On Atmosphere and Technique

 “Dordogne River”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Recently, I have been on a painting binge going out almost daily to locations near my home to find landscape scenes to paint en plein air.   My goal for nearly every one of these paintings has been to find a way to paint strong atmospheric effects, such as fog or haze.   Here, where I live, fog is very common because we are located quite near the ocean coast.  So, finding such subjects isn’t at all difficult.   But painting  the atmospheric effects aren’t quite as easy as just copying what I see.   In addition to design considerations of where to place things within the rectangle on which I am painting, technique plays a much heavier role.  
To be perfectly honest, I never learned how to begin with very wet paper and washes to lay in those blurry, faded shapes in the distance.   So, I figured that it was high time that I learned.  I girded up the courage to allow failure to greet me at the ends of my painting sessions, because I knew that in order to learn, I must take risks.   I also know that these failures are great teachers.   Knowing the characteristics of the paints and the paper as I do, I can quickly figure out why certain effects show up and why certain accidents occur.   Even with that knowledge I have referred to a few very accomplished painters, such as Joseph Zbukvic and Alvaro Castagnet to see how they accomplished their brilliantly executed atmospheric paintings.  It is finally coming together for me.
This painting is quite close to my goal.   It has taken some 25 paintings to reach this point, some different brushes and some newly tried pigments to accomplish it.   In other words, I have ‘blown’ a lot of paintings trying to get here.   Obviously, I have more to go, but I think I am starting to get the hang of it.   It really is a three wash ‘system,’ in which the sheet is covered first with a light value, grayed wash, then almost immediately painting over the wet wash with a deeper valued wash to begin to delineate some shapes in the distance.   This is a touchy step as value (or tone) accuracy plays a BIG role . . . too light and it disappears . . . .too dark and the distance effect is squandered.  It must be spot on.   Then on to nearer parts of the subject,  moving toward the foreground.  It is here that the painter must be patient to wait for the correct level of drying of the paper before applying paint, all the while carefully paying attention to the amount of water in the paint itself and in the brush.   That is a critical element!   Too much water and the paint is weak.  Too wet of a brush, and blossoms might form (disaster!).  It is all in the knowing of how much and when.  
It just takes a few failures to get there.
My studio has a flat screen computer monitor near my easel on which I can see nice big photos of some of the painting subjects I have encountered in my travels.  This painting happened to be in France, along the banks of the Dordogne River.   It is sooooo beautiful there!  (We are taking reservations now to go back there July 8-18, 2013)

4 thoughts on “On Atmosphere and Technique”

  1. Lovely to share your process Mike. I love "giving away control" to the water, and being a glaze fanatic of course I am happy to come back and strengthen should I lose too much colour.

    But I am commenting mainly to ask, as I am thinking of trying something new or adding, perhaps. Have you ever used ox gall in your work? Or mad eyour own pigments? I am too busy (read lazy) to make my own paints, but… I have seen some pinging colours from home made paints recently, and am tempted…

    And ironically, just as I had resolved to throw caution to the wind with colour and really get my subjects bouncing off the page, I was given a simply beautiful Japanese ink set, and the contemplative discipline of releasing the black ink from the block and making those comtemplative marks is something quite wonderful and different again.

    So much to do, so little time…

  2. Yes, Kay, you say it right: So much to do and so little time!

    I am reluctant to get involved with making my own paints, too, since the powdered pigments are so toxic if accidentally inhaled . . . .not to mention obtaining the best possible pigments for my art.

    Experimenting with inks and different paints . . .even different mediums . . .is part of the excitement of being an artist. So, get after it and have fun!!

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