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Aerial Perspective - Part Two

In last month’s newsletter we talked about “aerial perspective”, or atmosphere and its visual effects. Here is a summary of the highlights:

The effects of atmosphere on objects:

  • they diminish as they recede from the viewer’s eye
  • they become less focused
  • they begin to cluster, lose individuality and form masses
  • they become duller and grayer
  • they lose intensity and value


The effects of atmosphere on color:

  • all colors, except white become cooler as they recede
  • of the three primaries, yellow is the first to lose its identity
  • red persists quite a bit longer
  • blue (the coolest primary) is the ultimate survivor

This is indeed a very basic list. For a more comprehensive analysis, see last month’s newsletter “Aerial Perspective” – January 2011.

To help drive home the point, I thought it might be a good idea to paint a couple of demonstration paintings, applying the principles of “aerial perspective”.

I selected a small oil painting as a model for my watercolor.

“In the High Country” 9x12 oil

Because I’m saddled with the inconvenience of stopping to shoot incremental photos, I decide to use a layered approach.

Step One:

I begin with a few selected lines to indicate the placement of some main objects. This is all the drawing I want to do. If I render everything, my inclination will be to “stay within the lines”, which will constrict spontaneity. The actual lines are fairly light. I enhanced them, in this photo, to make them more visible.


Step Two:

I wash in the sky and distant mountain area with a wash of Alizarin Crimson and Cobalt Blue. Notice that this wash covers the snow areas on the distant mountain. We know that white is the only color that darkens and warms as it recedes. Now the distant mountain snow will not compete with the pure, white snow in my immediate foreground.

While that initial wash is still wet, I charge in a fairly intense wash of Cerulean Blue underneath it, and allow the two washes to blend.

While that is drying, I jump to the foreground and introduce some warm washes of Cadmium Yellow, Indian Red and Viridian. These warm, intense mixtures will (as in real life) move forward, and push my cooler, distant masses away.
Notice I leave some white paper for my foreground snow.


Step Three:

Now I come back into my sky area with a slightly darker version of my initial wash (Cobalt Blue, Alizarin Crimson), and model my distant mountain and the top of the cloudbank. With some Cerulean Blue, mixed with a touch of Cobalt Blue, I model some distant snow underneath the cloudbank – softening a few of the cloud edges with pure water.


Step Four:

With a very light wash of Indian Red, mixed down with Cobalt Blue, I model the light-struck area of my distant mountain, leaving some snow masses. Using some clear water, I lose this into my cloudbank. I darken the shadowed side leaving some areas untouched to act as shadowed snow masses. Painting this over the initial cool sky wash has dulled, and grayed, the intensity of my colors, which is exactly what happens to masses seen through veils of atmosphere. My foreground snow now seems much whiter and more intense. Perfect.

When that last passage is about dry, I paint in the closer mountain with Cobalt Blue and Alizarin Crimson, and fade it out in the middle plane. While that passage is wet, I charge in some brush loads of Hansa Yellow Light, which has a cool lemon cast. The darkness of the value, and the slight warmth of the yellow really push back my distant mountain. Nonetheless, the colors of that middle mountain are not as warm and intense as my foreground, and so it takes its place in the middle ground.


Step Five:

Now, with a one-inch flat brush, I suggest some light, gray violet pine trees. These will make up my distant forest, and some of these will be visible later, giving the illusion of distance.

Before the above passage totally dries, (using Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and New Gamboge) I slam in some intense foreground foliage. Since this is a close, upright plane, and it will ultimately border my dark, closest pines, it is necessary that this mass be dark in value.

Notice how the intense color and dark value of this mass has pushed my middle mountain further away.



Step Six:

Using Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge and only a touch of violet (to gray the mixture), I introduce a row of darker pines that will become the middle of my forest. Now you begin to feel the layers of atmosphere floating through the distance. There’s a real sense of ether down in that valley.


Step Seven:

With a flat brush, and a darker mixture of Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge and Alizarin Crimson, I strike in my darkest, and closest pines. I scratch out some of the trunks with the back of my brush, and others have a touch of Naples Yellow and Indian Red.  With this finished, and my darkest value established, everything in the landscape has assumed its proper place.


Final Step:

I go in and tone down some of my foreground snow patches. Then I overpaint and scumble in the grass area, to give it texture and interest.

