The Secret Techniques I Use to Paint That Hazy Mood

Grab a good, flexible sable brush and some airbrush medium

The past few years I’ve developed a technique where my paintings have a hazy mood that creates a misty feel. It’s very much inspired by the #mistyfoggymoodymilky hashtag I discovered on Instagram a few years ago. I began taking my own Instagram shots with this sort of feel and eventually incorporated it into my abstract paintings.

Abstract landscape with pink and orange sky

Most of the time I make snapshots of foggy landscapes, taken in the car while taking the kids to school in the mornings. Nashville is pretty humid so there is always a little bit of mist in the air. I live between two lakes, and most mornings there is at least a touch of fog especially in the low-lying fields near my kids’ school. This is prime material for painting reference photos.

My usual painting process looks like this:

  1.  take moody snapshots with a little bit of fog and atmosphere
  2. juice the photos up on my phone, usually with a warm-to-cool tone (orange to turquoise works really well for me)
  3. tone the canvas with orange
  4. mass in the dark areas
  5. gradually build up layers of color, keeping grayer, cool colors in the distance and warm colors in the foreground

My first weapon is my brush

A flat brush will apply a long, smooth line.

The real secret to the haze is in my brushes. I prefer a sable brush with flexible bristles. If the bristles are too stiff, they will put down thick, fat layers of paint. Boar or hog bristle (and their synthetic counterparts) put down a thick, short stroke, regardless of the bristle length. I’ve found the long sable hairs to be better at putting down smooth strokes that I can then build up slowly to get that luminous effect. Then I gently brush the back and forth and allow it to blend.

Then I make sure I use the right medium

4 oz. bottle of Golden Airbrush Medium

Another important tool I use is airbrush medium. It gives the paint a lot of flow without diluting the pigment. You can make the acrylic paint thin and runny (which is great for drips) by adding water, but that breaks up the pigment and as it dries it leaves tiny pockets of pigment separated from each other. Maybe that’s what you’re going for, but it isn’t what I want to have happen on the canvas! So airbrush medium makes a thick acrylic paint into a liquid paint. It’s easier to glaze with it now.

Years ago I realized I had a tendency to blend the paint. I felt it was a flaw, because at the time, I wanted vibrant strokes next to each other. In my impatience I would blend them. Eventually I embraced the blending and my paintings became very smooth, and it was sort of a hallmark of my work. It’s my version of the classic glazing method, really.

Now I use that technique to create fog and haze by adding thin layers of transparent white (which is harder than it sounds because white is pretty opaque). Fog became an important metaphor for my work, since I believe that no matter how unclear things are, you can still find your way. Now I embrace that ambiguity of life and readily admit that I don’t have all the answers, and I’m okay with that.

So that’s how I get that hazy effect. I use flexible sable brushes and airbrush medium. Which reminds me, I need to make a run to the art supply store and restock.