Plein Air: Colorado Aspens

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been busy getting out to study the famous aspens here in CO.  They show for a short time, then it over, so there was little time to blog. Here’s the studies with a quick caption of the setting for each:


This was the first study in one of the groves along the Seven Bridges Trail (Colorado Springs, CO). I was trying to see how the silvery-white bark reflects light off of the surroundings and the glowing leaves. If you’re ever under a tree with light bark, look at the trunk on the shaded side and you’ll see this. The back-lit leaves were like those glow lamps and make a huge impact of what you need to make this tree look real on canvas.


A bit down the trail is a towering rock about a 100 feet tall (~30 meters) that has a purple tint, surrounded by dark spruce and pine. The few aspens looked almost alien, standing out so much. I think that actually was a problem. When painting, it appears as though the painter doesn’t know how to make it look natural, super saturating color and overstating the aspens, even though it’s what the scene is like.  I definitely pushed the limits of my paint.


I wanted to study a group of aspens on the canyon side with a view of other mountains in the distance.  I thought, “this is going to be easy”. Nope. I mashed on as much bright yellow and green as I could until it looked like huge splotches of paint in the middle of a forest. By the end, I found that by layering different hues of yellows, yellow oranges and green, it sort of make the trees distinct, but I came to a point that I was in over my head. Plus a thunderstorm with rain and hail ran me off. My tiny collapsible umbrella was the gear of the day.


Going back (a week later) to the canyon, I took a different route and times this scene perfectly. The light was just peering over the edge of the canyon wall, lighting up the top of the aspen with the rest in the shadows. It sort of add a dramatic effect when looking at it. You’ll notice many professional artists use this in their scene to add drama and emotion to their paintings. At this point, I was starting to realize I can’t just use a single brush stoke to say “leaves”. For aspens, the leaves look like little flickering dots as they move in the wind, so it’s necessary to show at least some dots of varying color to get that look (or there is just something I don’t understand yet).


Along this same path, there was a rock slide where the moving gravel prevents most plant from taking root. There was a single aspen just begging to be painted.  I loved the background with dark trees and distant mountains.


And finally, after many studies, I got on the road and headed from Divide, CO to Cripple Creek on Hwy 67. This is famous for the amazing aspens with scene overlook and pull-off all along the way. In fact, the speed limit is only 35 to 45 because so many people are leaving and entering along the winding road. Dangerous. I was advised by my roommate, “You’re going to want to pull off and paint before you get to Cripple Creek, but don’t do it.”. I pulled off just before Cripple Creek not knowing it was just about three miles away. I tried, but the aspens were calling. I put everything I’d learned before into this scene and it all helped. Now I have more confidence I can pull from these studies and produce a large scale studio work that’s build on composition, rather than sticking directly to a scene.

I think I have about one more week to immerse myself in these amazing trees. You can bet I’ll be doing just that. I think this is the “bluebonnet of Colorado” as an analogy to Texas. When I think of Colorado, I think “aspens”; Texas, I think “bluebonnets”. Its there for a short time and the entire state love it.

Artist Chat: I could write a short book about everything I’ve been learning, but I’ll summarize it into bullet points:

*To make the leaves glow, saturate the color of the leaves but mute the other colors and lean them away from yellow towards purple or blue (cool grays).

*If you can, paint a scene where the tree is somewhat back-lit.

*Use at least two colors for the leaves; one for the shaded side, the other for the highlights. Even though you may not see it well, emphasize a lit side to give it form. Hansa opaque yellow is a great “gold”. Lemon yellow mixed with white is the best highlight.

*For green aspens, a mix of phatho blue and lemon yellow and white really “pops”, if the surrounded trees are dark, muted greens (like spruce and pine).


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