Leaf Studies ala Paul Klee

I must have read the first 23 pages of ‘Constructive approaches to composition’ in Paul Klee’s Notebooks Volume 2, The Nature of Nature, at least 20 times. The very last line of the section, on page 23 simply states, “Exercise: Imaginary leaves on the basis of the foregoing basic rules.” [All quotes are from: Klee, P., Heinz-Norden, trans. Jürg Spiller, ed.; Notebooks Volume 2 The Nature of Nature London: Lund Humphries. 1973]

In a previous post, I outlined what I thought were the rules. I found I had to focus on a limited number of rules in order to be able to put pencil to paper (to take my point out for a walk, in Klee’s parlance).  Klee’s says that the visual expression of a leaf “is defined by stem, veins and leaf tissue,” and that the main line that describes the leaf, i.e., the continuation of the stem through the leaf tissue, is the central vein.

Klee goes on to say that the main line may be divided in equal parts or unequal parts.

Therefore, central vein division is the first rule.

Next, Klee explains that other divisions can be formed by extensions, or branches to the left and right of the central vein (either alternately or bilaterally).

The second rule is branching to the left and right of the central vein at the points where it divides.

Klee adds the following statement: “Note that he line is charged with force especially at the point where it must produce as many branchings as possible, namely at the beginning, close to the stem. In this way reciprocal relations arise between the articulating intervals and the strength or force of the lines (proportional measure and proportionate weight).”

I interpret the above paragraph to mean, the width of the line that makes up the main vein is halved at each division.

To summarize:

Rule 1: central vein divisions – even or uneven spacing between divisions.

Rule 2: at each dividing point, create branching to right or left, either alternate branching or bilateral branching.

Rule 3: the thickest line is at the beginning of the central vein, halving in width with each division.

First sketch

In my first study, I have 3 divisions of the central vein, the thickest line is from the base to the first division, which is halved between the first and second division at which point it is halved again.

I decided to branch bilaterally at each division, trying to approximate halving of the side-vein lines with each subdivision. In my sketch, I did not use precise measurements and guessed what the limiting line would look like.

Limits of visual discrimination

As I continued the bilateral branching, I quickly reached a limit where my pencil point could not draw finely enough. The bounding surface (or plane) at this limit is what Klee terms a ‘contour’, further on in the section.

Pencil Drawing - Leaf Study 2

Leaf Study 1
approx. 9″x9″ Standard Weight Drawing Paper

I sketched these contours at the limit of the branching.

Second sketch

I used even spacing again, in my second study. However, I used alternate branching. I used a more precise method in this sketch and started with a central vein comprised of a main line with 8 parallel lines, 4 on each side. After the first division, the central vein was halved to 2 lines on each side of the central line, and so on.

I gave the first set of branches the weight of 4 lines, the second set, 2 lines, the third set, one line.

Subdivisions off each branch were treated as if it were the main branch, halving the central line with every division.

In the final division, however I ended with a single main line extension of the branch accompanied by two bilateral branches.

Pencil Drawing - Leaf Study 1

Leaf Study 1
12″x9″ Standard Weight Drawing Paper

I know I broke my own rules, but I couldn’t find a graceful way to end the branching.

I am not sure how these two studies would have been received by Klee himself had I handed them in as assignments, but I would have really valued his feedback.

Not finished

I am not done with leaf exercises yet. There are palm leaves, which Klee does address, not to mention more possibilities with linear branching.


9 thoughts on “Leaf Studies ala Paul Klee

  1. Very cool. Approaching the limits of Euclidian Geometry it is tempting to invent non Euclids. Pick a theory. Any theory. Old or new. Light bounces. It may bounce in a linear wave. Or perhaps it is a bouncing particle with intent. In the Healing Garden, we are thankful for the warm light of the sun.

    More to the point, light bounces off a leaf, as it will do, when light and leaf meet. As yet, nothing has been seen. And if the bounce of light were a tree falling in an empty forest, no doubt great debate could arise whether any bounce had bounced at all.

