The Two Ts of Painting | Theory and Technique, Part 2 | Atmospheric Perspective

Part two of the discussions on theory and technique will cover one of my favorite painting tools—atmospheric perspective.  Often referred to as aerial perspective, atmospheric perspective references the compounded effect that air and light have on objects as they recede.  As the reflective light off the object filters its way through the intervening air to the viewer’s eyes (referred to as the line of sight), the contrast between the object and its surroundings diminish, detail decreases, color saturation (chroma) weakens and shifts towards the skylight color, which is generally blue unless it is sunrise or sunset.

Artists have been portraying the effect in western art since the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci referenced it in his notebooks as “the perspective of disappearance.” The effect is well demonstrated in his paintings of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. This is a topic I frequently discuss (most recently in the blog dated July 25, 2011) and one that I constantly encourage students to dramatize. Today I want to discuss how to use it to heighten the sense of depth in your pastel landscape paintings.

Atmospheric perspective | Richard McKinley,

A painting in which the foreground blue reflection was purposefully painted darker and more saturated than it appeared to heighten the effect of atmospheric perspective.

Most of us understand that the tenets of atmospheric perspective rely on objects appearing less contrasted, lighter in value, cooler in color temperature (more blue), and weaker in color saturation (grayer) as they recede. Sounds simple, right? But what do we do when confronted with a landscape composition in which the foreground is dominated by a cool object, such as a body of reflective blue water, and the background has the only warm object, such as a red barn? When confronting this situation, it is imperative to apply the “relative rule.” Here we reference back to the theory of “simultaneous contrast” discussed in the previous posting. Everything is relative to its context. Ask yourself, “If I had a body of blue water in the background and a red object similar to the barn in the foreground, could I make them appear to reside there?” If the answer is yes, then you selected wisely. If not, an adjustment to the color temperature, value, and chroma may be in order.

Understanding how bright whites, rich blacks and various colors manifest the effects of atmospheric perspective can be very useful. As they recede into the background, bright whites and rich blacks tend to lean towards medium gray with black showing the most value shift. Of the three basic hues of the color wheel, yellow fades the quickest, followed by red, with blue retaining it clarity the farthest. If we apply this reasoning to our example of the foreground blue water and background red barn, we would paint the blue water slightly darker and more saturated in chroma, and the red barn lighter and bluer (violet) with less chroma saturation (grayer) than it might appear in reality.

Even when it is not apparent, atmospheric perspective, whether slightly hinted at or dramatically emphasized, is a powerful tool. Remember the “relativity rule” and apply its logic to your paintings. When well orchestrated, you will hear the declaration: “I feel like I can walk right into the scene. It is as if I am there!”

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