How to Create Atmosphere in Watercolor

Oct 19, 2022

What is atmosphere in watercolor painting, and how can you create it?


The words atmosphere and mood refer to the emotion that a piece of art evokes in the viewer and are often used interchangeably. When we can accurately convey a mood in our painting, it becomes more than just a picture on a piece of paper or canvas. It becomes an image that elicits feelings and conjures memories. It becomes art. 


In today’s video, I offer tips on how to create atmosphere in your watercolor paintings by paying close attention to the light, shadows, and edges in your scene. 


First, ask yourself questions like: Is it a hazy day? Is it foggy? Is it cloudy out? Is it midday or early morning? Think about the intensity of light and the source of light in your scene. Then consider what the shadows are doing. 


You need to know how to convey the specific type of light in your scene to capture the mood in your watercolor painting, and a lot of this comes down to contrast. The more contrast you have, the brighter and sharper the light is going to be in your scene. And the harder your edges, the greater the contrast will be in your watercolor painting. 


In my video, I show you three examples from Joseph Zbukvic’s book – Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor: the Critical Ingredients that Turns Painting into Art – where he paints the same scene in three different stages of light. The first is soft and hazy with no contrast in the background. The second has medium light with a more defined background and harder edges. The third is sharp, fully lit, and has more texture and contrast. 


When you think about the scene you want to paint and the atmosphere you want to convey, try placing it into one of these three categories. This will help you determine how you need to paint it.


  • If you want a more soft, hazy effect, you are going to go for softer edges and shapes that are merging together. Paint your scene when the paper is more wet or damp.


  • If you decide you’re going for medium light, your painting will have harder edges and a little more contrast. You’ll work a little bit more on dry paper than we would in our first scenario.


  • If you are wanting your light to be sharp and bright, you’re going to create harder edges and high contrast. To do this, you’ll paint mostly on dry paper.


Of course there are more than three distinct ways to paint light, but identifying where your painting lands in this range provided by Joseph Zbukvic can help you strategize how to create the atmosphere you want in your watercolor painting. 


Time is the greatest asset that we have, so I appreciate you devoting some of yours to learn with me here today. As always, if you have a watercolor topic you’d like me to cover, let me know in a comment below. I would love to hear from you! 


Keep practicing and moving forward. And I will see you next time!

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