East of Swansboro, 1979, alkyd, 20 X 13. This scene near the coastal town of Swansboro is a study of land, water, cloud and sky as they recede into the far distance. A number of glazes (20-30) were used in this painting to imitate the effect of atmosphere on near and distant objects.

The idea of trying to paint space and air will impress many as a nebulous exercise at best, and I must admit that I feel it is one of the more difficult aspects of painting.  However, air exists as surely as a rock or a figure , and its constant state of change affects the objects we see both near and far.  When looking at the work of the better realist painters, one can almost stroll through their paintings and breathe the air.  Perhaps it is this seeming ability to walk into these paintings that leads one to remember them as larger in size than they actually are.  I don't mean to imply that the air in the paintings seem breathable because the works are so detailed and "magically" real.  I feel the quality of air in a painting has little to do with tightness of technique.  One can see good examples of paintings that seem full of air in the works of the Impressionists whose use of the vibrant color can be studied and applied to realism.

Blues off Fort Macon, 1981, alkyd, 24 X 24. My sons and I have fished many times from this jetty at Fort Macon, near Morehead City, North Carolina. The title refers to both the bluefish the fisherman are catching and the blue sky and water. The line of the ocean on the horizon is not a hard edge but a hazed one, achieved by scumbling and glazing. Had this been painted as a hard edge, it would not tend to recede into the distance.

To be able to render atmospheric effects, perhaps one should know the air's chemical makeup.  However, I have always felt that too much dependence on the scientific or mechanical aspects of art (such as mechanical perspective) has a tendency to draw the life from art.  Proper understanding of such subjects is essential, but after one knows the facts behind what is happening, it may be best to relegate that understanding to the subconscious and think more about art.
        Air consists of 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 9 percent argon, .03 percent carbon dioxide, traces of other gases, and a variable load of water vapor.  Air molecules intercept the short blue wavelengths of the sun's radiation, thereby giving us our blue skies.  The lighter value of blue at the horizon is caused by light rays penetrating a longer distance through dense lower air which contains water vapor, dust, and varied gases.  This effect often appears to have tints of vermilion or alizarin crimson near the horizon.  It is the water vapor, plus varied particles of dust and smoke that affects the landscape as we see it.

The effect of air on a landscape will obviously change with each minute, day, and season.  A humid day will find the air filled with minute particles of water vapor.  An extreme example of this would be a dense fog, but this vapor can be seen on almost any day when viewing distant landscapes.  These particles of water vapor combine with dust and tend to blur our vision of distant objects.  They also give distant objects a bluish or purplish cast and flatten their three-dimensional quality.  A good example would be a distant view of a mountain range or islands off the coast of Maine which would tend to look flat as in a stage set.  This effect can be exaggerated as seen in many watercolorists' backgrounds done with flat washes of granular color.

Snow at Currituck, 1979, alkyd, 35 X 48. A scene on the coastal sounds of North Carolina. Note how the land mass loses definition to the right of the painting and in the extreme distance at the center of the painting. Also, the wave action is more clearly defined in the near distance than it is toward the bottom.

As we look through this layer of air, the objects closest to us will naturally be seen with sharpness and clarity. But as objects recede, this layer of atmosphere begins to haze the edges of distant objects.  The shapes seen to melt into the distant atmosphere.  During the day, this effect will change according to the dictates of temperature, humidity, light, and wind-blown dust or smoke.  Also to be considered is the eye's focusing ability.  When focused on nearby objects, the eye loses its ability to focus on distant objects.  This also results in the illusion of depth.  The paintings of the Luminists Frederic Edwin Church or John Frederick Kensett clearly depict those phenomena.  Winslow Homer's The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog and Thomas Eakins's A Pair-oared Shell show these effects on background objects.

        This haze-like atmosphere can be rendered through the use of multiple transparent or translucent glazes which imitate the actual haze found in nature.  Just as the real atmosphere mutes color and blurs edges, an applied glaze can do the same in a painting.  I have found that the addition of a bit of white in the glaze will imitate the effect of the vapor particles in the air.  Thus, the underpainting should be a few values darker than the final value desired. An atmospheric glaze might consist of a bit of white, cobalt, and ochre ( I use alkyd paints) and a good deal of medium ( in my case, Liquin).  This mixture will vary in color selection and transparency according to the effect desired.  Through this type of glazing, the value and color of distant objects can be controlled in the most subtle of gradations.  However, a similar effect can also be accomplished by careful color and value selection of opaque paint while trying to compensate for slight darkening or lightening as the color dries.  I personally feel that opaque color cannot carry the same sense of depth seen in a glaze.

