Painting Autumn Color

Armand Cabrera
Painting autumn color can be challenging. It is important to remember the relative intensity of color and not get caught up in using pure pigments for representation unless it is actually needed to describe the scene. Back lit scenes in sunlight  are very intense but again, think of everything in relation to what’s around it. For that intensity to be effective there must be areas of less saturated color or the intensity is lost.



To help find the proper intensity of a color it is important to consider its other attributes, hue and value. All three parts make up the color you are seeing and so all three aspects should be carefully considered in relationship to the surrounding areas and the rest of the picture as a whole.
It also helps to decide through careful observation in general, where the intensity lies. Is it in the shadow or the lights? By deciding this ahead of time you are keying the pictures intensity to one or the other giving you a stronger arrangement to work with.
Sometimes the limitations of paint call for a creative solution to translating the scene to your canvas. In cases where it is impossible to get the color accurate in all three aspects, I make a design decision about which attribute is most important and then hold that as close to what I am seeing in nature as possible and shift the other two aspects to give me a closer representation of the effect.
This may mean shifting the hue of a red, green or yellow to preserve its value and chroma so it reads correctly in the scene. Or it could mean shifting the chroma to something less intense while preserving the value.These decisions need awareness so a little extra effort on our part is called for to get the most from our painting during this time of year.

Mathias J Alten


Armand Cabrera
Alten was born in 1871 near Tier, in Gusenburg, in the Prussian Rhineland. Alten was one of four children. The Alten family immigrated to the United States in 1889 settling in Grand Rapids Michigan. The young Alten apprenticed as a decorator. By 1895 Alten was married to Bertha Schwind and the couple operating a business together Schwind and Alten, offering art supplies, frames, sign painting, fresco painting for churches and scene painting for theaters.  

In 1898 Alten decided he needed academic training to improve his work. He went to Paris to study under Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian.

Alten returned to Grand Rapids and established himself as the premier painter there. His business thrived and he taught drawing and painting classes from the live model.

Alten showed versatility for many different subjects, figurative, portraits, and landscapes but his focus was always the working class. He eschewed parlor scenes for depictions of agrarian labor and common people.

As Alten became more renowned he began holding yearly studio exhibitions with great success.  Eventually these exhibitions moved to larger public spaces as his stature grew.

In 1910 Alten and his family went to Holland for a year and painted many coastal scenes of Fishermen and their boats. On their return Alten saw a show of the Spanish painter Sorolla whose paintings of Valencia fisherman inspired Alten.  After the success of Alten’s Dutch paintings he decided to travel to Spain to paint similar subjects.

The Spanish paintings by Alten were well received in Grand Rapids upon his return in 1911. Alten’s plans for more travel in Europe were curtailed by the outbreak of World War I. Instead the artist focused on Michigan scenes and portrait commissions. After the war Alten began traveling around the United States and holding shows in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York. He painted in California, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida.

 His exhibition schedule and portrait commissions kept him in demand and travelling around the country throughout the decade of the 1920’s and into the 1930’s until the time of his death in 1938.


Mathias J Alten: Journey of and American Painter

Various Authors

Published by the Grand Rapids Art Museum 1998