Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Depth and Atmosphere

Above was my award-winning painting from the San Clemente show two months ago. This 11x14 plein air scene, “Crystal Rocks,” was painted down at Crystal Cove beach in Laguna in the late afternoon. I love the great atmosphere that can pick up at this time of day. And if you hit a low tide too, the rocks can give you wonderful compositional choices.

The challenge for me is trying to capture the shear depth of the beach and bluffs. I love the golden haze, but it’s usually not that hazy in actuality. Value stepping and edge work becomes critical here. Making sure I get the right amount of hard to soft balances and utilizing a full value scale can make or break the illusion of distance. I started with a pencil map of where I wanted my rocks placed. In reality, they were pretty much as shown, but actual size, shape, distances between and whether they overlap were all adjusted slightly. I did this to eliminate repetitive shapes but also to create visual contrasts. For instance, the closest large rock on the left was enlarged so I could create the top white highlight and have it contrast with the dark rock behind it. Also, the second rock was raised a bit so the small wave behind it was visually “broken” and I could further contrast the whitewash with the right side of the rock. This gave me some nice focal points, plus created a sweeping arc that leads your eye up to the main splash on the rocks behind.

In the painting process, once I established my values in the foreground rocks, I made sure to make the mid-ground rocks lighter, and the far bluff even lighter than that. These conditions existed, but I pushed the values to create greater depth in the painting. Ditto for the sand and water. With the far bluff, I began on the right side, established a value I felt appropriate, and then gradually lightened it as I proceeded to the left and most distant part of the scene. The structures were painted as shadow and highlighted sides to suggest buildings but not drawing your eye there directly. I added the slightly darker cloud shapes in the upper left to force your eye back in the painting and lastly a handful of figures to complete the story.

Even in plein air, I find you need to adjust everything a bit to make a painting sing. Enjoy!


  1. Greg, Thanks for the thorough explanation of your process. The atmospheric perspective here is the star of the show. Very evocative image.

  2. As usual, thanks for the insightful explanation into a splendid image.

  3. Thanks for the great explanation again, super painting, love it.
    Took your tip from the last post about making the foreground add weight to a composition and composed a painting with that in mind I am very pleased with the resulting painting, so thanks for that.

  4. Thanks, Greg, for the reminders. I know I need them over and over and over.

    Guess I'll just have to keep coming back... and not just to see your beautiful paintings.

  5. I'm intrigued by your explanation- it is always a learning experience to be given insight into another artist's thought process. Thank you for not only sharing your beautiful paintings, but also sharing your working knowledge of composition.