Perspective 101: What is Atmospheric Perspective in Art?

what is atmospheric perspective in art?

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Do your landscape paintings always feel a bit off?? OR! Even if you’ve mastered linear perspective as everyone recommends, do your paintings still come out too flat?

If you’re facing this problem or any similar problems, what you might be missing is knowledge of atmospheric perspective.

As for what that is and how it can help you improve the realism in your paintings, read on to learn more!

What is Atmospheric Perspective?

Atmospheric perspective (also called aerial perspective) refers to the application of atmospheric effects in a composition.

Put another way, atmospheric perspective refers to the techniques used by artists to account for the natural phenomena of the atmosphere and how they affect distant objects. For example, objects in a distance tend to go out of focus. For another example, distant objects tend to appear cooler in color temperature because of how blue light waves bounce in the atmosphere.

These things, which seem like they should appear in a science textbook rather than an art book, must be accounted for in a painting in order to make it more realistic and true to nature.

How to Use Atmospheric Perspective in Art?

Atmospheric perspective is a bit difficult to explain based on words alone, so let’s get to the how-to-tutorial we’ve prepared for creating realistic paintings with the use of atmospheric perspective.

For this tutorial, we’ll be using one of J.M.W. Turner’s masterworks, called “The Fighting Temeraire” as a reference:

Step 1. Plan Your Composition

plan your composition
Painting by J. M. W. Turner

The first step in using atmospheric perspective starts all the way back to when you’re first planning the composition of your painting.

You need to identify the elements in your composition and their placements so that you can determine how the atmosphere affects them based on reality. To keep things brief:

  • Foreground: Foreground objects are in focus and have the highest saturation.
  • Middle-Ground: As things recede into the distance, they become out of focus.
  • Background: The distant mountains, ships, and structures in the background of the painting are the most out-of-focus. The colors have also turned cooler and more neutral.

These are just a summary of how the atmosphere affects the depiction of elements in a painting according to their placement in the composition. More detail will be provided below.

For now, your focus should be on identifying these key elements in a loose sketch so that you’ll know how to proceed later on.

Step 2. Linear Perspective – Determine the Horizon Line

linear perspective

Next, it’s time to identify the horizon line according to the rules of linear perspective. This will be crucial to determining where the atmospheric effect will be placed in your painting and can help you better create the illusion of depth in your painting.

Step 3. Apply Atmospheric Effects – Blue Light

apply atmospheric effects - blue light

One of the main atmospheric effects that must be accounted for is blue light.

Blue light waves penetrate the atmosphere most easily, which is why the sky appears blue. The color blue itself has a short wavelength, it is the most likely to be scattered, which also tints distant objects that recede into the distance in blue.

You can observe this phenomenon in nature and find distant mountains or distant hills cast in a bluish tint. Accordingly, in the reference photo above, it can be observed that the distant hills, distant buildings, and distant ships have been painted blue to mimic this natural phenomenon and create an illusion of depth in the painting.

Step 4. Differentiate Between Close and Distant Objects with Color Hue

close and distant objects with color hue

The next effect of the atmosphere on objects based on their placement in the composition involves color saturation. The basic gist is as follows:

  • Foreground objects should be painted in warm and saturated colors. This will make objects in the foreground appear more vivid and closer to the viewer. In the painting above, the tugboat pointed out with a red arrow is painted in bolder and richer colors. Which attracts the viewer’s eye and makes it look closer.
  • Meanwhile, the old warship behind the tugboat has been desaturated and is composed mostly of cooler and paler colors. This creates a sense of distance from the objects closest to the viewer (the tugboat) and completes the illusion of depth.

You might ask, what if the objects closest to the viewer are naturally cooler in color temperature whilst those in the distance are warmer in color temperature?

An example of this would be if you were to paint this painting backward with the old warship painted in red whilst the tugboat is in pale blue. If this is the case, then you may want to adjust the composition to get the best effect.

But if you want to maintain an illusion of depth, it is crucial to remember that objects closer are more saturated and distant objects are desaturated. This should not be changed no matter what the conditions are.

Step 5. Adjust Value to Add Depth

adjust value to add depth
Detail of the bottom right corner in The Fighting Temeraire by J. M. W. Turner

Humans have a natural tendency to see fine details based on ‘contrast sensitivity’. This means that if you paint closer objects in higher contrast, they will naturally be more prominent in the viewer’s eyes. As such, the general rules for this step are as follows:

  • Far Away Objects! In order to create depth and a complete sense of space. Distant objects should be painted in less contrast.
  • Close Objects! An object in the foreground should be the highest in contrast (with darker values and the lightest values as highlights.)

The best example of this is the water in the reference painting above. The water in the distance has low contrast whilst the water in the foreground is high in contrast.

This atmospheric perspective principle is also based on a natural phenomenon in real life. Objects in a distance have a lower luminescence contrast because of the scattering of the light source in the atmosphere. As for how this works, let’s work it out in the next step:

Step 6. Apply Atmospheric Effects – Scattering of Light

scattering of light

Continuing on from the previous aerial perspective principle, we have the principle of scattering light in the atmosphere.

Before, we mentioned that blue light waves have shorter wavelengths and scatter light more heavily in the atmosphere (Rayleigh scattering), causing a bluish hue in items at a distance. However, we did not mention that the scattering of these light waves will cause those distant objects to be blurred.

Again, have a look at the waters in the painting above and you’ll see how this atmospheric perspective technique is applied in the painting.

That is, the waters closest to the viewer are in focus whilst the waters furthest away are so out of focus that they blend into the distant mountains.

