Friday, February 17, 2012




In the following chapters you’ll find information on how to paint various topics such as mountains, trees and skies. Included, where appropriate, you’ll find “The Rules” to quickly remind you of those things that generally work. Consider them rules of thumb to paint by, but remember, in some cases, rules can become guidelines that don’t always require hard and fast adherence.



The Rules
As one looks into the distance:
  • Colors become cooler.
  • Colors become less intense.
  • Detail is lost
  • Edges soften.
  • Value contrasts diminish.

Take the time to notice the point at which, as you look out, the light of the sky seems to overwhelm everything. Blue light has a short wavelength, which is scattered as it bounces off air molecules more quickly than the longer wavelength colors red and yellow. This scattering makes the sky blue. As your distance from items increases, warm-colored objects are not as rapidly overwhelmed by the blue of the atmosphere, although they eventually lose their strength as they, too, are progressively filtered out. This is the reason businesses use red and yellow lettering on their signs; they may be spotted sooner and seen for a longer period of time, and why campers choose blue tents that visually blend into the landscape. Remember that in the foreground plane you see all of the mixtures of red, yellow and blue, while in the middle distance the blue light of the added air has begun to overwhelm yellow. This leaves all the combinations of red and blue colors until, in the greatest distance, all but blue is lacking. This is why we think of mountains as purple or blue rather than yellow.

At its most rudimentary you could reduce the landscape to three simple colors: yellow land, purple mountains and blue sky. Notice that these colors move progressively away toward blue on the spectrum. Painting a distant mountain yellow or the foreground plane blue sacrifices the sense of intervening air.

Notice how the left hand illustration seems to feel correct, while the right hand one is unbalanced and feels upside down. This is due to the “blue filter” we all have that tells us that the cooler a color is the farther away it resides.

For some reason the physical effects of aerial perspective are more easily seen in darker areas of the landscape. Often you will be able to perceive a distinct shift in color and value in the darker, tree-covered foothills. Notice how the yellow-green of trees on a nearby range becomes progressively bluer and paler on each succeeding range. Educate your eye to discern the same shift toward blue in areas of lighter values.

Faraway objects don’t have as much contrast. The farther the distance, the less distinction of dark and light you see. Notice how dark the shadows are under the tree next to your house, and how pale the shadows seem way out on the mountains. Take time to compare a shadow crossing the flanks of a distant peak to a nearby shadow. If you can, stand in a place where you see both shadows, near and far, at the same time and squint your eyes to compare the values. You’ll see that the closer shadow is darker. In fact, all the light values are slightly darker and dark values somewhat lighter in the distance. There’s less contrast.

While details can enhance mountains, be careful not to be enticed by a needless spot of interest that can destroy the illusion of distance in your painting. Sometimes a sudden shaft of sunlight will pull your eye to it, but its distance dictates that it remain subtle. Resist this attraction and strive to give a sense of space to your painting, creating air between and around each range of mountains. At your feet you can easily see sharply defined edges, but as the landscape recedes in space these become soft and indistinct. Over-detailing a distant object can destroy the illusion of air in your painting and is something that all too easily happens when the artist relies on a photograph alone.

Rim Light, 12" x 18"
Photographs can capture sharp details and edges farther than the eye can see. This means that a photo could have as much detail at the far horizon as in the foreground. In reality, as your eye wanders from object to object, certain things come into focus while others stay somewhat softer in the periphery. Look out the window, focusing on objects at various distances and, without moving your eyes, notice how the surroundings are soft and out of focus. If you paint the scene with only one area in focus it will appear to have been done strictly from a photograph. Oddly enough, this is also true if the same quality of detail is painted all over.
Sandy Wash, 9" x 12"
Moisture and particulates in the air, as well as elevation, affect the amount of detail seen. At lower altitudes the air can be heavy with humidity, obscuring even nearby details and edges. Water vapor in the air creates a slightly misty, soft view. At the other extreme, standing atop a 14,000-foot mountain can give a clear view one hundred miles into the distance. The atmosphere is thin at that altitude, with much less humidity, allowing you to see crisp details and edges farther away. In the arid Southwest, the dry air and high altitude of the llano, or high plains, results in perceptibly sharper edges for greater distances, while in coastal regions the air is literally thicker, heavy with moisture. Smoke from forest fires, an increasingly common summertime sight in the western United States, can further obscure details and edges, adding a red or yellow duskiness to the view.

You must compose your painting using the focus that will best express what you see. Too much detail in the distance and too little in the fore can result in a flat painting with little sense of depth. Select areas of emphasis to detail more highly and allow other areas of your composition to remain softer. Manage details to enhance the focal point and give the painting the needed sense of space.

Rainbow Meadow (demonstration), 17x11”
This painting illustrates the recession of color as seen in the foreground. I began with very dark paper, over which I laid down bands of color in rainbow order. I toned Wallis paper a dark warm color just nearing black, using water to set it, over which I then scumbled : (at the very bottom) yellow, above that yellow-orange, then orange, then red, red-violet, violet, blue-violet, and blue. The colors become cooler and slightly paler in value, two of the key components used to create the illusion of distance. I used patterning to paint the grasses, applying the rule of proportion (bigger in front), and the rules of aerial perspective (in the distance edges soften, contrast diminishes and detail lessens.)