Winter in northern Nevada is austere, but here in the wetlands along the Carson River, the season's deceivingly monochromatic palette is a tonalist's dream. The landscape is full of what my painter friend Ray refers to as "ish" colors.
A winter treat for outdoor painters, a feast of "ish" colors, is the bare vegetation along the wetlands. Is the denuded willow thicket really orange? Nope. It's orange-ish, a blushy tone seems to have been concocted to perfectly set off the blue-ish Pine Nut Mountains miles to the east.
Is the cottonwood bark, in the massive old grove by the river, just boring grey? No, it's violet-ish, but the newest growth, high in the branches, is pale yellow-ish. Even the deer go "ish" in the winter, trading their cinnamon-colored summer coats for something mousey.
"Ish" colors don't have the drama of brilliant hues. Instead, they seduce the eye with their ambivalent beauty, which makes artists ask, what is that? What am I seeing?
Are those wild rose canes red? Not quite. They're the dull but alarming color of dried blood. And is that sagebrush actually purple? Those twigs fall somewhere between "sea urchin" and "bruise", two colors you probably won't find on a Benjamin Moore paint chip.
When an English speaker confronts "ish" colors, we are often forced to bust out the French: taupe, mauve, aubergine. And ladies, did you resist the "it" ish-color of this winter, dirty blush pink? I did not. I bought a sweater, because it blends so wonderfully with grey, the ish-addicts' favorite neutral.
Clouds are the greatest example (other than Calvin Klein bedding collections) of "ish" colors. Even on the brightest day, there is no such thing as a white cloud. Most are yellow-ish. Today's batch were a warm, brown-violet-ish and dropped shadows on the Virginia Range that were violet-blue-ish.
So how to you make "ish"? One of the easiest ways is simply to blend a color with its opposite (or complement). An overly-cheerful Cerulean blue sky gets some orange to "ish" it out, especially at the horizon; we add violet to the straw-yellow of winter grass to make it dull and lifeless; that rose cane might start with a nice, deep Alizarin red but a dash of Viridian Green will give it some gravitas. "Ish" can go even further when you mix complements and then murk things up a bit more with white or grey.
Spring will arrive in a few months and with it, the brilliant greens of new aspen leaves and the technicolor sky over Lake Tahoe's cobalt water. But until then, I'll enjoy the pleasure of the "ish" colors and the challenge of trying to capture them in paint.