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The Tyranny of Distance

One of the great challenges of painting is the ability to effectively portray the illusion of distance . . . Mike Barr

One of the great challenges of painting is to be able to effectively portray the illusion of distance. Lots of artists struggle with it and some never really get it.

Australia Felix- Sir Arthur Streeton (1907)


Sir Arthur Streeton was a fine exponent atmospheric illusion. Seeing his work “Australia Felix” at the South Australian Art Gallery some years ago, I was amazed at the sense of expanse he managed to achieve. Close up, the painting seems full of untidy brush strokes but take a few steps back and there’s a grand illusion of space. Photographs of this painting don’t even come close to matching its magnificence.


Thankfully, we don’t have to be Streeton to master the valuable painting asset of atmospheric perspective. We can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and even on those who live today. A great learning tool is to study the works of the impressionists.

Richard Schmid – Exeter Cottage (1984)


There are a few things that when brought together successfully can create the atmosphere we want. They are color, tone, size, blur and exaggeration.

Color – As things get more distant the atmosphere tends to blue things off. This is so easily seen in rows of hills or mountains. Those further away are lighter and bluer than those close-up. On cloudy days when things aren’t as blue, grey takes over where blue leaves off. You can see this on a cloudy, rainy day.

Tone – Not only are things blued off in the distance, but they are neither so dark nor so bright. The blues are dusky and grey. The only bright things in the distance come from illuminated light sources such as the sun. Greens in the distance are never as intense as those a few feet away. Miss that and your painting will miss that feeling of distance.


Size – More obvious is that that objects further away are smaller. And yet even artists who have been painting for some time can get this wrong. Keeping things in proportion to their surroundings is a sure way to convey distance correctly.Blur – Photographs don’t really blur the distance, but our eyes do. When we focus on the middle distance, both the foreground and background have some blur. If the foreground is not the focus of the painting, don’t fuss with it. Richard Schmid is a master of this.

Richard Schmid – Snow Maples (1999)

Exaggeration – To mimic distance with paint is best done by enhancing what you see. Make things bluer than they are and more blurred to portray distance. Make things darker in the foreground to set the distance back. 
A little experimentation on practice pieces can have wonderful results especially if you stick at it. Remember we are painting an illusion and illusions always take time to perfect.

Happy painting!

This post was reblogged by Al Kline and written by Mike Barr ©2019


Mike Barr is a fine artist from Australia and has won over 60 awards worldwide. He is featured in a number of books and a regular feature writer for Australian Artists Magazine. Mike’s motto in painting is “It’s not what you see – but what you feel. “His rainy cityscapes and expansive beachscapes are designed so viewers can enter, not merely look. He believes the camera is meant for detail but paintings are meant to catch the essence of time and place. You can visit Mike’s Website at Mike Barr Fine Art.

Here are 10 serious painting tips by Mike Barr :

Calm Afternoon by Mike Barr

Paint often
No matter how many classes you attend, if you don’t paint often at home there will be limited improvement. Painting is like any skill, it improves the more you practice it.

Paint small
If you are interested in improvement then 10 small works taking 2 hours each are more beneficial than one 20-hour painting.

Draw with a brush
With oil and acrylics, drawing with a brush will loosen your painting up and have you feeling like an artist. Trying to follow pencil lines can stunt the flow of the painting as it can quickly become all about the lines which rapidly disappear under the paint.

Measure the horizon
With seascapes it is always best to measure the horizon line to ensure it is straight. Once a slanted horizon is spotted, it is all that will be noticed about the painting! One of the few times a ruler comes into its own!

Less colour -more focus
Paint manufacturers would love you to purchase all 100 colours in their range, but colour-laden paintings tend to have less focus because the eye darts everywhere looking for a place to rest. Try limiting your palette and watch your work increase in harmony and interest.

Say no to slavery!
Photograhic slavery is easy to fall into, even for the experienced. Use photos for reference but don’t limit you painting to what is there or what is not there. Be in charge of the painting and feel free to move things around and even change the colours.

Use the best you can afford
As with all kinds of paint, the cheaper brands really are inferior, particularly in pigment concentration. Having said that, the secrets to better paintings don’t lie in the materials or equipment. No brush, no pencil, no paint or no surface is going to make you a better painter – just lots of practice.

Paint outdoors
Painting plein air will be one of the greatest leaps in your painting journey.
You have to work quickly because the light changes – this will increase your confidence. It will also stop you from fiddling. It will teach you that tone is more important than colour and have you looking for shapes instead of painful detail. It’s great fun too!

Atmospheric perspective
Learn this and you will stand out from the rest. It’s the ability to depict distance and the feeling of space through tone and colour – but mainly tone. See how other artists have achieved this, particularly the Australian impressionists such as Streeton.

Enter art shows
Entering art shows will make you look at your own work in a different light. In isolation and among family and friends we can have a greater opinion of our own work than is realistic. It gets you connected to other artists and collectors and you just might sell or get a prize. Being in art shows lets you be your own best critic.

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