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Tutorial: Colour and Atmosphere

I wanted to write an entry on lighting techniques and how to give a painting atmosphere.

Anyone remember Bryce 3D? Digital landscape generation program from the 90's. It looks really dated now, but it taught me a ton about colour and light. It's a great sandbox for trying out atmospheric effects, because it breaks everything down into a few simple settings.

* Sun colour
* Ambient colour
* Distance haze
* Ground fog

For paintings with figures or objects in the foreground I would add a couple more.

* Foreground spot 1
* Foreground spot 2

That list of light sources is enough to get a classical 3-point lighting scheme (key light, fill light, rim light) and still incorporate the effects of atmosphere and distance.

Bryce 3D in action:

Mountain Range by Chris Pappathan

Janador Mountain Range by David Edwards

Starting from those four factors, you're ready to pick a palette.

Sun colour – In most situations, this is going to be your strongest light source. Earthlike landscapes will use a colour in the white/yellow/orange range. Blue-white will give the whole image an icy feel, blue-green or green a murky undersea feel, brown dusty or polluted.

Ambient colour – This is the counter to your sunlight, the colour that tints all the shadows. It usually matches the colour of the sky, because outdoors the reflected colour through the atmosphere is the strongest source of ambient light. For earthlike scenes, it will be some variation of blue or purple, but green also works well for an area with heavy vegetation. Cooler colours provide a good foil to the warmth of the sun.

Distance haze – This is the effect of light refracting off the dust particles in the air as you move closer and closer to the horizon. It's a wide, dim band of colour that is strongest right at the horizon, the point where there is the thickest layer of dust and atmosphere between the viewer and outer space. It's this factor that creates the effect of the sky being darker at the zenith, directly above a standing person, than it is where the sky meets the land. Distance haze is usually a shade of white or tan, but weather conditions can make it much more prominent. Heavy rain is a thick grey and underwater is deep blue. It can also pick up the effect of the ambient light, and be a brighter shade of that colour.

Ground fog – This effect is similar to distance haze, but it's denser and it affects the foreground. It's not always present, but it can add an air of mystery to a painting. It's due to moisture condensing in the cool air near the ground, and fades out the higher up you go.

Once you get the hang of spotting the light sources, you can apply it to photos and paintings, and use it as a guide for picking your palette. Every object in the scene will be affected to some degree by the light colours.

Photo by shashigai

Here, I picked a darker blue for the ambient because I was pulling it from the rocks in the lower left. It's not as strong a light as the sun or the fog colours, but still a similar shade of blue.

Stock photo

Photo by Pyraxis

The two foreground spotlights are to give an extra boost of colour and light to the subject matter of the painting. They're usually a warmer colour than the background, or if the background is very warm, they're cooler to provide contrasting colour. It doesn't always take two, sometimes one is enough.

Let me know if there's anything here that doesn't make sense! Or if you have any questions or anything.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 27th, 2011 04:42 am (UTC)
Wow, I'd never heard of Bryce 3D. Now the atmospheric color schemes in images make a lot more sense to me...
May. 28th, 2011 03:34 am (UTC)
Cool! :D
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )