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How to Make Your Acrylic and Watercolor Paintings Stand Out

Updated on April 1, 2013

Give your acrylic and watercolor paintings a dazzling 3-D look and feel

The technique of colour perspective I'm talking about here applies to acrylics and watercolors as well as gouache, oils or any other medium. You'll see the same concept explained under various other names but essentially, this is a way of giving a more realistic, three-dimensional quality to your work. Through the use of different colors, within the same key you can give the audience the feeling that thet could walk right into a scene and keep going into the distance. They could have a picnic in there.

Some real-world effects can be seen in photographs - if you looked at a photo of this scene, you'd see the effect of colour perspective, just as you would by actually being there. On the other hand, some techniques borrowed from the photography world, such as blurring objects to show depth of field, I find a bit distracting. Whilst this is what the camera sees, and of course the lenses of our eyes work in the same way, we're never aware of depth of field through blurring, when we look at a scene. Because of that, I don't use variations in focus to show depth in my own paintings.

What is Colour Perspective?

Oh, for The Wings of a Chicken
Oh, for The Wings of a Chicken

I think of colour perspective as an effect caused by the 'thickness' of the sky. As we look at objects in the far distance, we are looking through more air than we are with objects closer to us. If you look at fields near the horizon, they may be so pale as to be almost invisible, with other landscape features being more or less pale depending on their distance from us.

The particular quality of paleness depends to a large extent upon the prevailing weather. Obviously, if it's a bit misty, then the density of the moisture causes the colour to fade to pale a lot closer than in a crisp, dry atmosphere.

On a cold sunny morning, you sometimes find that you can see a lot further than in the afternoon, when the sun's warmed the ground and it begins to draw moisture into the air. This can have the effect of making distant features - buildings, fields, trees - seem nearer or farther under different conditions.

Noticing the World

Colour perspective example
Colour perspective example

Once you become aware of colour perspective, you start to notice it in your daily life. It applies just as much when driving down a road as it does when walking in a meadow, or through a wood. Look at the photo above and see how the fence in the background is barely distinguishable. Even when looking up at tall buildings or down into a deep valley or a quarry colour perspective is noticeable. I love the thin blueness of the sky as it becomes more apparent when I look across woodland trees into the distance from the top of a hill. It's almost like very thin woodsmoke at times.

Incidentally, as I'm editing this, I've noticed how well the photo above shows the contrasting light and dark tones that I mentioned in another lens about gouache painting, A Trick That Will Help Bring Your Paintings to Life.

Noticing things in this way is what brings us closer to nature - the reason why we see mention of 'the artist's eye'. Have you noticed how you develop a different kind of awareness of things around you when you spend time painting or drawing. Not just visually, but with all of your senses. You notice the birds singing in a different way - surely the blackbirds aren't just sending out random meaningless noises. In the evening, you can hear a network of blackbirds, each atop its own tree, about fifty yards apart, issuing complex patterns of song and waiting for replies from other blackbirds. You know there's a protocol in action here, but as to the meaning...can we ever know?

You notice the smells of the countryside; equally, you notice the smells of the city - exhausts, shops, food, people. You notice the feel of different textures. I marvel at simple things that we take for granted - like the difference between immersing your hand in a sink filled with cold water and the same sink filled with hot water. Both look the same. The scientists tell us that the difference is at the molecular level. That's amazing.

Another thing that amazes me is the moon. Or, rather, how I see it. When I look at a full moon, normally I see a flat disc pasted onto the sky. Just once in a while, though, I'll concentrate and try to see it as a sphere hanging in the sky. It takes a while, but just like those optical illusions that you can only see one way at a time, once the moon flips into a sphere, it takes the same effort to make it flip back into a disc.

So, is this like a plate, or like a football?

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This is a Winsor & Newton Designers' Gouache set. I use the equivalent Daler Rowney set, but W+N use top quality materials as well.

Colour perspective works in the sky, too.

Colour perspective - colour temperature
Colour perspective - colour temperature

In this photo, you can see that the sky is paler in the distance, as well as the land. If you look at the patch of lighter blue sky just over half way up on the right and compare it with the sky above it, you can see the difference in colour between the two. As I mentioned earlier, you could think of this as being "thicker" sky that we're looking through in the paler patch. I know there are more scientific explanations that talk about light reflection, refraction, diffusion and so on, but for our purposes, my "thick vs thin sky" explanation fits the bill.

Also, look at how the dark undersides of the fluffy cumulus clouds become paler in the distance. Looking at cloud structures is a very useful exercise. In this case, you can see how the closer clouds obscure the higher parts of those further away. This gives an effect of horizontal lines of clouds that get closer together and paler into the distance. Painting clouds in gouache is very satisfying. The gouache medium lends itself to the whole idea of colour perspective, having a natural pale cast to it, so you have to deliberately use stronger colours in the foreground.

If you have time, I'd love to hear from you

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    • efriedman profile image


      7 years ago

      i like that you focus on really looking at scenes as illustrated through the photographs as a way to think about gouache painting.


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