Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Denali Plein Air Trip Part 2

After our first days at Wonder Lake, during which we stayed dry in our tent, hiked down to the marshes in the rain, and ate blueberries, Mary Bee had the brilliant idea that we should gather autumn foliage for a full-on color analysis. Her curiosity was up after watching me compare the landscape colors to my Munsell color references.

Here is our set-up, under the shelter of the picnic area, still in our rain gear. Every so often we would have to step out from under the shelter just to get the best light, so we were happy to stay covered up.

Munsell notations allow one to record the value (relative lightness or darkness) and chroma (relative brightness or dullness) of a given hue, or color.

We collected several varieties of red leaves and berries, shown here arranged alongside the 5R page of the Munsell student book. This book only provides hue pages at the "5" level. (There are levels from 1 to 10 within each hue.) The "5" reds represent what one might think of as the most straighforward, common reds. (Same for "5" greens, yellows, etc.). This book did not show all the varieties of red one could find in nature, but luckily we were able to match our samples to this page.

Before we left for our trip, I mixed and tubed some 5Red at value 4, chroma 8. That's the white tube of paint laying on the 5R page. The paint in the tube corresponds to the rectangle in column 4, three rows from the bottom.

One of my questions was, is it useful to pre-mix a middle range color, as a basis for quickly mixing similar colors in the field?

Here is a blueberry leaf, turned to an intense red for autumn. Comparing it to the 5R samples, we decided it was somewhere in the area of 5R 5/10 and 4/11 (value 5 or 4, chroma 10 or 11). Then we set about mixing up that wonderful color.

We matched the blueberry leaf by adding cadmium red medium, cadmium orange, and titanium white to my premixed 5R 4/8. However, if I had not had that tube, mixing the first three ingredients plus a bit of alizarin and possibly some burnt umber (to keep it out of the chroma stratosphere) would have done the job.

Carrying extra tubes of paint into the field can be cumbersome. In future, I will pre-mix colors based on the notes from this experiment, but only a few, and only small tubes.

We matched and took notes on all the red leaves and berries: bearberry, dwarf dogwood berry, dwarf dogwood leaf, and fireweed leaf. The brightest was dwarf dogwood berry, at 5R 5/14, the dullest was fireweed, that long leaf, at 5R 4/9 - 10.

Here we are attempting to mix up something for this yellow cottonwood (or poplar?) leaf. When we took this photo, the chroma of the paint was a bit too high, so we toned it down with some yellow ochre. We figured it was 5Yellow Red 6 - 7/10. We mixed cadmium orange, cadmium yellow pale, titanium white, yellow ochre pale, and alizarine to get the final match.

We used the 5Green Yellow page for soapberry, green willow, and alder leaves. We used other pages to find lichen, and some wonderful blackish purple leaves as well. The lichen was interesting, a beautiful pale neutral, high value, low chroma yellow (5Yellow 9/1.5). The purple leaves were dramatic, dark and deep (5Purple, 2/2).

Mary Bee did a wonderful job of documenting our process with these photos. She said later that, having done this exercise, she felt much more in control of her color mixtures, which helped in her plein air paintings. I was very glad to have done this work, because it helped me to avoid using too-bright colors for the foliage in my paintings. Of course, for our paintings, we also had to take into account the light and atmospheric conditions in which these plants appeared.

Dear readers, you have probably heard enough about Munsell notations for a while. Thanks for your patience! Next post, paintings.

Denali Plein Air Trip Part 1

On September 7th my friend Mary Bee Kaufman and I headed into Denali National Park with plans to spend a week doing plein air painting, just as we did this time last year (see earlier posts for that trip.)

I also wanted to see if my Munsell reference books would help me to see and mix colors more accurately. I brought the Munsell Soils book, used by geologists to identify and classify soil samples by color. The range of color samples in the book seemed perfect for the high, dry, autumn tundra we were going into. I also had the Munsell student book, which contains higher chroma samples than the soils book.

(If you are unfamiliar with the Munsell system, please see the two posts that precede this one.)

The bus ride to Wonder Lake campground takes approximately 6 hours from the park entrance. The weather was wet at the beginning, then cleared a bit, but by the time we reached Polychrome Pass the clouds were moving back in.

It rained steadily for the next 3 days. We were glad that our tent was snug and dry. We even had cots and a wood stove. Mary Bee wrote in her journal, I sketched her portrait . . .

Then we took a hike out the McKinley Bar trail, a relatively easy destination that starts a short distance from the Wonder Lake campground. The nice thing about rain is that the colors are vivid in the moist atmosphere. The ground vegetation in this very marshy area was diverse and wonderfully delicate.

And there were thousands of big, fat blueberries.

So we kept an eye out for bears, but we thought a moose sighting would be more likely. They love to stand in ponds and chew the grasses. We saw no moose, but a few days later a bull, a cow, and a calf were spotted in this area.

Never go camping without a big umbrella.

The following day, we launched a big project. After collecting many samples of the local foliage, we set up our notebooks, my Munsell books, our specimens, and our paints in the picnic area (tables and a nice roof). For the rest of the day, we analyzed foliage colors, mixed them, noted their position in the Munsell charts, and wrote down our findings. We knew this exercise would pay off once the sun came out and we were painting again.

This story will be continued in Part 2