Painting Fog and Mist

25 Feb 2013

Recently, we received a good question from a reader about how to paint one of our favorite landscape subjects--fog and mist. To understand how to paint light effects, it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of why things work the way they do. Light starts with the sun. As it penetrates our thin shell of atmosphere, it is diffused, or broken into different wavelengths. We perceive the result of this diffusion as the general color of sunlight. The sky is not really a blue substance but sunlight that has been scattered sufficiently so that only the blue end of the spectrum reaches our eyes.

Meadow Walk IV by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil on canvas.
Meadow Walk IV by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil on canvas.

Since the atmosphere is the same shape as our planet, it is curved over our heads. This means that we look through the least amount of atmosphere when we look straight overhead. That's why the sky appears darker blue overhead. As we lower our vision toward the horizon, we must look through increasingly thicker amounts of atmosphere. The blue at the horizon is often paler and warmer for this reason.

Our atmosphere is largely made up of gasses, such as oxygen, but also contains vast amounts of water vapor and other aerosols that can color the light we perceive. This is the reason why, even on a clear day, a white structure some distance away will be cooler and duller than it would appear up close. 

Fog and mist are made of water vapor that tends to appear as a cool color, even blueish at times. Sunlight striking dense fog is further diffused, which can cause an overall, seemingly directionless illumination. In the case of a light fog or heavy mist, it can create a centrally-lit but gauzy kind of light that makes the scene beautifully ethereal. This is one of our favorite lighting situations when we are painting outdoors and is the subject of a suite of John's four large oils in his Meadow Walk series.

Meadow Walk by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil on canvas.
Meadow Walk by John Hulsey, 30 x 40, oil on canvas.

To convincingly paint these effects, we must remember that the upshot of this light diffusion means that objects within and behind the fog or mist begin to lose their detail, color saturation and value in proportion to the density of the mist and the distance those objects are from the observer. In most cases, objects also lose some or all of the yellow component in their local color as they recede in the background, making their color cooler. So things get softer, cooler and paler as they recede. Keep in mind that the cooler color of the mist should be mixed into the color of everything it touches, and all those objects must be painted correctly individually. One cannot simply glaze a thinned-down white over them later to create an accurate effect.

If you enjoy this article, please join us at The Artist's Road for more interesting and informative articles.

--John and Ann


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on 26 Feb 2013 7:16 AM

Beautiful paintings.  There's a lot of this effect in modern Marine paintings, and you can find some nice examples by Sam Vokey too... scenes on the Charles River.

on 1 Mar 2013 6:47 PM