The Elusiveness of Autumn, Color and the Landscape

Autumn landscape painting by Judith Reeve

Autumn is such a beautiful time of year. The leaves are changing, the clouds are rolling in and the dramatic effects of autumn are evident. As a plein air painter, these effects are quite beautiful. I love how violet the cloudy sky becomes when the orange-yellow leaves are bright with sun. The far hills are no longer just blue, now there are touches of violet and muted red to be seen. The early morning light is strong and yellow with a tinge of orange. So different from the heat and humidity of summer. There is drama in the air. I like to think of the fall as Shakespearean, something is about to happen. There is imminent change waiting in the wings.

As a painter, one loves dramatic effects. It makes for painting something interesting, easy. But there are so many elements that are necessary to get under control. The color for one thing. Organizing the color choices is most difficult this time of year. When I normally paint outside and inside for that matter, I try to limit my color choices. Limiting the color choices produces a stronger painting. Too much color is no color. Color becomes static when set against color of the same intensity. Intense colors are immovable. Whereas, colors that are a step down from purity, as well as colors that are more muted, seem to dance on the canvas. They create an interplay with the more neutral tones, allowing them to find their own visual balance. A yellow set against a neutral tone will vibrate with the neutral allowing us to see it as a violet. The neutral becomes the living partner against the static more intense color. That is the best kind of drama in a painting. Where something happens visually that was not applied directly as a color.

Robert Henri had conducted all types of experiments with color. He took his lead from Michel-Eugene Chevreul, a French scientist who experimented with visual phenomena. What I referred to in the previous paragraph was Chevreul’s theory of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors. Henri spent many years studying intensities of colors and their effect in a painting. What he discovered was that colors had greater vitality when placed near larger areas of colors of lesser intensity moving toward neutrality. The more intense colors needed, compositionally, to cover a smaller area on the canvas and act as points of light. There is no color or feeling of brightness in the midday sun because all is bright and therefore washed out. Consequently, there is a feeling of brightness when a candle is lit in a dark room. So to feel that brightness, there needs to be less of it across the canvas. This sort of goes against our natural inclination that feels in order for something to be bright, one needs more light, not less.

So getting back to the autumn landscape, in order for those trees to feel bright and intense, there needs to be less of the intense colors and more of the bi colors and hues with neutrals placed therein to subtly complement the intensities. The fire of the leaves will only appear dramatic against a backdrop of various lesser intensities. Also, I found that too much white kills the feeling of brightness. So when I say neutrality, I do not mean the addition of white. Yes, this neutralizes the color, but creates dullness. As Henri says in the Art Spirit, “Keep as deep down in color as you can. It is color that makes the sensation of light.” (p.61)

I also found that when trying to balance all the colors in the landscape, one needs to be conscious of, what Henri called, the super color. The super color is the color of the light. When one views a sunset, it is easy to see how the orange light effects the color of every object. The sky is orange, but so is the green tree- it is green mixed with that orange light. Well the same is true at any time of day or season. But I find the fall, with its many colors, a particularly appropriate to view this effect. I found myself mixing an orange- pink lightener (as a substitute for pure white) to add to those lighter planes that were receiving the sunlight. There felt like an orange glow to all things. This really allowed me to capture that peculiar light of the season. This happens in all seasons, but the tilting of the earth at this time, when there is still enough light, makes itself more felt.

“All his science (artist) and all his powers of invention must be brought into practice to capture the vision of an illusive moment. It is as though he were in pursuit of something more real which he knows but has not fully realized, which appears, permits a thrilling appreciation, and is gone in an instant.” (Art Spirit, p.63)

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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