How to Render Atmospheric Perspective in Painting
Two Causes of Changes on How We See Things
When we look at a landscape, two factors affect how we see things.
- Distance. The further away from us, the smaller things are. This reduction in 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 point, depending on the point of view and how the objects are positioned. This is called Linear Perspective.
- Air, or Atmosphere. The air between the viewer and 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 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.
Why Do We Get 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 in humid days, when everything, even up close, looks 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 day-time 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.
Keeping those characteristics in mind, below are some 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.
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.
Also, 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.
Experiment, Make Some Studies
Atmospheric Perspective in One of my Paintings
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, it 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.
Visual Example of Atmospheric Perspective
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 were not known, artists would paint the background of the same value of 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
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Robie Benve