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COLOR HAPPENS: Art-icle for Leaf Peepers

art education inspiration

Jack Sparrow's Compass leads lactose intolerant woman to cheese castle. Comic by Karen Strum

Fall brings leaf peepers out in droves to see the changing of the seasons. With a dramatic show of color the verdant leaves of summer die and a carpet of white rolls out across the nation. Artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe have depicted this subject matter, her 1924 painting of “Autumn Leaves” was completed at Lake George where she liked to gather leaves for their striking diversity, shape and color. Much like O'Keeffe, I find foliage a muse I feel compelled to capture.

Every fall Chris and I travel to North Carolina for a vacation exploring the flora and fauna of the Smoky Mountains. We always make a trip to Deal's Gap to ride his motorcycle. The area is popular with enthusiasts who cross the gap into Tennessee to ride the "Tail of the Dragon"; famous for its 318 curves in 11 miles. While Chris must keep his eyes glued to the road to prevent us from careening over the edge, I on the other hand, am on the back and have the opportunity to see nature's fireworks at their best.

Whether you want to see the yellows of Birch, Black Cherry, or Black Maple, or the vibrant reds Dogwood, Sumac, or Maple; the Smoky Mountains have an enormous variety of trees. They host some 120 species, the greatest variety in the United States. We've found mid October is the best time to see these colors shine -- green in the valley, fall foliage mid way up, and at the top of the mountains the leaves are already dropping.

Fall colors just happen, art doesn't.

Like clockwork, the changing of the seasons automatically happen. However, there's a science behind those gorgeous hues. In the summer, the green chlorophyll is visible in the leaves; but there are also orange and yellow pigments. Its not until the temperatures start to drop that the trees begin reprocessing the chlorophyll and the green begins to fade. Beta carotene and xanthophylls are left behind leaving a palette of warm colors.

Getting those fall colors wasn't always as simple as a quick stop by the local paint shop. Sure, pigments such as ochre have been used since prehistoric times, but others were more difficult to attain. Ultramarine, made from lapis lazuli and only found in the most remote locations, is used in the shadows of landscapes. During the 15th century, patrons of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck were obliged to pay extra if they wanted their commission to include ultramarine blue. When Spain ventured to the New World in the 16th Century they began laboriously importing a red pigment known as Carmine which was highly sought after in Europe. It was made from a parasitic insect found in Central and South America.

While modern day artists may not battle with the problems of sourcing pigments, they face other challenges. For instance, warm colors are often perceived as being lighter in value than they actually are, and this can be difficult to capture. Another challenge is color saturation. Nature is much less saturated than we actually realize, and artists often tend to paint the foliage much too bright. A final obstacle is color balance. Fall landscapes typically involve a warm color palette, so it is important to find opportunities to insert cooler colors like Van Eyck's ultramarine blue.

Nature is the masterpiece, there's a lack of canvases.

My trips to North Carolina have shaped the subject matter and color palettes found in many pieces of my art. I love wandering through the Folk Art Gallery on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the artist stalls at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville to see how local artists portray the natural beauty surrounding their home. Between the fall foliage and the art scene, I return home full of ideas. I think most artists find nature and the camaraderie of other creatives a source of great inspiration. A long ride on a motorcycle doesn't hurt either.

Albert Camus once said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” If that is true then I would like to think that every blank canvas is a masterpiece yet to be unveiled. Until then friends, keep peeping and I'll keep painting.

COLOR HAPPENS:  An Art Blog for Leaf Peepers 


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About the Author: Karen Strum is a Tampa Bay illustrator available for freelance projects. A unique cast of characters in her style can be designed for use in advertisements and materials for which you want something extra special. Karen's cartoons use retro imagery and vintage color palettes that add charm to every image she creates whether it is a comic, logo, diagram, book cover, or concept image. [Send an Email]
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