The Psychology of Atmospheric Perspective

posted in: Blog, Classes, Composition, Painting | 14

J.M.W. Turner, the great English landscape painter, referred to his atmospheric effects as tinted steam. He perceived their atmospheric uncertainty as his paintings’ most engaging quality.  Ambiguous atmospheric effects suggested more volume, motion, and space than delineated subjects could hope to evoke.  Our brains read the lack of edge information as a spatial effect. Blurred edges also suggest motion to our brains.

Turner knew that if he could provide some mental anchorage for the viewer by providing a few legible shapes, some edge information in the foreground, he could then suggest the remainder of the motif with atmospheric effects. Claude had centuries earlier provided a model for Turner to build upon.

Turner had come upon the idea of atmospheric perspective not only through his study of Claude but also through his experiments in oil and watercolor sketches, especially the watercolor sketches. Eventually his oils began to resemble the atmospheric effects discovered in his watercolors.  Example one provides an early Turner oil sketch from 1805. Note the foreground has legible edge information while the back dissolves into blurrier shapes into which we project the experience of a woodland and stream.

Example 1.  Willows beside a Stream, oil from 1805.

25 years later we find Turner more reliant on watercolor sketching as part of his process.  These preliminary watercolor sketches provided a testing ground for later finished oils or, later finished exhibition watercolors.  The preliminary watercolor process allowed Turner to quickly explore atmospheric effects and abstraction of the motif more daringly than in the finished works as you can see comparing examples 2 and 3.

Example  2.  Watercolor sketch for Tamworth Castle, Staffordshire, 1830.

Example 3.  Later larger exhibition watercolor for Tamworth Castle 1830.

Other artists from Cezanne to Winslow Homer would find the evocative atmospherics of watercolors inspirational for the larger oil paintings.

Early in the development of photography artists found ways of creating atmospheric effects.  Using software like Photoshop I am able to push additional atmosphere into an image and test my impressions.  Example  4 is my photo of an intimate glen. Example 5 is my more altered photo in which I have eliminated a large fallen log and other specific information in favor of more and softer atmospherics.

Example 4. Original photo in which I had manipulated the appearance of the scene in the camera.

Example 5. Same photo after applying cloning to affect more atmospheric perspective.

I originally approached this scene a month earlier and focused not on the atmospheric space in the distance but the patterns of reflection in the water (example 6.) This example is the result from Zoom class demonstration

Example 6. Demonstration of a different aspect of the glen on 12×18, brushed silver Omegabond.

I next tried the same motif larger on 24×36 brushed silver Omegabond (example7). The resulting image did not excite me. Consequently I decided to overpaint the work but, harvest some of its original effects.  This next overlaying image (example 8) was prompted by my desire to pursue more painterly effects and a unified atmosphere. I wanted a stronger psychological effect than I was getting from the image in example 7.

Example 7. Step one, Misty Glen, oil on brushed silver Omegabond, 24×36.

Example 8. Step two, Misty Glen, and the image in its current state, more to come.


14 Responses

  1. Carol M. Stein

    Informative and inspiring. Agree with Turner— atmospheric perspective invites more viewer engagement. Thanks David!

  2. Edward Shumate

    I don’t know why, but I absolutely love example 7. Maybe it looks familiar from my boyhood.

    • dd_admin

      Edward, Thank you so much. Boyhood memories often motivate me too. David

  3. Patricia Scanlan

    There is so much going on in example 8. However, I can clearly see what you mean that your eye goes to the light and to edges. For some reason, this painting really makes that clear to me. This is just beautiful.

  4. Michael C. McBride

    David, I get so much more from these lessons. Thank you for taking the time to present them to us.

  5. Jean MacLaren Calandra

    #8 seems to be an invitation to inhabit the space, drawing one in through rich color, textural interest, and the light at the end of the forest. All elements contributing to your painterly approach to creating atmosphere. Where are my brushes? I hope they are ready for some exercise. Thank you David.?

  6. Martha C Jones

    This has been a wonderful program for me, especially being house bound since Feb-Mar. I always wanted to get in his class but this is so much better for me. This was a brilliant move to start these classes. Anyone can be a participant and being able to look back at the recorded sessions is an xtra plus.

    Thank you so much David,
    See you in Aug.!!

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