Learn How to Paint Atmosphere in Watercolor with Thomas Schaller


A Lesson in Watercolor from Thomas Schaller

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork

The World Was Quiet (watercolor on paper, 22×15) is inspired by memories of my years in New York City and by a poem by Wallace Stevens. It’s about the almost-universal desire to find a quiet place in a chaotic world.


Narrative always has played a 
major role in all of my work, including paintings with great atmosphere. Creating a compelling idea for each of my paintings is, in fact, my chief aim. All other elements — composition, values and color — must be in service to the overarching idea that frames everything I do.

Over time, I’ve found that the approach that works best for me is the establishment of a network of dichotomies — complements — within my work. Light vs. dark is, of course, 
a consistent theme. But so, too, 
are others: vertical vs. horizontal, warm vs. cool, man-made vs. natural, real vs. imagined, and the past vs. present vs. future.

Introduce such opposing forces within a work, and the viewer will see the tensions as well as the connections that exist between all parts of a painting.


Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork

Time Travelers (watercolor on paper, 30×22) is derived wholly from my imagination; the passage of time is the theme. The distant sky dissolves into mist, and the uncertain bridge carries the two figures on their journey over space and time—from wherever they were to wherever they may arrive.

How To Build Atmosphere, Step-by-Step

When painting skies and water, connect similar and opposing elements to create a realistic sense of atmosphere. Read on for a step-by-step demonstration for how I paint atmosphere in watercolor for gorgeous skies and water.

My Toolkit:

  • Sketchbook: Stillman & Birn Beta Series
  • Sketch Pencils: Faber-Castell 9000 4B; Palomino Blackwing 602
  • Paper: Arches 140-lb. rough
  • Brushes: Escoda Aquario Series Nos. 14 and 16; Escoda Perla Series Nos. 8, 10 and 12
  • Paint: Daniel Smith: French ochre, permanent orange, Venetian red, burnt sienna light, burnt sienna, cobalt teal blue, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, lavender, imperial purple, lunar violet
  • Misc.: Holbein atomizer bottle

Finding the Perfect Subject

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork

Walking along the Tiber River with friends one evening, the air suddenly chilled, and great banks of fog rolled in to cover the water and Rome’s iconic Ponte Sant’Angelo. The effect was majestic and intimate.

The great structure and the historic castle beyond seemed to hover in space — as if removed from time. The fog had the effect of connecting everything; sky became water, and the earthbound seemed to float. It was much too late and dark to paint, so I went back the following day.

Sketching the Scene

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork
Fortunately, the lighting and fog of the previous night were still fresh in my mind as I sketched the scene. I often counsel my workshop students to avoid describing their subjects and instead try to interpret them. In other words: Don’t paint what you see; paint how what you see makes you feel.

That’s what I tried to do here. The elements of site observation are much the same, but the lighting, atmosphere, feeling and story are quite different. They’re inspired by my earlier impressions of the place and drawn from memory and imagination.

This sketch helped me plan the painting. I began to design the shapes of the composition — the darks and lights, the verticals and horizontals, the shapes of values that help to imply a sense of depth.

Drawing with Your Brush

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


The preliminary site sketch also helped me complete my line drawing more quickly. I knew where the basic shapes needed to go, so I ran a smaller risk of overdrawing.

I find that it’s generally a good idea to draw only a bare minimum. Let the brush do the drawing and allow the viewer to fill in the blanks. Instead of describing with a line, I “draw” with fluid shapes of value and color.

Creating the Sky

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


In doing my black-and-white sketch, I designed a color palette for the work. I knew it was about light more than anything else. Hence, the saved white of the paper which would form the fog that connected all things is the primary focus. Actually, everything else is secondary.

Turning the board upside down, I began with the sky in complementary tones of yellows and purple. Knowing the bits of castle and bridge that appear would be darker, I determined that it wasn’t necessary to hold any edges there.

Working on the Water

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


Before the sky dried completely, I turned the board upright to lay in the tones of the water. I matched the hues of the sky to enhance the sense of reflection and the idea of connection. I was careful to maintain the pure white of the slanting fog.

Adding the Landmarks

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


Before the sky or water areas dried completely, I used more earthy tones for the castle and the bridge. I wanted them to “melt” into the water and sky to enhance the idea of mystery and a sense of connection — and to help imply the effect of distance and perspective.

Applying Value

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


I placed in the foreground elements of the bridge and statues. The sky behind was now nearly dry, so I could hold clean edges where needed. I used a water mister to help blend away any unwanted edges before establishing a bold sense of depth, perspective and drama by using darker values.

I used rather theatrical complements of color to imply warm reflections of bounced light under the deep arches against the cooler tones above and below.

Adding the Final Details

Thomas Schaller atmosphere watercolor landscape ArtistsNetwork


As the painting dried, I created just a hint of a dark foreground. And lastly, I added a few small details here and there. The foggy atmosphere didn’t warrant more.

More importantly, I wanted to engage the viewer’s imagination — trying to conjure what can’t be seen—in Fog on the Tiber, Rome (watercolor on paper, 30×22).

See more of Thomas Schaller’s work, his workshop schedule, his books and more at thomasschaller.com.

And be sure to stay tuned for his new series of video workshops all about designing powerful watercolors, including lessons on perspective, the magic of complements and painting dramatic atmosphere. Coming this September 2017, you can find this series at northlightshop.com and on ArtistsNetwork.tv. In the meantime, be sure to check out his other video workshops streaming now on ArtistsNetwork.tv.

*Editorial contributions made by McKenzie Graham and Maria Woodie

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