Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Thoughts on Creating Atmosphere

I will be presenting tomorrow for the North Syracuse Art Guild, so while I was putting these thoughts together, I figured I might as well add this to my blog!


There are two ways to think about creating atmosphere in your paintings. One is actual atmospheric conditions like fog, rain, early morning light, or sunset and the other way is to create a sense of place. Creating a sense of place tells us a story about the painting—like where it is or what time of day. And often that other type of “atmosphere” helps to embellish the story.

Know Your Subject 

In creating atmosphere or a sense of place in your artwork it really helps to know the place. I have always felt that I cannot paint a scene until it has gotten under my skin. I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled to many scenic places, but it is the paintings of places that I know and love that turn out to be the most successful. And most often these paintings are less about defining an actual scene and more about creating an atmosphere or mood. It’s about understanding that kind of hot, hazy day when the land and water are all blurry edges and color is soaked with sunlight, nearly to the point of disappearing. Or an overcast day when the water and sky are silvery gray shapes seamlessly merging together.

Over the last few years I’ve concentrated most of my landscape painting to the St. Lawrence River and surrounding North Country. My husband and I spend a lot of time at our place on Grass Lake in the Indian River Lakes Region, which is very close to the Thousand Islands. The landscape there, especially around the lake, has been a source of constant inspiration. The St. Lawrence River is also an area that I have grown to love. There are many painters on the River and one of the challenges I have had is in defining a style to set myself apart from the rest of the painters. The castles, lighthouses, iconic bridge and islands are painted over and over again.

Searching for a Style 

In searching for a style I realized that painting atmosphere, or a sense of place appealed to me so much more than painting Boldt Castle as an illustration.

And so most of my paintings deal with misty mornings, landforms and architecture partially obscured by fog, and impending storms (summer and winter).

I use color and light to set a mood, and don’t really concern myself with sticking to the colors in my reference photo or sketch. Color used expressively is in my opinion so much more exciting than local color. Shadows in deep blues, purples or reds add life to a painting. Skies can have so many more colors than just blue or gray. Bits of pink and yellow, even green can add so much depth to the sky

Leaving out distracting details is the hardest thing for me. I have a tendency to paint too much detail. In creating that sense of atmosphere it’s what we leave out rather than what we put in which engages the viewer. It’s the suggestion rather than articulation of each object that we strive for. In the acrylic painting below, I have painted just enough detail to identify the location and added a wet pavement and dramatic sky to finish “telling the story”.

In summary I would say that creating atmosphere or a sense of place in your work comes from knowing and understanding your subject, using color and light to convey mood and suggesting rather than fully illustrating the subject.

Joan Applebaum, Windy Hill Studio
www.windyhillstudioarts.com    joanapplebaumart@blogspot.com
Find me on Facebook Joan Applebaum’s Windy Hill Studio
I teach classes at the Thousand Islands Arts Center and the Sackets Harbor Arts Center in the Summer, and The Eye Studio in East Syracuse in the Fall and Winter.

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