UART Tip #16: Creating the Illusion of Atmosphere and Distance in a Painting with Jill Stefani Wagner


Recently, our local land conservancy highlighted farms that had been saved through their land rescue program to raise money to protect even more acreage. They requested Michigan artists apply to paint at one of their 40 sites and donate half of the auction proceeds to the conservancy. I’m fascinated with old farms, so this was a perfect project for me. I painted many plein air pieces on the picturesque property I was assigned, but in this demonstration I’ll discuss a large pastel painting that I created in-studio from a reference photo.

Reference Photo

I take hundreds of photographs and am always looking for scenes with a strong composition and interesting shapes. I shot this scene early one May morning when the shadows were still long and the grass was dewy. I loved the view, but I really wanted to pump up the color and play with a complementary color scheme of green and rust. I also planned to create a feeling of deep distance as the path receded into the background. I used the photo as a starting point but wasn’t afraid to adjust my colors to suit my needs.

Step 1

This piece is large for a pastel painting at 24 x 18 inches, but the same technique can used at any size. I chose a sturdy 500-Grade UArt Sanded Pastel Board to avoid buckling. I brushed watered-down acrylic to cover the board with an orange under painting. The paper doesn’t have to be evenly covered. In fact, it’s often more interesting when the wash isn’t perfectly opaque. I gridded up the composition in the same proportion as my original reference photo, making changes as I saw fit. (You can see the light pencil grid on my first step.) I boldly drew in my darkest areas with a deep blue #305 NuPastel and then used an old bristle brush loaded with odorless mineral spirits to freely brush over the dark areas. This created a permanent under drawing that doesn’t become muddied or smeared with subsequent layers of pastel.

Step 2

Using pastels of medium hardness, I began to lay color very lightly over the orange background. I started by choosing shades to represent my lightest lights and darkest darks. They weren’t the exact final hues I’d use, but they had be very close to the final values. This will give me the range of darks and lights that the rest of my colors will fit within. I like to use Rembrandt pastels for this stage of the painting.


Step 3

I covered the rest of my paper with value-appropriate colors using a very light touch. Part of the beauty of this type of under painting is that I can leave some of it showing through my pastel layers. When I use an “opposite color” approach like this (rust under painting for a piece which is predominantly green) I get an interesting “vibration” of colors. I purposely chose hues that were brighter and richer than my reference photo. Cameras never catch the true colors we experience in nature, and the point isn’t to recreate a photo anyway. Note that there’s very little detail at this point, just a general nod to color and placement of the main elements of the scene. I often give my board a light spray with workable fixative at this point. However, I don’t use it on the later layers in order to avoid darkening of colors.

Step 4

Then the fun began. I started comparing my colors and values. To portray distance in a painting the elements that are farthest away need to be bluer and lighter as they recede. They’re also fuzzier and less detailed. I established the colors I wanted to use in my sky and far tree line. (Note: In the morning, the sky often has a pinkish tone near the horizon line.) When those were in place, I began working “forward” into the painting, using hues that were warmer and more vibrant as I worked toward the bottom. In the forefront of the scene, more detail became evident. I re-established highlights and deep shadows at this point, making sure that the area of highest contrast was closest to my focal point (in this case, the large tree.)


Step 5

I continually compared and re-evaluated the values to make sure they rang true. I darkened and lightened areas that needed additional attention but didn’t fill the entire “tooth” of the paper. I let some orange show through, especially at the bottom, because elements that are closest to us appear warmer. I saved my softest pastels (yummy Senneliers!) for the highlights I applied at the very end. I kept the most detail at my point of interest so that the observer’s eye went there first, allowing the rest of the information to be “filled in” by the viewer. More is not necessarily better. Sometimes less is better. I STOPPED before I thought I was finished!


Jill Stefani Wagner, PSA-MP

Visit Jill’s website at to view more of her work.