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How to Use Atmospheric Perspective to Create Depth in Your Paintings

Atmospheric perspective (or aerial perspective) refers to how the atmosphere affects how we see objects as they recede into the distance. Atmospheric perspective indicates that as an object recedes into the distance relative to the viewer, we see that object with reduced clarity, value and color saturation. In addition, objects in the distance appear to have a relatively cool color temperature.

In this post I will go into some more detail on what atmospheric perspective is and how you can use it to create the illusion of depth in your paintings.

Atmospheric and Linear Perspective

There are two types of perspective – atmospheric and linear. As noted above, atmospheric perspective refers to how the atmosphere affects how we see things. Linear perspective on the other hand refers to the relative size of objects and how an object appears smaller as it recedes into the distance.

Knowledge of both atmospheric and linear perspective is essential for learning how to paint with accuracy. But most of the time when we think of perspective we only consider linear perspective.

Leonardo da Vinci was one artist who understood the importance of atmospheric perspective and, based on his extensive writing on the subject, considered it to be of equal importance to linear perspective in painting. Many of da Vinci’s paintings have an almost ethereal feel to them due to a clever use of atmospheric perspective to create the illusion of depth.

Atmospheric Perspective and Realism

Atmospheric and linear perspective are both essential parts of creating realistic paintings as they reflect how we actually see things. However, linear perspective is much easier to demonstrate when architectural elements are present (like in the painting below by John Singer Sargent). Obviously in landscape and seascape paintings, architectural elements are not always present, so we must instead rely more on atmospheric perspective to create the illusion of depth.

The 4 Keys to Creating the Illusion of Atmospheric Perspective

1. Texture

Texture can refer to two things:

– The physical texture of your paint; or

– The illusion of texture in your painting (for example, using the scumble technique to create the illusion of dry bark on the side of a tree).

To create the illusion of depth in your paintings, you can use more texture in the foreground contrast against a much smoother background. This reflects how we actually see detail. When you are looking at a landscape scene, you are able to see all the tiny details and textures in the foreground – all those stones, strands of grass, branches, insects, plants, etc. You can paint these details with increased texture in the foreground, both with a physical build-up of paint and with increased activity in your brushwork and colors.

But as you look further into the distance, all these little details and textures disappear and smooth out into a general mass of colors and shapes.

2. Value

Value is how light or dark something is, on a scale of black to white (with black being the lowest value and white being the highest value). You can read more about value in this post.

3. Clarity

This is a simple concept but one which beginners seem to struggle with. When you look at an object in the distance, it will appear to have much less clarity and detail than when you view that same object up close.

4. Color Temperature And Saturation

Generally, the color temperature of an object tends to shift towards the cool side (which is on our left in the color wheel below and includes the blues, purples and greens) as it recedes into the distance. Colors also appear less saturated (less intense) in the distance.