I have always liked autumn, and I’ve always liked the colors that come with it, but it is only this year that I think my perspective has shifted enough to truly appreciate them. Coming from the American south, when I first arrived in Berlin two years ago there were plenty of differences that I expected, and some that I didn’t. In the unexpected category was this particular joy of mine, autumn colors, and why they seemed so unlike those back home.
But to understand Berlin’s coat of the season, we have to first understand it in black and white.
I was taught that color has three main components: hue, value, and shade/tint/tone. At first glance, maybe the differences between all of these things seem miniscule, or that they all refer to the same thing entirely—but they don’t. What we should focus on first is hue. Hue is just the color in reference to its main wavelength—e.g. red, blue, violet, etc. Shade is explained as how much black is mixed in. Tint and tone are the same, but in reference to how much white and gray are mixed in respectively. Value is the important one, at least in the context of our activity.
Take a photo of something, preferably with a lot of colors (hues and shades). Mark down what the colors look like—brown, red-brown, dark green, light green, etc. Now, using a filter, change your photo into black and white. You should notice that some colors you may perceive as unique in real life actually appear in black and white as the same color! This is a way to illustrate value, a crucial aspect of accurate depth in a painting. It encompasses colors, tints, tones, and shades as their level of light and dark altogether.
Colors have an underlying aspect of warmth and coolness, plus a host of other things, that cause some of them to match especially well. The color wheel is used as a general tactic to talk about what hues go together—you can use the rule that the hue opposite the one you choose are the colors you shouldn’t mix together. They will usually just come out as a mud color. But when taking value into account, I find Berlin to be special in the fall. Many of the hues and shades I see outside are matching in this way, as autumn lays its claim to the ground with crumpled leaves. I think it probably has something to do with the sunlight—since that’s the essential thing which makes us able to perceive the shifts in these things at all. We perceive the way a wavelength bounces off objects on earth, appearing to us as the yellows and oranges and grays we see around us this time of year. I wouldn’t doubt that it has something to do with being further north than I’ve been before, thus giving the sunlight an alternative quality. If we examine the difference between a “southern” color palette and a “scandinavian” one, we can illustrate this.
(Simplistic Living Room Design in Neutral Colors. 2022. Sasha Pshenkov, Pexels)
In a Scandinavian color palette, there tends to be lighter tints and tones, more neutral hues, and similar values across the board. If I had to guess why, I think the sunlight is so harsh and bright in northern parts of the globe that incredibly strong or loud colors might have a more intense appearance, and so would be less appealing. The sunlight will reflect more easily in these conditions. Meanwhile, in a color palette from Mexico for example, where the sunlight is more diffuse, the days are longer, and things tend to have a warmer hue, strong colors are more appealing since they will not tend to be as reflected.
(Photo of a City. [Guanajuato, Gto., Mexico] 2022. Alan Vega, Pexels)
This of course also changes with the seasons, hence why fall in particular is the subject of my investigation in Berlin.
We notice these visual alterations, but often can’t explain exactly what we’re noticing. And maybe it is just a cultural thing, that northern Europe values “clean” colors, and other cultures value “happy” or generally more colorful environments, although I doubt it is this simple. In fact, the distinction is also based in biology.
In autumn, the colors vary between America and Europe because of a natural warfare between plants and animals. From Andrea Thompson at livescience.com,
“Many […] trees also began an evolutionary process of producing red deciduous leaves in order to ward off insects, the researchers say. In North America, as in East Asia, north-to-south mountain chains enabled plant and animal ‘migration’ to the south or north with the advance and retreat of the ice according to the climatic fluctuations. And, of course, along with them migrated their insect ‘enemies.’ Thus the war for survival continued there uninterrupted. In Europe, on the other hand, the mountains – the Alps and their lateral branches – reach from east to west, and therefore no protected areas were created. Many tree species that did not survive the severe cold died, and with them the insects that depended on them for survival.”1
So to that end, autumn in Europe literally has a different color palette, edging towards yellow and orange, as opposed to American fall, which has more red and brown, to better protect their plant-bodies. Protection against insects is only one theory, and scientists are continuing to research the subject.
At this time, while many of us crave rest, stepping outside and taking a look around at the leaves changing helps make my problems seem a little smaller. What are my problems compared to plants over millions of years developing an ability to survive for an unfathomable amount of time? What is one mistake compared to the history of nature altering itself drastically enough to make Berlin transition into autumn? It happens every year, the seasons coming and going, and my own self-reflection. The end of the semester is just like that, I suppose, as we usher in finals and frost that confines us indoors with plenty of time to think over a hot cup of cocoa or tea or coffee. It reminds me how possible it is to adapt, to grow—even if it’s not immediate.
Maybe you truly believed what you said in that argument—until you think about it years later and argue for the other side. Maybe you really wanted something until you got it, and then you felt off-kilter, off balance, from the perspective of your possession. But with the brisk air, we are always bound to travel in mind or habit. Grab a scarf before you head out, get ready to go back home. Try and take a moment to enjoy the way the world looks now, and try to take a moment and compare yourself to who you used to be. It may be scary at first, but it should not be cause for stagnancy—if you find fault with yourself, if you feel insecure about something, you very well may find it to be something you’re proud of in the future. Wait it out—wait at least until the summer comes again.
- Thompson, Andrea. “Why Fall Colors Are Different in U.S. and Europe.” LiveScience, Purch, 22 Sept. 2009, www.livescience.com/5749-fall-colors-europe.html. ↩︎