I recently received an email inquiring how to create atmospheric effects in a painting, similar to historic masters such as JMW Turner or Ryder. The student further defined his interest in “atmospheric effects” with obtaining a sense of mystery, “soft energy” and an ethereal look to be used in his abstract works. Before offering some technical methods on obtaining these effects I offered the following advice that I thought might be of interest to others as well.
When you ask a question about art – any question – regarding techniques, effects, ideas, you have a gold mine of opportunity. Asking is a great way to begin a series of paintings. Almost every series of paintings I create begins with an investigation into some sort of aesthetic question. My favorite starting line is to ask myself “What would happen if …” or “I wonder what it would look like if I ….”.
Instead of searching for “the answer” or “the perfect method” before you put paint to canvas, my advice is to search for the answer through the act of painting. Create paintings using the question as a starting point. This is what, in my opinion, art is truly about. Its not about how perfect your technique is, its more about the discovery of techniques through your own investigation while creating. In other words, no matter how many technical tips and advice I can offer, it is the searching (in paint form – not in the mind or books or writing) that you will not only find an answer, but create a valid body of work. It is through this type of investigation that adds a sense of integrity, meaning, and soul into your paintings.
Now that I’ve said how I really feel about this question, I will offer some technical tips on getting these effects just so you know I am not avoiding the question. However, if you want to try some of my methods below, they must still come from your own inspiration. Following someone else’s “recipe” only works when you feel free to keep reinventing the process.
(1) “Atmosphere” usually has a rich sense of space, or has the illusion of many planes in space. A figure on a flat background would only be 2 planes (figure and ground) – while a painting with a variety of forms that vary in size, edge, color, and overlap will create a richer depth – or many more planes. See Jackson Pollock, for instance, or Mark Rothko.
(2) Look at real paintings in a museum (or photos as a last resort) and find some that have what you would call “atmosphere” and write down any mechanisms you can identify which are helping to create that.
(3) Acrylic that is made matte generally contains matting agent, which looks like talcum powder, or very small white flakes. These white elements create a veiled look when used generously over an Underpainting. A layer of matte gel or many layers of matte mediums can push a painting back in space, creating a sense of depth and atmosphere. Make a painting, then cover it with a generous amount of matte gel (at least 1/4″ thick). Then repaint some of the forms again from the first layer on top of the matte gel. Repeat, repainting less and less forms. This will give your painting many spatial planes, and a richer atmosphere.
(4) Using compositional and aesthetic tools (edge, value, chroma, hue, etc.) and their oppositional counterparts, (edge has soft and hard edges, value contains light and dark values, chroma involves bright and dull colors, etc.) will add richness to a painting. But it is the PROPORTIONS of these opposites or counterparts that are used that create certain moods. For instance, every painting usually has sets of opposites (this creates a dialogue – without which no illusionary space exists, and it is more like wallpaper than a “space”). If all the opposites in a painting are in equal amounts, it lessens the visual tension, and also creates wallpaper. The key is in the proportions of opposites. So for a Turner or Ryder you may have 85% muted tones, soft edged forms, dark tones while lesser percentages would be intense colors, hard edge and light areas.
I DO NOT recommend using formulas to create art. Yet, sometimes it is helpful to take time out to give an analysis of the tools that are used, how and where they are used.