What Is Aerial Perspective?

There are two types of perspective that artists use when painting and drawing. Aerial perspective is one and is described as the use of gradations in color and definition to suggest distance. The other, linear perspective, is what we call the use of parallel lines converging on the horizon to convey depth. Learning to handle these useful tools will heighten the appearance of distance in our paintings.Simply put, aerial perspective means the atmospheric distance between objects in a painting. Depending on our relationship to the objects, and the relative distance involved, this can be quite apparent. The heavier the atmosphere, the more pronounced the effect. Lower elevations that commonly have higher amounts of moisture in the air are the easiest to witness the effect. The drier the atmosphere, and the higher the elevation, the less apparent it becomes. If we were suspended above our scene (say, in the sky), we would understand the spacing of individual objects and would want to relate that distance in our paintings conceived from ground level.

Shadows by Richard McKinley

When observing the natural world, we confront two sources of light: the warm sun—the basis of all light—and the cool canopy of atmosphere that surrounds the earth. Think of the sun as a light bulb and the atmosphere as the lampshade. The sun strikes objects much the way a light bulb would in an indoor situation with the atmosphere as a lampshade diffusing the sunlight and casting a flat even light over a broad expanse. If we relate this analogy to the landscape, we understand that as things recede in the distance, they receive more and more atmospheric light, making them lighter and cooler. Artists have manipulated this tendency for a heightened effect of distance in their landscapes for centuries.

I follow a simple recipe when applying aerial perspective to my paintings: make things cooler (bluer), lighter in value, and a little softer as they recede. I embrace the attitude that when we paint we manipulate the viewer into believing something is real that is not really there—a form of magic. It’s but a flat surface with pigment applied. By utilizing the effect of aerial perspective, artists can do just that.

In my painting, Long Shadows (above), I purposely made the large cast shadow in the foreground warmer and darker near the bottom, though in reality it looked pretty much he same. The effect is that you feel a heightened sense of distance as you journey through the painting back to the old stone structure.

Free Download: 5 Simple Effects to Gain Atmospheric Perspective in Your Art

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