I feel like the painting has the sense of atmosphere and depth that I was going after – and so I leave it as it is.

“In the High Country” 11x15 wc

For the oil demonstration, I choose another mountain scene. Although the principles of aerial perspective apply in virtually every landscape, it’s much easier to demonstrate the effects of atmosphere when there’s some distance involved.

In the following demonstration, I will state which pigments I’m using. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to mention white, because it’s basically implied that white will be used to occasionally lighten some mixtures.

Step One:

Using combinations of Viridian, Transparent Oxide Red and Quinacridone Gold, I begin by scumbling in some warm tones in my foreground. I’m setting the stage for my landscape, and, even at this point, you can see that the cold white of the upper canvas has receded into the distance. These are thin strokes, with very little pigment. They will set up fairly quickly, and I’ll be able to paint over them with less risk of creating mud.


Step Two:

I mass in my distant mountain with thin mixtures of Cobalt Blue and Terra Rosa. Since yellow is the first of the primaries to drop out of the landscape as it recedes from the eye, and red hangs in bit longer, my gray violet mixture immediately takes its place in the distance.

Step Three:

Using a slightly darker mixture of Cobalt Blue and Terra Rosa, I begin to suggest some cloud cover, and I negatively carve out my distant mountain. Those light warm tones from the last step suddenly take on the appearance of a snow mass. I soften and lose some edges between the mountain, the clouds and the sky. Because objects lose their definition as they recede, the soft edges strengthen my illusion of distance.

Step Four:

I continue with the same Cobalt Blue, Terra Rosa combination, I’m modeling my mass, paying close attention to edges and values. I don’t want to overwork this area, and I don’t want a whole bunch of detail. So I keep the values close, and the edges out of focus. This will assist in keeping my mountain from competing with the more detailed foreground. If you squint at this area, I think you will see that it reads as a distant mass. I consider this passage finished.


Step Five:

With Cobalt Blue, Terra Rosa, and a slight amount of Hansa Yellow, I suggest a line of pine trees on the ridge. Because they are closer, they are a slightly darker value than my mountains. However, I keep them massed and somewhat out of focus.

I begin to darken, and enrich my foreground mass, and I add some cooler tones as it recedes towards the ridgeline.


Step Six:

With a mixture of Ultramarine Blue, Quinacridone Gold, and some touches of Cadmium Yellow Light and Alizarin Crimson, I render some large and small pines. These are the rich darks I need in my foreground to push all the other elements into the distance.

I know from experience that white is the only color that gets warmer and darker as it recedes. So when I ladle on my foreground snow, using white and a bare touch of Hansa Yellow, the snow on the distant mountain looks as if you are viewing it through layers of moisture ridden atmosphere.

At this point in the painting, the stage has been accurately set. The rest is going to be window dressing.


Step Seven:

Using Viridian and Cadmium Yellow I lay in some grassy strokes over my warm underpainting. The green tones compliment the red tones used in the block-in, which creates an interesting vibration. Note that the green tones in the middle ground are grayed down. Why? Because yellow is the first color to drop out as the landscape recedes. The point to remember is: Even if your landscape does not have great depth, the rules of aerial perspective still apply.

Step Eight:

I reinforce the foreground darks with Ultramarine Blue and Quinacridone Gold. I put a few warm, impasto strokes in my middle ground grass, and with some grayed shadows (Cobalt Blue and Cadmium Orange) I take some of those random shapes in the snowfield and suggest rocks.


As a final coup de gras, using Alizarin Crimson and Cadmium Orange, I suggest some bunches of Indian Paint Brush (one of my favorite mountain flowers). Those violet, red tones echo with the violets on the distant mountain and the trees outlining the hill, thereby giving the whole painting a unified feel.

“High Mountain Meadow” 9x12 oil


We look at objects through veils of moisture, and those atmospheric veils have a specific and profound effect on what we perceive. To paint convincing representational paintings, we must, by necessity, have a clear understanding of the effects of atmosphere on the objects that we observe. We painters are, after all, illusionists, attempting to create a three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional surface. Unless we remain true to the rules of aerial perspective, all the great drawing, design, color and value control will be ineffective in making our paintings convincing.

Happy Painting!