Pastel Pointers | Tips for Painting the Autumn Landscape

autumn in the ozarks

Here I am painting along a country road in the Ozarks. The photo is courtesy of the pastel artist and professional photographer Garry McMichael.

With the onset of fall, the dance of warm colors across the palette of the landscape is again having its influences upon many a pastelist. For some painters, the peak of color has passed, for others, it is nearing its high point, and for an unfortunate few situated in locations that lack the appropriate flora, it is of no consequence. Whether you are an artist motivated to capture this seasonal show with pigment on surface or not, there are good lessons to be learned through contemplative observation this time of year.

As I’ve said before,the autumn landscape can be a tough subject when not handled with finesse. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be in an area famous for its fall beauty, the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. While this area would be considered beautiful any season of the year, it is especially magical as the gold and ruby tones provided by the cold evenings of October began to show. As our small group of pastelists explored the countryside, ultimately landing on a quiet back road for an early afternoon painting adventure, I allowed myself the luxury of observation. The longer I observed, the more I noticed subtle nuances. I made note of these in my sketchbook before painting. After painting, enjoying lunch, and continuing the afternoon countryside adventure, I revisited these notes and came to some conclusions.
  • Even in the densest array of fall color, there is a counterpoint of complementary color. This is evident in many locations by the blooming of wild asters in shades of violet, as the trees turn yellow. Nature has a way of balancing itself.
  • When the sun is out, fall colors in mass appear weaker. This slight graying of color intensity is due to the reflective influence of the blue sky. Depending on the angle of the sun, this can be quite pronounced. By painting these masses with a more earth-toned warm palette and then including a section of intense blue sky, the law of simultaneous contrast will do the rest and produce the appearance of brighter appearing autumn foliage.
  • The brightest saturation of fall colors in mass occurs on an overcast day and in a backlit lighting scenario. Without the cast of the blue sky on an overcast day, the intensity of the warm tones will be magnified. On a sunny day when light travels through the translucent foliage from behind, it will light up like a lampshade.
  • The final observation is more of a reminder: A painting is not reality; it is a representation, a magic show of sorts. The better we understand what we see, often manipulating, or even compromising reality, the better the illusion.
My Ozark adventure gave me two gifts. One was an opportunity to come to a better understanding of the nuances of fall with an enjoyable group of painting friends. The other was that I often fall prey to a bad plein air painting habit: rushing. Quiet observation and contemplation can often be more valuable than a hurried plein air painting experience. These observations—when combined with painting experience—ultimately lead to good intuitive choices and are an indispensable part of becoming a nature painter.

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One thought on “Pastel Pointers | Tips for Painting the Autumn Landscape

  1. Lee McVey

    Enjoyed your article, as always. Rushing is one of the main obstacles for me, and for a lot of plein air painters. We don’t enjoy the full experience of plein air painting and being out in nature when we rush. I could use more of the quiet observation and contemplation you describe.

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