Welcome to fall! Here in Massachusetts, the leaves are just turning, and I just came back from a long weekend a few hours north in New Hampshire, where the foliage is popping off. So I decided this autumn I would build a foliage-specific palette.
I combined lessons learned from my Autumn Palette mark I, which I used in Nova Scotia; inspiration from fall palettes by Scratchmade Journal, Anna Bucciarelli [video], and Da Vinci Paints; and most importantly, my observations from this year’s foliage and the foliage of years past here in New England.
Here, yellow trees tend to go off first, starting with cottonwoods while it’s still warm, and going through ashes and honeylocusts. Yellow remains an important color through the season; sugar maples can get and stay yellow, and gingko are among the last to turn brilliantly yellow. My perception of yellow has changed, I think, from last year, where I found cool lemon yellow to be an important color; now I find most, if not all, of the yellows to be on the warm side.
There are also plenty of yellow flowers in fall, including various sunflowers, mums, and goldenrods.
Sugar maples famously sport the most brilliantly orange leaves! The brightest oranges are necessary for fall. Many trees have more ochre-ish, earthy orange colors. Trees and individual leaves often show a watercolor mix of multiple shades of red, orange, yellow, and green.
Leaf colors can range from super-bright scarlet (borderline orange) to deep, winey crimson.
At the same time, there are still lots of greens in autumn. Earlier in the season, some trees will be popping off while others still look summery. Later, as deciduous trees drop their leaves, it becomes easier to see evergreens. Green is also the complementary color of red, so having green in your palette can help you to create neutrals as well as backgrounds that help reds pop.
Skies in the autumn can be incredibly crisp and blue! I suggest using either Phthalo Blue RS or Cobalt Blue for these incredible skies. Some artists prefer a duller blue to allow the foliage to be the star of the show. Gray cloudy skies are also common in autumn, and overcast skies can make foliage look brighter.
There are some violet flowers in autumn, such as New England asters or chrysanthemums. Generally, these are not as bright as summer flowers.
Brilliant Hansa Yellow (PY74)
A bold primary yellow, for yellow leaves (e.g. ash, honey locust) and yellow flowers (sunflowers, mums, etc.) Alternative: My usual yellow choice is Imidazolone Yellow (PY154). That works here, too, but I picked a warmer variant for fall to be different. Caution that PY74 is said to be less lightfast (I haven’t tested it personally).
Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65)
A warm yellow, perfect for yellow-orange fall leaves and for mixing even bolder oranges.
Transparent Pyrrol Orange (DPP)
Although I ended up not loving this color for autumn leaves last year, I think that I was thinking of it wrong. It’s not a bright orange mixer (Quin Coral is better for that). It is actually a bit muted; but it is super-staining, super-high-tinting, and as a result, just comes across as intense. This is a great deepener for red, scarlet, and orange mixes.
I’m using the WN version (DPP), but PO71 from DS or similar works also.
Quinacridone Coral (PR209)
This is not only my favorite sunset color but the boldest orange mixer I know of (short of Opera Pink).
Quinacridone Red (PV19)
A deep, transparent red/crimson that dilutes to pink (I’m currently using DS, but the DV equivalent is Alizarin Crimson Quinacridone.) A cross between my usual Quin Rose and a deep crimson. Mixes fire engine red with Transparent Orange.
Phthalo Blue Red Shade (PB15:1)
My favorite sky color in dilute, ideal for crisp autumn skies. Also mixes mid-intensity greens with the yellows.
Phthalo Turquoise (PB16)
Slightly more muted than other Phthalots, this is a nice autumnal teal (but I think teal works for all seasons!) It also has two crucial uses:
- My favorite summer green mixer (with Nickel Azo Yellow), PB16 allows me to build bold greens in fall as well – they are juicier and greener than those with PBRS, but not overpowering or show-stealing, as they could be with Phthalo Green.
- Mixed with Quin Red, makes a lovely muted mauve for clouds and mist.
Nickel Azo Yellow (PY150)
Glowing warm golden yellow that perfectly paints sunlit leaves and mixes very bold greens with Phthalo Turquoise.
Alternative: Quin Gold is a mix containing this color that looks more “autumny,” but I preferred the cleaner mixes from NAY; I couldn’t get bold enough greens with Quin Gold. If you’re committed to using Quin Gold, I might recommend also switching Phthalo Turquoise for Phthalo Green or a premixed Hooker’s Green.
Gold Ochre (PY42)
Deep, butternut-squash-colored yellow ochre variant (I’m using the WN version). I love this color for fall foliage! It has so many uses. It is the perfect color in so many foliage situations, such as for:
- A melange of distant trees, where you can no longer pick out individual reds, oranges, yellows, and greens.
- Deeper variants and/or shadows of yellow leaves
- Orange-red foliage that is warmed and muted by sunset.
- Bright yellow foliage that is backlit in midday.
Transparent Red Oxide (PR101)
My favorite deep earth orange for mixing browns, deepening oranges, and adding crispy edges of fall leaves. (I used DV Burnt Sienna Deep for quite awhile, but now I’m back to using DS, which has darker values and more fun granulation.)
Deep Scarlet (PR175)
Sitting somewhere between a scarlet and an earth red, I love Deep Scarlet for deepening orange foliage; dropping flecks of red on multicolored leaves; and muting blues.
