Placing Paintings: Air Quality in Landscape Paintings

This is botanist and environmental historian Kathleen Sayce’s first post for Fine Art Investigations.  Look for more of her unique perspectives on landscape painting.

Years ago I took a watercolor class with Eric Wiegardt, a now well-known watercolorist who lives in my community. He knew I was interested in landscape painting, and so we discussed how to paint distant views several times. Two of the points he made stayed with me as an ecologist, though not for the reasons he intended.

One was a gorgeous wet on wet treatment of a bridge over the Thames River during an intense London fog, what we now call smog, which gives a distinctive yellow to orange tinge to the air. In this painting, the smog is so dense that the far side of the bridge cannot be seen. Eric was enthralled with the skill of painting wet on wet to bring out the subtle details of the bridge and water. I was amazed at how accurately the painter had captured the essence of smog.

He also read a passage from The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri, about how landscapes went brown in the distance, so to paint these long views accurately, Henri wrote, the painter needed to carefully brown the colors in the distance. I pointed out that Henri was seeing smog, and that he probably did not know what a clear sky actually looked like. Eric was unimpressed with my observation, but I was very impressed with how well Henri had described the change in colors at a distance under smoggy skies.

In the absence of smog or dust, very long views actually blue-shift and then gray-shift colors. You can see this from a mountaintop or ridge on a clear day when the view goes out fifty miles or more. Look at the near hills, green with foliage, and how the greens go to blue and then blue-gray in the distance. If there’s dust or smog in the air, the colors will shift orange and then brownish. An accurate landscape painter knows this, and paints this color veracity into his or her work.

–Kathleen Sayce

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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