How to Paint a Japanese Maple

Updated April 17, 2017

Japanese maple trees are a profoundly satisfying subject for painting. Majestic stature, leaf shape, colour and elegant trunk are all distinct features that are easy to master with practice. With these basics as guides, creative adaptations will be at the whim of your imagination, and the Japanese maple tree will soon be at your disposal to add seasonal reference, dramatic presence or classical background detail to your paintings.

Choose reference pictures. Using Internet research or a visit to the library or bookstore, find photos of the Japanese maple tree that you find interesting. Be sure to choose a variety of angles, picture styles and tree types. A few pictures that provide close up of leaves, colours and trunk details will also be helpful.

Paint your background canvas. All paint mediums including oils, watercolours and acrylics will require a dry, finished background to accept the finer details of your Japanese maple painting without distortion. Set up your background using colours of your choice to define the sky, horizon and ground surrounding your tree. Use the reference photos you have chosen, as well as your own imagination to decide how the background should look. Allow the painted background to dry thoroughly.

Draw your Japanese maple tree. Using light pencil marks, clearly sketch in the tree trunk and limbs. Shade in the general shape the leaves make in groups without concern for individual leaves. As you lightly fill in the leaf areas also be aware of the empty spaces between the leaf groups. The relationship of "positive" (leaf-filled) and "negative" (empty space) is a strong defining detail for your subject.

Paint leaves. The Japanese maple is distinct due to the variety of shades of a single colour it displays regardless of the season. Mix colours to match leaf colours in your reference picture. Use lighter tints for leaves in the foreground and darker shades to create depth in the background. Highlight the primary shape of each leaf in the clusters of your sketch.

Paint the trunk, limbs and leaf details. After the leaves have had time to dry, mix darker brown colours and paint in the final details. Using light paint strokes with dark colours will highlight both the strength and unique flexibility of the trunk. Lightly painted lines that suggest leaf veins and mirror limb angles will bring your Japanese maple tree to life.

Remove any remaining pencil marks. When your painting is completely finished and thoroughly dry, use a soft eraser to remove any remaining pencil marks.


A general reference for colours to start with is provided below. You will need to mix colours to achieve the tints and shades you need for your tree and may prefer to start with other options. For water colour paintings, the final fine details of the leaves can be drawn in with ink drawing pens.

Things You'll Need

  • Paint medium of your choice
  • Paint canvas of your choice
  • 1/4 paint brush
  • 1/2 paint brush
  • Two or three detail brushes
  • Drawing pencils
  • Soft eraser
  • Ink drawing pens (optional)
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About the Author

Smokey Yokems has been teaching through writing and performance since 1982. Yokems' strength is translation. Her publications include work-for-hire children's stories, corporate video scripts and a tri-annual newsletter for a nonprofit educational foundation in Maine. Yokems holds a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and performance from Oberlin College/Lesley University.