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How to Paint Atmosphere in Watercolor

Narrative always has played a major role in all of my work, including paintings with great atmosphere. Creating a compelling idea for each of my paintings is, in fact, my chief aim. All other elements — composition, values and color.

How To Build Atmosphere, Step-by-Step

When painting skies and water, connect similar and opposing elements to create a realistic sense of atmosphere. Read on for a step-by-step demonstration for how I paint atmosphere in watercolor for gorgeous skies and water.

My Toolkit:

  • Sketchbook: Stillman & Birn Beta Series
  • Sketch Pencils: Faber-Castell 9000 4B; Palomino Blackwing 602
  • Paper: Arches 140-lb. rough
  • Brushes: Escoda Aquario Series Nos. 14 and 16; Escoda Perla Series Nos. 8, 10 and 12
  • Paint: Daniel Smith: French ochre, permanent orange, Venetian red, burnt sienna light, burnt sienna, cobalt teal blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, lavender, imperial purple, lunar violet
  • Misc.: Holbein atomizer bottle

Finding the Perfect Subject

Walking along the Tiber River with friends one evening, the air suddenly chilled, and great banks of fog rolled in to cover the water and Rome’s iconic Ponte Sant’Angelo. The effect was majestic and intimate.

The great structure and the historic castle beyond seemed to hover in space — as if removed from time. The fog had the effect of connecting everything; sky became water, and the earthbound seemed to float. It was much too late and dark to paint, so I went back the following day.

Fortunately, the lighting and fog of the previous night were still fresh in my mind as I sketched the scene. I often counsel my workshop students to avoid describing their subjects and instead try to interpret them. In other words: Don’t paint what you see; paint how what you see makes you feel.

That’s what I tried to do here. The elements of site observation are much the same, but the lighting, atmosphere, feeling and story are quite different. They’re inspired by my earlier impressions of the place and drawn from memory and imagination.

This sketch helped me plan the painting. I began to design the shapes of the composition — the darks and lights, the verticals and horizontals, the shapes of values that help to imply a sense of depth.

Drawing with Your Brush

The preliminary site sketch also helped me complete my line drawing more quickly. I knew where the basic shapes needed to go, so I ran a smaller risk of overdrawing.

I find that it’s generally a good idea to draw only a bare minimum. Let the brush do the drawing and allow the viewer to fill in the blanks. Instead of describing with a line, I “draw” with fluid shapes of value and color.