At a recent workshop I was asked why my demonstration painting appeared to have a great amount of depth when I had used values that were darker in the background than in the foreground.
The person asking the question had always been told you had to make the distance pale and the foreground strong and that cool colours have to be used in the background. Distance is an illusion that is achieved through the use of aerial perspective and whilst colours are often cooler towards the horizon, they aren’t always. Likewise, they’re not always pale values either. The distance, like all other elements of a painting is relative to the focus you choose and, in turn, how you decide to treat it.
You can make anything distant, even features in the middle ground. Distance is relative to your focus, so choose that first and decide where it is going to be in the painting.
A focus is part of the painting that holds the viewer’s attention so it needs to be prominent and interesting. A focus can be anything from a figure or figures to trees, a splash of light, a building, a lake and so on. Once you have decided on your focus you may need to use a compositional grid to place it in an appropriate setting near or around two of the intersecting compositional lines. Features behind the focal point can be made to appear more distant than they might really be, which in turn puts more emphasis on the focus you have chosen and creates greater depth in your work.
There are a few techniques to use but the main intention is to use less detail and blur most of the hard edges. Use a large brush to suggest any would-be fine detail shapes to generate simpler marks and a more distant feel.
To blur edges, the wet-into-wet technique is an evocative way to create softness; alternatively, paint the shapes in a conventional hard-edged manner and allow them to dry. Take a fine spray bottle and lightly spray the area with water so that it is just damp, then follow up with a stiff brush and gently work the edge of the paint into a blur. Any feature in the background of your painting that has soft or blurry edges will automatically look distant whether they are dark or light. Don’t always concern yourself with values and rules, look at the edges.
This is the illusion of depth and helps create recession in your work. As I have just outlined it’s not necessary to make your background paler, as it is subject to the overall image and lighting. However, if you do use paler colours you will create a huge amount of recession. Use your paints quite dilute and maybe add extra blue to colour mixes, such as cobalt blue to give the impression of intervening atmosphere.
Other ways of creating aerial perspective are through using repetitive, similar-sized features such as people, poles, trees or animals. These will reduce in both size and detail as they recede and often a simple estimation of the reduction in visible detail is all that is required. With structures such as buildings and roads, one- or two-point perspective can be used to gain the receding lines of the feature. Whilst perspective can be a confusing experience for many people it really doesn’t have to be and if you paint loose, your perspective lines don’t need to be entirely accurate, so long as they are roughly going in the right direction.
A simple rule of thumb is that of expectation: you either expect a perspective line to slope downwards or upwards. First locate your eye level; any lines above will slope downwards towards a vanishing point located on it and those below will slope upwards towards it in the same way. Lines near your eye level will have a shallow gradient and those further away will have a steep gradient. There is no replacement for looking, but the expectation of which way a line will slope, and the steepness of the angle, will help you place the lines correctly.
The foreground is, of course, relative to the focus of the painting. If the focus is in the foreground then you may need a reasonable amount of detail to support it, but most of the time the focus is in or near the middle ground. With a foreground, you want to hint at what is there without necessarily painting everything in intricate detail. After all, you want the viewer to look at your focal point, not the clumps of grass in the front of the picture.
I try to encourage people to look at things this way instead of painting something just because it is there. The best way is to hint at rather than state. Paint clumps of grass, mole hills, reeds and so on using a damp-into-damp technique with paint containing very little moisture onto paper that is damp but not saturated. Soft shapes like this suggest at detail rather than state it and, in context of a sharper focus, will allow the eye to absorb what is there without being drawn to it.
White paint such as titanium white, opaque white, gouache or Chinese white will create tints in your colour that will help to generate the feel of distance. Chinese white is weakest and will add a subtle, milky appearance to your colour, whereas titanium white is strongest and will alter your colour quite drastically.
The reason for adding white over traditional methods of diluting colour is to add a slightly opaque haziness to the colour. This often gives an illusion of light and depth to the distance. Another way of using white is to mix it thickly with colour. This also dulls the colour slightly which helps to create an automatic feeling of distance, especially when contrasted against richer colour and stronger values elsewhere in the painting. Thicker paint is slightly easier to control if you wish to blur small shapes together in the distance or achieve drag-brush effects.