asawa using organic forms to inspire her artwork.
- Watercolor pencils or colored pencils
- Watercolor paper
- Watercolor brushes
- Water cup
- Cloth rag or paper towel
Questions to Consider
Walk around the Japanese Tea Garden, or any garden near you. Take in the serene surroundings. Notice the plants and trees, the leaves, the spaces surrounding them. Find any lines and shapes that look interesting to you. What do they look like? Try to look more closely. Do you see some of the colors and shapes overlapping? Notice any shadows and reflections, or shapes within shapes.
Plein air drawing:
1. Sketch the lines and shapes of the leaves you see with a watercolor pencil or colored pencil on your watercolor paper. Use any colors you like.
2. Focus on the space around the shapes you’ve drawn—the negative space. Lightly shade in the negative space to make the leaves stand out.
Add watercolor at home:
3. Set up your art materials on a table, including your drawing from the garden.
4. Now fill in the negative spaces with watercolor washes. First, dip your brush in water, tap gently on your rag, then pick any color you like and dip your brush in there. Pick up that color with your brush and move it to your palette and squish it around. Apply it on the background.
5. Once some of the washes are dry (you can test this by lightly touching areas on your watercolor paper). Start painting the leaves with different colors.
6. Follow your imagination as you paint. Add in some outlines, shadows, or imagined shapes within shapes. Try overlapping the paint with other colors to see what happens. Rotate your paper around as you paint to find different perspectives. Have fun and make it colorful!
After creating your abstract watercolor painting, consider the following questions:
- What steps did you enjoy during the process? Drawing at the garden, or adding watercolor paint on it at home?
- What shapes and colors did you end up drawing and painting? Did you overlap some colors or create any new shapes?
- What did you find surprising?
- What challenges did you experience?
- If you could do this project all over again, what would you do differently? The same? Why?
Share and talk about your artwork with family and friends. What were your favorite shapes and colors in your painting?
We would love to see what you create! Email pictures of your artwork to email@example.com or tag us on any social platform with #deyoungsters.
- Ruth Asawa, Untitled (BMC.68, Stem with Leaves). c 1948-1949. Watercolor on paper,19 3/4 x 16 in. (50 x 41 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Aiko and Laurence Cuneo, 2007.29.3. Artwork © 2021 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner Gallery, New York. Photograph © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- Ruth Asawa, Untitled (BMC.66, Stem with Leaves: “Background” Painting), c.1948–1949. Watercolor over graphite paper, 19 3/4 x 16 in. (50 x 41 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of the artist, 2007.28.59. Artwork © 2021 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate of Ruth Asawa and David Zwirner Gallery, New York. Photograph © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- Process photographs by Rea Lynn de Guzman