    Nonetheless, a bounce did bounce and strike our eye. Retinally speaking there was a ping on a cone, or light sensitive nerve ending that is activated. Over time there have been many theories of what happens when the eye is struck by a bounce of light. Anatomists like S.Ramon Y Cajal have described clearly the sub processing, middle processing and cortical processing that occurs as a struck bounce on the eye registers its strike in the brain and is converted to its own “ouch.” From the looks of things, for most of us, every day seeing is a hit and run affair.

    In the looking at a leaf our eyes are not bounced to pixelated distraction. They apprehend (probably one eye at a time, then stereoscopically together in the brain). Our eyes, and brains, take an average of lines, planes, shades and associated reflected shapes and colors. Klee, like Euclid, describe the shape of an image of a leaf. Their own vision of a leaf. In the Healing Garden, maybe we have our own ideas and visions.

    This gardener has yet to see any of Klee’s and Euclid’s painted leaves. We are thinking a picture is worth a thousand words at this point. The leaves we watch grow are graceful leaves, full-of-light-living-leaves. A quick look will tell what type of leaf, how old, likely genus of plant, health of plant, amount of water in the ground… The coordination of our gardening eyes and hands, the sophistication of our techniques, can not so much as capture a leaf image in light’s bounce looking semi-alive. At least invoking more than a flat one-dimensional vision.

    Accordingly, our leaf images are stylized images. The leaf images the Healing Garden gardener can perfect are a display of whatever practice and vision our brush can bring to the paper. The leaf will always form a plane intended to capture as much light as possible. This is the nature of leafness. Everything else is the image of the bounce-back from the leaf-nature. Maybe I can find a way to make an image that speaks to what I see when I am struck by leaf-light bounce-back. Alternatively, the idea that my brain is re-inventing the leaf every time I invoke a vision of leafness, or that my brain is receiving a cosmic projection of leafness before I invoke a vision, could explain my tiredness.

    Naturally, my experience of the leaf is only a gardener’s experience. Klee, from our very beginner’s view, shows how the leaf plane can ‘break’ and form many irregular patterns. There will always be tension, or intent, in the line of a plane delineating light and shadow. Like life. Watercolors have a unique mutability that I think can show this best. We are learning how. THgg

    • Great comment, THGg, thank you.

      Unless you’re trying for a hyper-realistic rendering of a leaf, the notion that “[you] can find a way to make an image that speaks to what [you] see when [you] are struck by leaf-light bounce-back” is what I consider the whole point of painting. A realistic rendering may be obtained with a camera and the correct exposure.

      My take on Klee is – in the case of the leaf exercise – that he is encouraging his students to explore leaf-ness and to apply pictorial principles to a fictitious leaf that will eventually lead to a rendering of the students’ visions of a leaf.

      Your experience of leaves, as a gardner, can enlighten the rest of us.

      Thanks again,


  2. J. Dispensing enlightenment is likely beyond this gardener’s reach. You have challenged us to to a post regarding leafness. A promise in the time frame of soon. Thanks again for your inspiration. THGg

  3. Let us remember the Healing Garden gardener is a walking breathing example that everybody else does not know everything. For this I thank my Mom, who refused to pull the plug when she was told she could plant me and I would always be a vegetable. Yes, it did say on my driver’s license I was an organ donor. High altitude mountaineers and college athletes command a good price. Per item. I don’t remember them actually bidding on my organs.

    There are many things I have been eager to do. Since I awoke. I would say the watercolorings are very close to numero uno. I am thinking I will make about 1,000 small practice drawings. Brushwork practice. Stumbling on Jack’s site has been an unexpected treasure for me. I had not ever considered making my own drawings until a few days ago. Got that here, and for this I am very grateful.

    I am reading the Tao of Painting, or The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, translated by Sze, Bollingen Press (2nd Ed). I am almost to the First Canon, a 2000± year old manuscript about brushwork. This is presently my obsession. And perceiving the nature of things with my brushwork. Will report back with significant discoveries from the Territories. THGg

    • Wow, THGg. Quite a story! I am so happy that you will be doing some drawings, and looking forward to seeing them. You honor me with your kind words. Thank you.

      Thank you as well for the reference of the Tao of Painting; I will definitely look it up. As another reader told me: it’s not always about practice, it is about having fun as well. I hope you find painting a lot of fun, THGg.

      Best of luck, my friend.


  4. Pingback: Imaginary Leaf Inspiration | lcsoup's walk today

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