As a landscape painter in the UK, artist Oliver J. Pyle is involved with the idea of Air and how it compares to landscape using watercolor. Browse on to discover Pyle’s five secrets to creating engaging scenes and atmospheres that have the power to capture the viewer’s eye and heart. Have fun!
I love painting landscapes and everything related to it. And watercolor allows me to give my answer to what I see and hear. In particular, some landscapes in the UK have become favorites due to proximity or family holidays. I know your views and details intimately. That being said, why are some paintings considered atmospheric and others not? The Atmosphere in a photograph is not, with some exceptions, about technique. First, what matters is your connection to the place.
Know your topic
I have walked on a particular beach in Dorset on numerous occasions, where I have built sandcastles, played cricket, and swam in the sea. I was sunburned lying on it for too long and sat looking across the bay, shivering, as I sipped a cup of tea. I seem to know everything about the place. By painting some cool drawing ideas, I hoped to translate that experience into brush strokes so that viewers could, in some way, understand what it’s like to be there. If I succeed in this endeavor, I believe that the painting has an atmosphere, a true sense of place and time. If you are in love with your subject and take the time to know and understand it, your work likely has this elusive quality.
Tell a story with Atmosphere.
The best way to turn an ordinary scene into something compelling and evocative is to tell a story. Consider a subject like Elizabeth Tower. It’s arguably London’s most iconic landmark, insofar as its familiarity can work against an artist. My reference photos and sketches for Eventually the Rain Stopped, a studio painting of Parliament Square with Big Ben, came from cloudy days and said nothing new or exciting about the scene. To spice up the stage, I needed a story.
After playing around with some sketches and ideas, I felt that the wet pavement and reflections, with a break in such British weather, would help generate interest. The inclusion of people who enter the picture and approach us gives the feeling that there is a movement in the early afternoon to get to the metro station, or even attend a late session of Parliament, now that it has stopped raining.
Use the light
Most of the time, artists find it difficult to create drama and atmosphere without solid sunlight and deep shadows. In the UK, however, intense directional light can be a rarity. Cloudy and dull days are much more common. Stormy Light, Kimmeridge Bay benefits greatly from flat lighting and brings back strong memories of the day I was there. I watched the children hunt for fossils and hermit crabs in natural pools before taking refuge in the heat of a local tearoom.
I couldn’t help but notice how the bright green and orange of the seaweed contrasted with the incredible slate gray of the ledges jutting out of the bay. With solid lights and deep shadows, the effect would not have had the same impact. The color was much more critical than tonal contrast. Although light is an essential part of the toolkit for creating mood paintings, understand what light makes a scene attractive. It doesn’t have to be high contrast. Many beautiful paintings were made on a cloudy day.
Understand your technique
At first, mention that the artist’s connection to a subject, not technique, leads to mood paintings. Does it mean that technical problems are not significant? Not. Hopefully, a couple of suggestions from Colors of Tuscany will come in handy. It has a well-known area in Italy, and the rolling landscape is home to many beautiful vineyards. These represent a challenge. They add a level of detail to slopes and require careful management. Painting them would be a mistake. It would ruin the atmosphere that comes from the solid but veiled light and the depth of the landscape. For passages like this, the most simple brush strokes to create broken washes and a good dry brush technique are needed to suggest rows of vines in the distance.
The screws in the foreground are painted wet-on-wet. They only offer vines without too many borders to distract us from the main topic of charming villas. To help create an atmosphere in your work, try simplifying and reducing what you see to as few brush strokes as possible. Suggested rather than stated creates a more satisfying experience for the viewer and helps ensure that your story or vision is not silenced by distracting details. Make sure you have a firm grip on color and tone; they are vital in creating mood charts.
Put it together
We have seen how to create an atmosphere, but what exactly is it? I think Evening Haze, Kimmeridge Bay helps get to the heart of the concept. The painting is of a scene on the Dorset coast that I know very well. It is one of my favorite paintings:
- Sunset light
- The calm and silvery sea
- The focal point of the Clavell Tower
- The cliffs receding into the distance
It very much evokes my experiences in this beautiful part of the country. I find it incredibly evocative.
For me, the atmosphere is nothing more than a true sense of a place and a time. Presenting what others can experience and enjoy is genuinely satisfying and is often why viewers are confronted with a particular painting. Of course, it is also very subjective. A picture may not arouse the same emotion in one person as in another. However, in general, if a work of art can attract viewers to experience the experience of being there at that moment, it is undoubtedly an atmospheric painting.