Clarity vs. Atmosphere

I have a few artist friends whose opinion I pay attention to. One of them, Lilliana, told me once (though her philosophy toward a painting and mine are different) that I needed to learn how to paint something called “atmosphere.” I could NOT figure out what she meant. She tried explaining it, but…

Then I began to appreciate the work of J. M. W. Turner, work I’d always thought was just a bunch of muddy smudges. He pretty much ONLY paints atmosphere.

Venice, Moonrise 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Venice, Moonrise 1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner (mostly atmosphere)


One view of Venice by Turner (lots of atmosphere)


Another view of Venice by Turner (must’ve been a clearer day, but atmosphere communicates distance)

I believe atmosphere = humidity.

I tried explaining to my friend that I had learned to paint in Colorado where there is little or no “atmosphere.”

I began pondering the difference between “luminosity” and “clarity” and I realized that my friend was right. A landscape painting has to fool the viewer into believing they’re looking at a scene and it has to give the viewer information about what to look at. “Atmosphere” also gives the viewer information about distance.That was a new perspective (ha ha). It also conveys time of day. There is more atmosphere in the morning and in the evening than at noon.

Rita, the other artist friend in question, paints Colorado but her paintings have “atmosphere.” She even put up a video tutorial about how to paint this. I watched it and it was great for two reasons. First, it was only a couple of minutes long. Second, she SHOWED “how” to do it.


It’s like writing a compare/contrast essay. No writer sits down with that as an intention any  more than a painter gets up and says, “Today I’m going to paint atmosphere, the middle distance, and the three values.” Those things are tools.

BUT…Where I live now there is, often, absolutely NO atmosphere. The only thing between me and the mountains fifty miles away is fifty miles. The light here — which I love — is NOT luminous. It’s CLEAR. You can see the clarity in the photo; what you can’t see is that I could see all the nooks and crannies of the distant Sangre de Cristo mountains from where I stood as I took this picture.


Wright/Shriver Recreation Area, Monte Vista CO with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance.

Clear light. I thought about it some more. That is probably the meaning of “art” vs. “nature.” A painting that imitates the absolute clarity of this scene could end up visually confusing.

In this painting, I painted atmosphere.

Ancestral Memory

Ancestral Memory by Martha Ann Kennedy

I’ve learned all this but I’ve yet to apply it to a landscape. Ultimately learning this has confused me as a painter. I don’t know if I want to have a system and to get things right. I don’t know anything at all.

21 thoughts on “Clarity vs. Atmosphere

  1. So that’s atmosphere in art term? I learn something here. Thank you.
    Actually I like the sky, whether it’s clear or with atmosphere. And by the way, your painting is great.

  2. Beautiful artwork, I love “atmosphere” art, though I never , until now, realized that’s what it is! Thank you:)

  3. I did not grow up in an artistic atmosphere and am thankful to Mr. Swiss for introducing me to paintings. He had lessons from a painter when he was a boy and we have mostly Mr. Swiss originals on the walls, generall aquarell, although he also painted in oil.
    Anyhow he sort of introduced me to Turner as it is one of his favourites (although I am more into Dali and Margritte. there is a novel “The Dark Clue” by James Wilson based on the strange private life of Turner. I have read it and found it quite good.

    • I will look up the book. Sounds good. I seem to have two distinct painting personalities; one paints pretty conventional landscapes and the other paints what I can only describe a semi-surreal expressionism. Then there’s another lady who paints flowers in an impressionist style. I guess that’s the result of not being a painter for a living. I can mess around.

    • I saw “atmosphere” that way, too, but in painting it might create a mood, but it’s more concrete. It’s really the air. Anyway, the discovery and other events around here have pretty made me back off from painting. The way it feels right now, I’ve backed off forever. I don’t want to do anything that I can get “wrong.” I’ve had enough of that.

  4. My reply disappeared!!! Now I have to recharge and won’t be able to do it over again until tomorrow — company coming!xoxo

  5. I love your painting. Good luck applying what you have learnt to landscape. As one who doesn’t “get” painting I have nothing much to offer aside from appreciating the idea that atmosphere = humidity. That’s a simplicity I can work with!

    • Me too, Louise. The rest of it is far too complicated and intimidating and abstract for me — but for those who get it WOW! I’m glad you like my painting — that means a lot to me. 🙂

      • It’s a very interesting painting – and I wonder about the stories of those beneath. So aside from it being painted well (which I can’t do) I like the painting.

        As for broader art appreciation, I once had a girlfriend tour me around an art gallery. SHE loved art and understood every nuance WE were suppose to get out of each piece. It just wasn’t me. I get music. I get writing. I can appreciate the expertise that goes into painting – and so I like the detail found in certain art – but I don’t really get it. Hence I love your humidity rule.

        • I wonder about their stories, too. As for art, I’ve seen a lot and I “know” how to “appreciate” it but ultimately it comes to whether you like it or not. Stuff by like Rothko or Jackson Pollack is supposed to be great, but I find it completely meaningless, kind of an Emperor’s New Clothes.

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