One of the greatest tools that a landscape painter can employ to heighten the appearance of depth in a painting is the effect of aerial perspective, also referred to as atmospheric perspective. The amount of atmospheric conditions present in a scene and the relative distance of the viewed objects from the observer govern the effect’s severity during daylight conditions. Molecules of air combined with water vapor, dust and pollution all act to scatter skylight that is made up of short wavelengths of light. These short wavelengths appear blue, which is why most skies appear bluish. As the distance between the object and viewer increases, the scattered light effect compounds. This decreases the perceived contrast of the object with its background and shifts it toward the color of the background. Since the background is usually blue in appearance, it will have a cooling effect on the objects appearance. An exception to this occurs at sunrise or sunset when distant colors appear redder. As objects recede at this time of day, they appear to become warmer.
Aerial/atmospheric perspective is one of my “Big Three” concepts along with the law of simultaneous contrast and focal points. Students hear me constantly encouraging them to employ it to create a heightened sense of depth within the confines of their paintings. Recently, while teaching in the countryside of France, I was handed a perfect opportunity to yet again expound its virtues.
The Dordogne and Lot River region of Southwest France is rich in history and beauty. The setting of the 100-year war between England and France, its hilltops are dotted with castles and bastides (fortified towns). These provided beautiful views into the rich river valleys below and allowed us to see much farther into the distance due to the hilltop elevation. This produced the other definition of aerial perspective: to be elevated looking down. The winding rivers, receding layers of trees and structures, and cultivated fields were all laid out, affording a perfect vantage point upon which to perceive the effects of aerial/atmospheric perspective. While painting in this setting, it was easy to witness and thus employ the effect.
But Mother Nature doesn’t always grant this degree of obvious aerial/atmospheric perspective. When you find yourself in one of those settings, my advice is to employ your artistic license and put some in anyway. As things recede, let detail become harder to differentiate, decrease value contrast, make the appearance of colors cooler, and weaken color intensity (chroma). It’s okay to be a bit dramatic. Your audience will perceive more depth within the confines of the composition. When a flat painting surface produces this effect propelling the viewer into the scene, it is one of the greatest illusions an artist can create.
Free Download: 5 Simple Effects to Gain Atmospheric Perspective in Your Art
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