The Winter Landscape and The Pervading Neutral

This week in the Catskill Mountains, it has snowed everyday. Beautiful clean, white snow. What I love about the winter is this wonderful neutral that pervades the landscape. All those subtle tones of gray, blue- gray, violet and russet reds, appear so much more intriguing. Set against this neutral of white, those more subtle tones take on an added vibrancy. With the surrounding neutral, one can see the grays more clearly and instead of mixing a color that is completely neutralized, one can break down that neutral into several tones.

There are russet grasses along the fields and riverbanks near where I live. I love this subtle red because red in the landscape is very rare unless one is talking about a man made structure. Sometimes these grasses appear as a strong accent and at other times they vary from a strong red to a more subtle orange or an ocher color. I find that a combination of viridian  and orange gives this gold tone. And into this I can add a more distinctive red tone without it taking over because the viridian acts as a neutralizer to this red and thus creates a russet color to the grasses without it becoming too pronounced. I prefer working with these three colors rather than strictly a red/green complement. Adding this type of variety to the grasses allows one to place the grass in the composition through color temperature- warmer tones approaching the foreground and cooler tones as it recedes into the background.

The far hills, during this time of year, appear as subtle gray-blue tones to blue-violets tones. In the middle of winter when the skies are overcast, there is a close relationship in color temperature between the sky and far hills. The looming clouds hang over the hills reflecting their violet tones into the hills and the color from the hills themselves also being reflected back into the sky. This violet tone tends to pervade everything including the snow. So it is important to add any kind of variance to these violet tones that one can find. If it is all too neutral, it becomes uninteresting and there appears to be no light emanating from the canvas.

I divide the tones I see in an overcast winter landscape into blue; blue-violet; and violet- red. Accentuating the blues at first in the initial block-in and then later over-laying in the pervading violet to violet-gray. And I tend to off-set all this violet with a subtle introduction of orange or orange-yellow. Since the sun is low in the sky in the winter, this warm color can be seen in the lower sky and subsequently, reflected in some of the snow. This adds a more compelling element visually, the warms and cools playing off of each other.

One cannot describe all that goes into every landscape, but I have indicated some of the things I find so interesting about this time of year. The blanket of the neutral white ties all of these beautiful tones together gathering them in and showing them off in a unique way. It was always George Bellows favorite time of year. He even titled one of his winterscapes of skaters in Central Park as,”Love of Winter”. If one has the endurance, in many ways it is the best time to paint out-of-doors.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Winter Landscape and The Pervading Neutral”

  1. Judith, there is also something I wanted to say about the painting on your post of nov. 25. I noticed in looking at the painting that the purest or most intense orange or red orange is at the focal point of the painting-the middle of the tree- as is the strongest value and temp. contrast being where the shadow and light meet. I know you write and speak about doing this so I was looking for it in the painting. It would not have been at all obvious if I had not been because it was so artfully done. I was not clear on how to do this in a painting but your painting is a great example. You did it in a subtle way yet the result is bold and vibrant. The whole thing has such a strong feeling of sunlight. Very exciting !

  2. Judith, thanks for the informative lesson and the subtle and poetic landscape. In looking at it I feel the time of year the cold air and warm sun I can almost smell the winter air yet it is just paint on canvas. That is something profoundly mysterious to me. What a masterful painting!

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