If there is one thing that landscape artists should learn, it is painting the illusion of distance. I say illusion because that is just what it is, after all, it’s just paint!
One of the biggest problems facing artists that paint from photos is that photos rarely depict real life distance. I have seen this problem often in paintings where distant objects are the same or similar tones to things that are in the foreground. All that drawing and detailed painting can be perfect but if there are no tones that depict distance, then the painting is flat and lacking. I know it is a quite punishing statement, but the solutions are simple enough if we are interested.
First and foremost, we have to unshackle our thinking from the grip of the photograph. The photograph demands out attention and silently insists on us copying it even when doing so is not going to produce a good painting. The power of the reference photo is so strong that if we stray from it we actually think we have failed and conversely if we end up with a painting that looks exactly like the photo we think it is successful. Of course, both things are wrong.
Success is more likely when we just regard the reference as a guide. It is one thing to read it but quite another to actually implement this thinking. It takes conscious thought from the beginning of the painting till the end.
Next, is real life observation. Getting out and looking at the effects of distance on colour and tone is crucial. Every time you step out of the house you should be looking for it. The more you see it and understand it the better your paintings are going to become. There is nothing like Plein Air painting in getting our brains to switch on to the colours and tones of distance.
The blur of distance is largely lost in photographs - particularly snapshots in which the focus is on everything. In real life, when we look at one thing, the rest becomes out of focus. We should paint similarly to this too if we want to produce works that have depth. Getting into the habit of even slightly blurring distant objects will have us on the way to producing paintings with great depth. Add to this a little bluing off as things get further away and we will be using something called atmospheric or aerial perspective. It's where everything is turning into the colour of the sky the further away it is - even mountain ranges do!