Step 7. Apply Principles of Linear Perspective

apply principles of linear perspective
(Image Source)

Finally, let’s talk about linear perspective. Just because linear and atmospheric perspective are considered two different types of perspective in art, doesn’t mean that they aren’t used in conjunction.

This was already demonstrated when we talked about horizon lines earlier. Other things, such as perspective lines, vanishing points, etc. also apply. You can learn about those separately in a different article about perspective if you haven’t brushed up on your art knowledge recently.

For now, let’s talk about how the way objects interact with each other will affect the atmospheric perspective of a given composition:

Size is one thing that you need to keep in mind when adjusting the atmospheric perspective of a given artwork. In the reference painting above, the tugboat closer to the viewer is obviously smaller in size than the warship. But in the painting, it’s almost the same width as the larger warship behind it.

This type of size variation is a basic perspective rule that can help you convey depth.

Similarly, creating overlapping shapes like the tugboat and warship above is a great way to establish spatial relationships between objects.

BONUS! Add Additional Atmospheric Effects

add additional atmospheric effects
“Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway” by J. M. W. Turner

If you want to play more wildly with atmospheric perspective, you can add additional atmospheric effects via mist, rain, fog, etc.

A good example of this can be seen in J.M.W Turner’s “The Greatest Western Railway”, which is shown above. The mist rising from the waters, the steam from the engine, and the rain in the distance create a composition filled with tension and a sense of rush which is just right when accompanied by a speeding train that is going so fast its details can barely be seen.

5 Quick TRICKS to Create Atmospheric Perspective in Art

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of how atmospheric perspective is meant to be used in a painting. If you’re still a little confused, here’s a more straightforward list of the most useful tips and tricks you can use to create atmospheric perspective in your art:

Trick #1. Adjust the Size of Objects

Key Effect: An object decreases in size as it recedes.

As mentioned before, the size of objects in a painting is very crucial to creating the illusion of depth in the painting. To give you an idea of how this atmospheric trick works, have a look at the realistic still life in the painting below…

size of objects
“Still Life With Musical Instruments on a Laid Table” by Pieter Claesz

The violin in the foreground is painted MUCH larger than the violin in the background. This illustrates the distance between the two. That is, despite the two violins being the same object, one is painted smaller than the other because of their placement in the composition.

Trick #2. Adjust Contrast

Key Effect: As an object recedes, the value contrast between it and the background reduces.

Next, let’s talk about the use of contrast in atmospheric perspective. This was mentioned before, but to summarize, objects in the foreground are depicted in the lightest highlights and the darkest lights — making them look quite detailed. Meanwhile, background objects will have such low contrast that they almost melt together with the surroundings.

adjust contrast
“Maiolica Basket of Fruit” by Fede Galizia

The grapes in the painting above are a great example of this. If you take a close look at the grapes at the very back of the basket, you can see that the value separations have diminished making those grapes melt into the background.

Trick #3. Adjust Detail

Key Effect: As an object recedes, the detail in it decreases.

Continuing on the pattern of ‘decreasing as you go in the distance’, we have diminishing detail. As can be seen in the image below, according to atmospheric perspective, the detail of objects in a painting must decrease as it recedes.

adjust detail
“Peasants in an Interior” by Adriaen van Ostade

More specifically, have a look at the carefully rendered dog in the foreground. It’s painted in detail and given more texture; so much more that you can see clear strands separating the black and white hair. Meanwhile, the figures in the back have melted in the background to the point where their facial figures can no longer be seen.

Trick #4. Adjust Saturation

Key Effect: An object will desaturate as it recedes into the distance.

Again, we have to talk about ‘decreasing’ things as they recede. This time, it’s the color saturation that’s decreasing. In the painting by William Scott below, you can see clearly that the objects in the foreground are colored in bright and bold colors. Meanwhile, the objects in the back have been neutralized and the saturation of colors has decreased.

adjust saturation
“Iron and Coal” by William Bell Scott

Trick #5. Add Bluish Tint

Key Effect: An object in the distance will take on a bluish tint.

Finally, let’s talk about the blue light waves that we mentioned at the beginning of the atmospheric perspective how-to-tutorial. These light waves have a tendency to scatter more than other light waves. As such, in landscape paintings like the one shown below, you can see that distant objects take on a bluish tint.

add bluish tint
“Travelers Awaiting a Ferry” by Philips Wouwerman 

What Is the History of Atmospheric Perspective?

Atmospheric perspective has been around for quite a while. It used to be more popularly called “Aerial Perspective” — which is a term that was first utilized by the famous artist, Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci was also the first person to define atmospheric perspective clearly, saying, “Colour becomes weaker in proportion to their distance”.

history of atmospheric perspective
“Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci 

Back then, those famous artists knew nothing about how light waves interacted with each other. They observed these phenomena with their own eyes and applied them to their paintings so that they could make their works closer to life.

It should be noted that atmospheric perspective disappeared for a while before coming back in full force during the 15th century and the famous J.M.W. Turner showing off its effects in the best form during the 19th century.

Final Thoughts: The Importance of Atmospheric Perspective in Art

Atmospheric perspective is important in art because it is crucial to creating the illusion of space in paintings. By learning its main principles, you can better illustrate depth and demonstrate the distance between objects.

If you have the time, try to set up more painting exercises involving this topic so that these techniques can be truly embedded in your brain.

Of course, you don’t have to make things so complicated for yourself if you don’t have to. There are plenty of art exercises that can be found in Pro Art Courses on perspective online. Check them out now to see how they can improve your painting skills! It will be a lot easier to follow the guidance of a master than to clumsily fumble through things by yourself.

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