Scotland Plein Air – The Perfect Autumn Day

Autumn is a magical time of year for artists. As the landscape shifts from green to brown, we get a few short weeks (sometimes only days!) of vivid reds, yellows, oranges, and even purples in between. The fleeting color palette entices us to pack up our paints and head for the hills to capture the beauty while it lasts.

At times, the shift of colors is so short, I only squeeze one or two paintings in before a wind storm sweeps away my chance. Other years, I am spoiled by weeks of opportunity, and I enter the winter gorged on color.

This has already been of those years.

The "dragon tree" in autumn.
The “dragon tree” in autumn.
Sunlight filtering through the bright leaves.
Sunlight filtering through the bright leaves.

Now, you don’t always need bright sun to enjoy the autumn colors. In fact, sometimes those moody days emphasize the colors even more and offer a more contemplative side to autumn.

Overcast autumn day in the forest.
Overcast autumn day in the forest.
Rich colors are emphasized on dark days.
Rich colors are emphasized on dark days.

Plein air painting in the forest – capturing the morning autumn light

In my landscapes, I always lean towards some sort of interesting light. And when it comes to autumn scenes, I just can’t get enough of the dappled sunlight effect. So regardless of subject, I’m automatically drawn towards light. Long shadows. A few highlighted leaves. The tip of a tree in light while the rest is in shadow.

Yesterday on my way to the forest, I noticed this amazing light pouring through the path. In the distance I saw that the hay field was brightly lit in the morning sun, surrounded by the vivid autumn colors of the forest.

Brightly lit forest path in autumn.
Brightly lit forest path in autumn.
Morning light at the field.
Morning light at the field.

I ran home to get my painting gear, feeling a sense of urgency. More often than not, the sun hides behind a cloud as soon as I set up my gear. But I was hopeful, as the forecast said “sun all day” – a rarity here! Usually they are wrong, so with butterflies in my stomach I hustled back to this spot to setup.

I quickly setup my gear, opting for gouache because of the fast drying time. It’s the perfect medium for capturing scenes quickly, as you don’t know how long you have.

I have been really digging the primed surface of cradled panels and the way the gouache flows over the surface, dries quickly, then allows me to build up the thickness. It was my first time painting this size gouache outside so I was a little intimidated. I tried to reminds myself that no matter what, it was a beautiful day, and I was soaking up the sun and color.

My gouache plein air setup
Guerrilla 6×8 Thumbox, cradled wooden panel (primed), gouache palette box, water, spray bottle, brush holder with large bright brushes.
My view of the field.
My view of the field.

Lately, my strategy has been to choose one or two colors as a large wash, just to get something on the board. Gouache likes to stick to itself more than the board.

After than, I drop “chunky” sections of color in, then blend them together with a soft brush – especially for distant elements.

In this case, it was important to separate the brightly lit field from the cooler shadowed trees in the distance, and the dark tones of the foreground. So I used a lot of white in the distant and middle areas before laying in the darks.

Even in the 45 minutes I was painting, the light went from just barely peeking over the trees, to being nearly above the field. I really enjoyed playing with that streak of light in the foreground, and just a couple of BRIGHT dots of yellow on the leaves.

Hay field surrounded by autumn colors

Quick Gouache Sketches of Autumn Trees

Afterwards, I went home to replenish my energy and supplies (new water/paper towels) and tried a new spot. This time I stuck with my sketchbook and gouache and tried to work quickly (15 minutes) just for fun.

No…actually, it was because I was getting eaten by midges, so rushing was necessary!

Backlit autumn trees
Gouache sketchbook for plein air

It was 2pm, and the light was fading fast. Feeling frustrated, I returned home again to get midge-repellent, replenish supplies and grab a snack, and decided to give it one more bash. Afterall, I’m never sure if I’m about to get a week of rain.

This time, I chose a piece of hot pressed watercolor paper in a vertical orientation because I had noticed these amazing trees in the setting sun.

Twisty autumn trees

It was 3:00 pm. At this point I had no choice but to paint fast – the sun dips behind the hills by 3:30. But at 3:11, I was joined by two onlookers who were quite chatty, and suddenly a cloud appeared, stealing all the bright colors and long shadows. No!!!!

Plein air setup to paint gouache trees

But luckily, after a few minutes the sun returned, and I said goodbye to the friendly onlookers so I could finish the painting.

gouache trees in progress
5 minutes in progress.
Gouache trees in progress
10 minutes in progress.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time, but I enjoyed the result nonetheless. It felt very energetic, and almost like a memory of the moment (me frantically trying to capture the beauty as it faded before my eyes).

So, at the end of the day I was three paintings worth of a better artist, and my inspiration tank was full.

Enjoy the autumn season my friends!

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

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