Cape Lookout Morning , 1979, alkyd, 33 1/2 X 48. This lighthouse, which has been standing since 1859, is one of the distinctive landmarks along the outerbanks of North Carolina. A vibrancy is given to the bluish-gray low-lying cloud mass by applying strokes of warm and cool glazes in a subtle use of the Impressionists' technique. This technique is more noticeable toward the right horizon where strokes of a warm glaze made up of ochre and white are played against a cool glaze of colbalt and white.

Shadows and reflected light also play a large part in creating the feeling of air in a painting.  In fact, a painting may seem devoid of air until shadows are painted.  A sense of three-dimensional space can be achieved through the use of reflected light on objects.
        We can learn how to imbue the air with a luminous quality by studying the techniques of the Impressionists. The vibrant use of subtle strokes of warm and cool color in sky areas will give the feeling of depth in a sky.  I will often apply stokes of warm and cool glazes over a blue sky underpainting to achieve a vibrancy, particularly toward the horizon as the sky lightens.  The technique as I use it is not as obvious as that used by the true Impressionist, but it is still there.
        A demonstration of how I painted Columbus, Georgia appears below.  This landscape was commissioned by the W.C. Bradley Company of Columbus, Georgia.  I was free to select the subject matter for this painting and ended up choosing a view of Columbus from a bridge over the Chattahoochee River.  On a very hot day, I did some pencil drawings from the bridge and took a few color photographs to give me an idea of general color.  I feel that the color found in photographs is not the kind of color I see, but it can give me an approximation in a subject as involved as this painting.

        The actual painting was done in my studio and measures 18" x 40".  I have often painted seascapes, and I was able to paint water again in this subject by using the river ( which was quite low) as a major element.  You will notice that the eye is led into the distance by the river itself and by form overlapping other forms.  As these forms overlap, they lose value, color intensity, and edges owing to the humid air and haze.  The extreme distance visible would be represented by the hazy set-like line of trees beyond the distant bridge.  This line of trees and a few forms closer do not really have edges but "melt" into the atmosphere surrounding them.  The closer subjects are fairly hard-edged, (showing) the figures exploring the river.
        On the day following my pencil drawing of this scene, there was a very hard rain and the sandy islands in the river disappeared beneath the water.  I was pleased I had drawn the islands, as I feel they help lead the eye into the painting and give a needed note of warm color.  Also, the figures could not have been included had the river been high.  The attempt to paint space and air into a painting can be a challenge that summons up all one has learned about rendering perspective, form, color, and edges.  The greatest help, of course, is the careful observation of nature itself and the awareness of how amazingly different outdoor scenes can look over a 12-hour period.


Initially, a detailed drawing was made from a bridge overlooking the city of Columbus, Georgia. Then, a simple outline drawing was done on a gessoed panel of untempered Masonite. This was followed by the first stage of underpainting with rough-in of the tree forms, water, sky and clouds.

The basic underpainting. Some areas, such as the distant forms, were painted a few values too dark, since I planned to paint over them with lighter glazes which would represent atmospheric haze.

I continued working on the buildings and water tower structure; glazes were applied to the background trees beyond the bridge.

The transition of blues from dark at the top to a lighter blue toward the horizon was done by glazing over darker values in the underpainting. As the glazes approached the bottom horizon, more white was added to the glaze to achieve a lighter value. In this manner, very subtle values in the transition from dark to light could be precisely controlled.

STEP FIVE:  The completed painting: Columbus, Georgia, 1984, alkyd, 18 X 40. Click anywhere on the painting above for a enlarged, detailed view.

        Robert B. Dance was born in Tokyo, Japan, and lives in Kinston, North Carolina, with his wife Coleman. He is a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Art where he studied under Henry C. Pitz.
        Dance is noted for his landscapes and seascapes, and his work has appeared in American Artist on several occasions.  His paintings have also appeared in art publications here and abroad and in the following books: 40 Watercolorists and How They Work, Painting in Alkyd (both published by Watson-Guptill Publications), and Things Invisible to See ( Advocate Publishing Group).  The North Carolina Watercolor Society has awarded his work first prize in three different exhibitions.
        His work is in numerous corporate and private collections, including those of the Northern Carolina Museum of Art, The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art has shown his work in several realist invitationals and his work was included in the exhibit "Southern Realism," organized bye the Mississippi Museum or Art.
        Dance has also tested new formula pigments for Winsor & Newton and has been shown in their international presentation on alkyd pigments.



© 2015 by Robert B. Dance. All Rights Reserved.
The text, photos & artwork used in this web site are protected under U.S. Copyright Law and may not be used in any form,
in whole or in part, without express written permission of Robert B. Dance.