A Fruitful Harvest

With spectacular leaf colors, apples, pumpkins and other gourds, crisp air, and changing light, there are myriad reasons to fall in love with autumn, and just as many ways for you to incorporate it into your art. Try collecting dried twigs and berries to inspire your palette or even use these items in your art as Ursula Roma does. Splash a bit of fall color into your landscapes in the manner of cut-paper artist Aki Sogabe, or simply record the daily changes of the outdoors in a nature journal as artist and naturalist Clare Walker Leslie does.

Whatever your reason for liking this season, and however you express its beauty in your art, the key to getting the most out of fall is to pay attention to the details while getting a well-rounded picture. And, because you may need extra inspiration to get you through the winter, it wouldn’t hurt to collect a few more ideas than you think you’ll need.

Have an inquiring mind. It’s easy to become enamored with autumn color, but before you hop in your car and race off to go leaf peeking, stop for a moment and reflect on this season and why the leaves are turning. Why are the squirrels gathering leaves? Why do we have less light? Is that a red oak? These questions and more come to Leslie’s mind as she walks around outside. Make up your own list of questions, and then look for the answers as you continue through the season, gathering up inspiration.

OK, now you can revel in the colors. Green is a lovely color and has more variety than people think, but when October comes around, it’s probably time to dig out a few other colors. “Earth tones tend to dominate my palette in October and November, primarily because I’m surrounded by these colors and the challenge to copy them is great,” says Roma, who lives in Cincinnati. “You think you know color until you experience fall. Nature has pigments I can’t find in a jar or tube.”

The colors Roma works with don’t always come from a tube, however. She paints and makes object constructions with weathered or aged wood and other materials. “All of these, especially rust, dried woods and other metal objects that have been exposed to the elements, provide a nice natural palette to complement fall,” she adds.

As you’re reaching for your umbers, siennas, yellows and reds, consider how these colors work together in your autumn scenes. Leslie recommends taking a look at the color wheel and making use of complements. “Fall is about the most difficult season to paint because the colors are so garish and they don’t work well together,” says the artist, who splits her time between Granville, Vermont, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Orange doesn’t work well with green. But when you get the red next to the green, the blue next to the orange and the yellow next to a blue that’s tinged with violet or purple, you have your fall painting.”

At the same time, pay attention to the light. The air is getting drier, which gives you a clearer picture of the leaves. “My favorite aspect of fall is the brilliant array of color accentuated by the polarized light of the season,” says Roma. “Cincinnati has a few weeks where it actually feels like New Mexico light. That’s my favorite time period and it’s an essential time for me to create.” But when it rains, don’t be so quick to go indoors, says Sogabe, who lives in Bellevue, Washington. “Rain makes the colors of the leaves darker, and it’s very pretty, as well.”

Look beyond the color. While the colorful show often doesn’t last more than a couple of weeks, that doesn’t mean fall is over. By the same token, if you live in a place like Hawaii or Singapore where the colors don’t change as much, it doesn’t mean you can’t experience fall. But without colorful leaves, what’s left to draw from? Plenty.

  • For starters, there’s the aforementioned light. The sun is lower in the sky because of how the earth is tilted this time of year, so that can create interesting shadow patterns, as Sogabe has observed on walks with her dog. She’s even used her digital camera to snap pictures of her shadow on the path to use for ideas in future pieces.
  • Plants are finishing a cycle begun in spring, says Leslie. The seeds fall to the ground and are stored someplace safe over the winter, and fruits and vegetables are being harvested by animals and people. Take a look at your garden and at other vegetation and notice what’s happening.
  • Animals are also preparing for winter. Among other things, squirrels are gathering nuts and preparing their nests, while other birds and animals are migrating.

    Take nature indoors. As handy as it is to snap reference photos to remind you of what a plant looked like at a certain time of day, sometimes you just need to take a bit of it back to your studio for inspiration or closer observation. In her book Keeping a Nature Journal (Storey Publishing), which won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Literature earlier this year, Leslie recommends gathering objects when you’re out on a walk, putting them on your desk and then setting aside one to two hours to draw each object carefully, in detail. “Creating these studies can seldom be done as well outdoors,” she says. “Indoors, however, you can take the time to develop your drawing technique.”

    Roma, too, brings a little of the outdoors back to her studio to find usable materials for her artwork as well as to study colors. “In the fall I collect leaves, branches, driftwood, old barn wood and fun things like old rusted objects that appear from under the summer growth. I become more focused because I bring the inspiration of my visual world back to my studio to prompt new work. These objects and colors—even in their dying—help me compose works that speak about the beauty of life’s process.”

    Find your special place. You don’t have to travel far to experience nature and the beauty of fall. Sure, it’s nice to head to New England to see the bounty of color, but check out what’s happening in your own backyard, the park down the street or by the banks of a nearby stream.

    When Leslie needs a dose of inspiration, she heads to Mount Auburn Cemetery (near her Cambridge home) two or three days a week. “I just walk out of my life for an hour or so,” she says. “I go there because there are no phones, no family, no dog, and I can simply wander and draw. There’s silence there and I can watch fall coming on.”

    For Sogabe, Mount Rainier is her spiritual place. The sister mountain to Mount Fuji in her native Japan, it’s a place she hikes and camps to view the changes in nature. And regardless of the season, Mount Rainier has so inspired her she’s included it in at least 200 of her pictures over the past 25 years.

    To find your own place, Leslie recommends finding a spot close by that engages you and has a few interesting plants, some insects, some interesting trees and a little bit of a landscape. “We’re doing ourselves a lot of injustice by saying, ‘I can’t connect with nature because I have to find the time and go someplace.’ You don’t have to go anywhere. Nature is all around you.”

    Start a nature journal. Keeping sketches and photographs of nature is an excellent way to store ideas for later use, but you can also record the happenings of nature for its own sake. For the past 25 years, Leslie has kept a nature journal. “I start my journal page with the date, the place, the time, the weather, the moon phase and then what I hear,” she says. “The writing helps to focus my attention. And then I ask myself: OK, what is it that’s special about today that I need to draw to remember? I look at the sky. What’s the weather doing? What birds are in the sky and what are they doing? Where’s the sun? What’s happening in the trees? What trees are changing color? Who’s eating the fruits in those trees?”

    The major appeal of keeping a nature journal is that you can record your observations in two, five, 10 or 30 minutes—whatever block of time you have. You also don’t need many supplies: a sketchbook with smooth paper (“I don’t use handmade paper because I don’t want to get caught up in the fancy journal”), a technical pencil (it doesn’t need sharpening) or a pen, and some colored pencils or watercolor to add color. Leslie also takes along her Farmer’s Almanac so she knows when sunrise and sunset are, binoculars, and a bird book. “I don’t carry a chair because then I get lazy,” she says. “Instead, I sit on the ground or stand and keep moving.”

    A season of change Perhaps the only lament these artists have about autumn is that it doesn’t seem to last nearly as long as necessary to capture its full beauty. If one fall a year isn’t quite enough, there’s always the option of traveling to the Southern Hemisphere to capture it again after the vernal equinox. Perhaps your best option is simply to slow down to enjoy the one you have. As gardener and garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence said, “Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn.”

    Contributing editor Butch Krieger is an artist and instructor in Port Angeles, Washington.

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