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How to Render Atmospheric Perspective in Painting

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

How do you represent distance and depth in art? Learn aerial perspective and tips on how to render distant objects in painting.

How do you represent distance and depth in art? Learn aerial perspective and tips on how to render distant objects in painting.

Two Causes of Changes on How We See Things

When we look at a landscape, two factors affect how we see things.

  1. Distance: The further away from us, the smaller things are. This reduction in the size of things that are closer to the horizon happens gradually and proportionally, according to a geometric rule that may have one, two, or three vanishing points, depending on the point of view and how the objects are positioned. This is called Linear Perspective.
  2. Air or Atmosphere: The air between the viewer and object acts as a natural filter. Looking at objects close to us we don't notice it, but the bigger the amount of air between us and an object, the more we can perceive changes in how we see. As the amount of air in between increases with distance, it creates a visual filter.

In general, the further away things are from us, the duller the colors get, and the details of the objects disappear. As we look at things in the distance, near the horizon, we see them lighter, foggier, and more bluish or cooler in color. This is called Aerial (or Atmospheric) Perspective, and it's the focus of this article.

The road gets smaller closer to the horizon, towards a vanishing point (linear perspective) and receding objects lose their details (aerial perspective).

The road gets smaller closer to the horizon, towards a vanishing point (linear perspective) and receding objects lose their details (aerial perspective).

What Causes Aerial Perspective?

The air surrounding us contains tiny particles of moisture, dust, and other “floating” bits that create an almost invisible filter. You can notice these particles more on humid days, when everything, even up close, look grayer.

When things are far away, you have to look through a lot of "air" to see them, this makes far objects less distinct. Looking at the horizon, distant hills or lands fade lighter and lighter under the influence of the "air filter".

This can clearly be seen driving on a straight road surrounded by trees. The clusters of trees are darker and warmer close to us and become lighter and cooler looking toward the horizon.

How to Paint Distant Objects in Landscapes

The air in front of us has one main light source: the sun. Whether it's a sunny or a cloudy day, it does not matter, the sun is always the strongest light source in a daytime landscape. The atmospheric filter is influenced by the color and the position of the sun. The particles suspended in the atmosphere reflect the color of the sky, whether it’s bright and clear or totally foggy.

Tips for Painting Recession and Depth

  • Closer to the sky color: Use the color of the sky to lighten any object as it recedes. This will make receding objects fade in color and slowly shift to blue, usually, or whatever color your sky is.
  • Fewer details: If a tree is close to us we can see all the wrinkles on the trunk and each leaf, but the same tree further away will appear as a simplified shape, without all the particulars. Receding objects lose their details, textures and surface details will almost disappear.
  • Low-value contrast: Distance and atmosphere cause the value contrast between objects and between light and dark parts of the same element, to decrease compared to closer ones. As an object recedes, lights and darks begin to merge.

Tips for Rendering Aerial Perspective in Painting

When painting a landscape, one of the challenges is how to render recession and depth.

  • Look at your scene, either from life or from a photo, and pay attention to how the values (dark/light) and colors of the elements change as the eye moves from the foreground to the back of the scene. When painting, try to push those shifts, exaggerating a little.
  • Achieve atmospheric perspective by using less intense, more neutral color as you move back through the painting. The colors of things in the distance are usually cooler in temperature and lighter in value. One way to do this is to mix the sky color into the color of the far objects.
  • Use stronger value contrast in the foreground, and use lighter colors, closer in value in the background. The difference in value is very important to create the impression of depth.
  • Look down a road that goes towards the horizon, sided by trees. You’ll notice that not only the road gets narrower and the trees shorter, but also the colors and the tones change as described above.

Example of Atmospheric Perspective

Looking at the picture below, each line delimits an abstract shape.

  • Photo A: Each shape is colored with a tone of red starting with a dark shade in the front and gradually moving to a very light one. Our mind sees this and "reads" it as a mountainous landscape, even if they were just abstract shapes.
  • Photo B: Inverting the gradation of the color, from light in the front to dark in the back, loses the landscape effect because our eyes are used to read landscapes with colors fading towards the horizon. Though in rare cases this could actually happen (i.e. when looking at a scene with strong, cool light coming from our back), it's usually not the case.

This example is only showing the lightening effect of atmospheric perspective. When rendering a landscape, artists would have to factor in also other effects, as explained below.

Read More From Feltmagnet

Visual Example of Atmospheric Perspective

An aerial perspective example—our mind reads image (A) as a landscape because it has colors fading towards the horizon.

An aerial perspective example—our mind reads image (A) as a landscape because it has colors fading towards the horizon.

Discovery of Perspective in the Renaissance Age

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to understand and apply aerial and linear perspective. You can see it in many of his paintings, including the famous Mona Lisa.

Before the Renaissance period, when linear and aerial perspective was not known, artists would paint the background of the same value as the foreground, competing for attention. The scale of the elements in a painting would be off, with things far away too big to look realistically remote. Discovering the rules of perspective improved tremendously the ability to render depth.

Atmospheric perspective in the renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to understand and apply aerial and linear perspective.

Atmospheric perspective in the renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to understand and apply aerial and linear perspective.

© 2012 Robie Benve

Comments

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 01, 2012:

Hi carol7777, Marcy, and kittyjj, I'm happy you found my hub interesting. Thanks a lot for your feedback and support! :)

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on September 29, 2012:

Aerial Perspective is one of the fundamental skills an artist needs to learn. I remembered the many hours and days that I had spent on school assignments doing aerial perspective drawings.

Voted up and useful!

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on September 29, 2012:

I love your example of the use of light and dark shading to cue the eye to distance! One of the "Ah-ha" moments in my Humanities classes is when I show students the difference in the flat look of earlier pieces of art, and then show examples of what art looked like after Brunelleschi, etc. They can immediately see the difference.

Great and informative hub! Voted up and up!!!

carol stanley from Arizona on September 28, 2012:

I always enjoy your "art hubs" and I look to learn new things. Now I just have to get back to painting..Great explanatory pictures. Voted UP +++