It may be hard to imagine right now, but soon it will be that time of year– when we are all tempted by the bright colors of fall foliage to throw every high chroma color we can lay our hands on onto a canvas! In many ways, painting this season can be even more daunting than painting the overwhelming green of summer. So put down that cad orange and take a few moments to read these suggestions! Painting autumn colors successfully comes down to paying attention to basics- in this case, value, chroma and temperature.
One of the most difficult notions to overcome is our perception of warm high chroma colors as lighter in value than they actually are. I am not sure why this is, but it does seem to be universally true. When I ask students to identify the values in a painting like this for example…..
they will almost always guess that the lightest foliage areas are a 7 – 8 on the Munsell value scale, rather than a 5-4. Of course we know from our new best friend Carlson that trees are upright planes and therefore the darkest values in the landscape, right? So, intellectually we ought to know that they would carry a darker value. But, nonetheless, when faced with an electric orange or yellow, the guess is always to the lighter side of the scale. One look at the greyscale version of the painting confirms the folly.
One other factor should help us understand, intellectually if not visually, that these colors are indeed in the mid to darker value range, and that is their intensity. As a color is tinted, i.e., made lighter, it also loses chroma. Adding lots of white to a color will inevitably lead to that color being not only lighter, but cooler and less chromatic (duller) than it was before!
Chroma refers to how intense or dull a color appears. Colors in nature rarely hit the chroma jackpot in the way manmade colors do. Nature is much greyer and lower in chroma than we often realize. So, careful observation is required to convince our eyes we really are not seeing a color that comes straight off the pop tarts package. This is why in fall, when there actually is some chroma in the landscape, we tend to go overboard and paint it more chromatically and too much of it. Use restraint. That beautiful maple tree will look more fetching against a screen of more neutral trees.
Temperature is perhaps the least understood of color attributes. It takes some time to see and understand temperature changes in the landscape and to know where to look for them. But, we can all agree that a fall landscape will have an overwhelmingly warm cast. Overwhelming. So, for that reason, looking for opportunities to introduce some cooler notes into your painting is very important.
So, get out there and paint the fall foliage! If you get the values right, use restraint with chroma, and add some cooler notes for variety, you will have a much better chance of success in the field.
PS Our most popular online class, Drawing & Painting Trees, starts September 11, 2020. Sign up and you will never look at a tree the same way again. Promise! Information and registration is here.
Jay Patel says
Having just read Painting the Woods (superb) I’m finding these field notes to be an invaluable additional resource. Although painting would be too daunting for me, I love sketching landscapes in graphite and am considering making first tentative steps into colour with pencils. These generous notes are helping to give me a better grounding and are much appreciated. Thank you!