Darker and more muted than my typical magentas, but high in tinting strength, this color expands my mixing range of warm violets. Warmer in masstone, it hovers on a deep crimson, giving bold depth to darker red foliage.
Indanthrone Blue (PB60)
One of my palette staples. In context, this is a shadow color and brown/gray mixer with TRO. Its moodiness is ideal for cloudy skies. (I strongly prefer DS for this purpose and would probably sub in a different color rather than use DV or WN, which are really different.)
Alternative: Ultramarine Blue also mixes browns and, while not moody, it can be used in crisp skies. Ditto Cobalt Blue, which can be more delicate.
Perylene Green (PBk31)
Since I don’t use it often, I thought I’d try this deep pine green for mysterious and moody mixes of distant green foliage, evergreens, and shadows.
Alternative: Indigo, Payne’s Gray, or Prussian Blue as dark green mixers.
Compared to Last Year’s Autumn Palette
I didn’t go back and look at last year’s palette until this year’s was drafted, so I didn’t know until then that I ended up having several colors in common: Transparent Pyrrol Orange; Quinacridone Coral; PV19 crimson (last year as ACQ); Bordeaux; and Indanthrone Blue.
Several changes were pretty direct lateral moves:
- Imidazolone Yellow (PY154) to Brilliant Hansa Yellow (PY74): Imidazolone Yellow is likely the more reliable color but, as I said, I’m experimenting.
- MANS to Gold Ochre: MANS is my go-to but I’ve really really enjoyed using Gold Ochre for foliage. The warmer tones of Gold Ochre are more fall-ish, and its mutedness and opacity lends a sense of heaviness and depth that I’m liking for distant leaves.
- Isoindolinone Yellow Deep (PY110) to Hansa Yellow Deep (PY65): The yellower and brighter pigment is better for mixing bright oranges.
- Quin Burnt Orange (PO48) to Transparent Red Oxide (PR101): While I loved the magical glazing of QBO, TRO is just more useful as a mixer, especially in plein air, because it is darker and has higher tinting strength. I find the weakness and gummy texture of QBO annoying.
- Cerulean Genuine (PB36) to Phthalo Blue RS (PB15): Moved to a smooth blue sky color for a crisper sky appearance.
- Prussian Blue (PB27) to Phthalo Turquoise (PB16): I loved Prussian Blue last year for mixing beautiful greens, but I’ve found Phthalo Turquoise equally gorgeous as a green mixer and more reliable (less drying shift, more lightfast).
- Serpentine Genuine to Perylene Green (PBk31): Very different green. Serpentine is light and yellowy, and fairly weak. I find that yellow-green, though a common color in autumn, is not really necessary in the palette; I don’t have trouble mixing yellow-greens with Phthalo Turquoise or Phthalo Blue plus any of my bold or earthy yellows, and TRO can make it more muted if needed. It’s more useful to have dark values for shadows and evergreens.
I’ve never used cadmium colors, but they come in bold shades of yellow, orange, and red, and so are often recommended for fall foliage.
My initial version of this palette was straight Pyrrols: Pyrrol Orange (PO73), Scarlet (PR255), Red (PR254), and Crimson (PR264), plus Benzimida Orange (PO62) for a yellower orange. These are all obvious and very solid fall foliage choices because they are bold and gorgeous right out of the tube! Also, they look great on the palette.
However, I found that I liked looking at this palette more than using it. Mixes with Pyrrols all had a bit of a dull edge. It’s not that fall foliage can’t be dull – it often is – but I found that when I wanted a bright mix, I was doing myself a disservice by reaching for a Pyrrol. And if I had Pyrrols on my palette, I always reached for them. Quin Coral and Quin Red made mixes I preferred but I found them counterintuitive. So, I liked my mixes better when I removed all the Pyrrols from the palette so I couldn’t use them.
(Exception: Transparent Pyrrol Orange which feels different to me… though to be honest, my complaint about this color last year was exactly the same, that I expected it to be brighter than it was.)
Had I not made a blanket resolution against pyrrols or perylenes, I still would have rejected middle fire engine reds like Pyrrol Red (PR254) and Perylene Red (PR178). These are on-the-nose reds that look like sports team logos, or the Canadian flag.
Paying special attention to see if I could find them in the landscape, I noticed that maple leaves that got that red were really rare. Sure, it happened occasionally, but in most cases they were either bright and warmer (e.g. scarlet), or muted and bluer (e.g. bordeaux).
When bright reds are required, they can be mixed! Quin Red (PV19) is a bit pinkish most of the time (except in deep masstone when it can be too dark), but it makes a lovely fire engine red when mixed with Transparent Orange.
If I were to keep one Pyrrol, it would be Pyrrol Scarlet, since its unmixed color is closest to many of the leaves I saw. (Though equally, if not more, bold scarlets can also be mixed from the same colors, or from Quin Red and a bit of Hansa Yellow Deep.) Pyrrol Scarlet can also make a deep crimson with Bordeaux. However, I found myself generally happier without it because the scarlets from Quin Red or Quin Coral mixes appeal to me more.
My basic lessons from this trip were:
- Gold Ochre is fantastic.
- Pyrrols look great in the palette, but quinacridones can be more intense mixers.
- Middle reds are rare in nature; I prefer to go for (brighter, oranger) scarlet or (deeper, purpler) crimson rather than fire engine red.
- Don’t skimp on green in fall!
I wish a wonderful foliage-painting season to all who celebrate!