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Aerial Perspective

Last month, just before Christmas, my wife and I spent a week in Manzanillo, along the Pacific coast of Mexico. It was a great week of swimming, kayaking, zip lining, and (since I had my En Plein Air Pro easel with me) painting.

The painting was a challenge. Despite full sunshine every day, the atmosphere was as dense as any place I’ve ever painted. It was what I like to call “bathroom light” – that bright, translucent light, where objects lose color saturation, detail and contrast, as they recede into the distance. It’s always beautiful, poetic and a real test for an on-location painter.

This is always a major adjustment for someone like me, who lives in high, rarified mountain air. As I look south from my studio, I can see the outline of the pines on Fisher’s Peak (9,500 feet in elevation) seven miles to the south. Sometimes, when I paint around here, I’ll actually build a little atmosphere into the painting so that the distant objects don’t look like cardboard cutouts.

So when an artist finds himself confronted with diffused light, it’s good to have some idea of what’s transpiring out there in the atmosphere.

One has to remember that the atmosphere is composed of assorted gases. At any given time, there is a varying amount of moisture particles suspended in these gases. This can be likened to looking through series of films that intervene between distance objects and us. Obviously, the more moisture contained in these films, the more diffused the landscape becomes. In mountainous regions, the air contains little moisture, and objects maintain more clarity as they recede. Conversely, in humid climates the colors and contrasts of objects diminish more quickly.
In a bit we will talk about what happens visually as objects recede towards the horizon, and the concept that artists would come to know as “aerial perspective. But, first, I want to lay a small amount of groundwork.

If you look at paintings from before the Renaissance, you will notice that artists handled receding objects in a conventional, or generally accepted manner, in which objects were rendered smaller as they receded, and placed higher on the picture plane. They would be painted with an equal amount of detail, and value density; the same as the objects in the foreground of the painting.

It is generally accepted that Leonardo da Vinci (like Newton, with his apple and gravity) was the first to figure out the reality of atmosphere and aerial perspective. He called it “the perspective of disappearance”.

Here’s a quote from one of his notebooks:

"An object will appear more or less distinct at the same distance, in proportion as the atmosphere existing between the eye and that object is more or less clear. Hence, as I know that the greater or less quantity of the air that lies between the eye and the object makes the outlines of that object more or less indistinct, you must diminish the definiteness of outline of those objects in proportion to their increasing distance from the eye of the spectator."

This was a big turning point in representational art. From that point forward, paintings took on a quality that more accurately resembled the visual effects presented by Nature.

So let’s analyze what happens to masses and objects as they recede towards the horizon.

The first thing one notices (and perhaps the most obvious) is that objects (and masses) diminish in size as they recede from the viewer’s eye. If you don’t get this, no amount of great brushwork, drawing or value control will save your painting.

  • Distant objects become less and less focused as they recede into space. Details (including textures) drop away, and color and value become bigger players.
  • As they recede away from the viewer, objects begin to cluster closer together, and ultimately lose their individuality  (eventually becoming distant masses).
  • Objects are brightest when viewed close up. As they move further away, through veils of atmosphere, they become duller and grayer.
  • Dark objects (and shadows) will be most intense, in shape and value, near the viewer. They will lighten and become grayer as they recede into the distance.
  • Thus far we’ve discussed the effects of atmosphere on the physical characteristics of objects. Now we need to turn our attention to the changes in values (darkness and lightness) and color as objects recede.

Here’s the story on values:

All things become lighter in value as they recede into the distance.

Remember that we are looking at objects and masses through veils of atmospheric density. The more moisture suspended in those veils, the faster the values lighten as they recede. The most obvious example would be a heavy fog. Even here, in the rarified air of Colorado, the distant mountains (with all their density and weight) will often be only a value or so darker than the sky.

There is one hard and fast rule governing color gradation:

All colors (except white) become cooler as they recede from the viewer’s eye.

Note: A cool color is one that has a preponderance of blue in its makeup.

The atmospheric veils of moisture cause this change of tone. Depending on the density, these veils can affect every inch of ground in the landscape. At a distance of three miles, very little remains of the brilliant color right at our feet. This bluing effect impacts the darks in a landscape more than the half-darks, or half-lights.

So let’s turn our attention to the effect of atmosphere on our three primary colors; yellow, red and blue.

Yellow is the first color to lose its identity as the landscape recedes, and it does this at a much quicker rate than either red or blue.

Red will hang in there quite a bit longer, sometimes making distant mountains seem violet.

Blue, the coolest of our primary colors, will ultimately be the last man standing.

You have to remember, of course, that no one color, in a landscape, can exist in its “pure state” without some tempering by one, or both, of the other primaries. These color influences are what give us those beautiful, grayed, unnamable mixtures that add authenticity and poetry to our paintings.

One final note:

As the sky descends towards the horizon, it moves through the thicker atmosphere of the earth. Ergo, there is a slight warming and darkening as it approaches the horizon. This is readily apparent where the sky and the ocean meet.

At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’m including some photos of paintings that I feel employ some of the things I’ve just discussed. I hope they’ll help solidify some the principles I’ve outlined in this newsletter.

La Punta Coast
This is from the recent trip to Manzanillo, Mexico. The atmosphere was so heavy that things hazed out at a few hundred yards. There is a minimal amount of yellow in the cool, gray greens on the mountain. This enables them to sit back into the landscape. The white caps on the distant waves are much darker, and warmer than the one in the immediate foreground. The dark rock in the foreground, juxtaposed against the lighter background helps establish depth.


La Casa del Rio, Cordoba, Spain
On my first trip to Spain, I painted several pieces along the Rio Guadalquiver. I like this one because it has good gradations of dark to light, and warm to cool.

Sunday Morning
One morning last winter, I went out early to take the dog for a hike in the hills, and an unusual winter fog had settled over the upper reaches. When we got back, I grabbed my sketchpad and painted this quick impression. It’s essentially monochromatic, with the values and edges describing the effect.

Misty Morning – Glacier Falls

I was up in Montana, at Glacier National Park. In an effort to beat the tourist rush, I arose early and went to paint in the park, and a continuous misty rain thwarted me. So I sat in the car, drinking coffee for about a half hour, until the rain ceased. I remember painting this with basically alizarin crimson, viridian and just a touch of yellow.


We had a terrible blizzard last winter. I was painting in my studio, when I noticed that the two horses that graze out back were plaintively staring at me through a veil of snow. There was real pathos in the scene, and I quickly grabbed a panel did this painting. I used a minimal palette, and let the values describe the scene. A toothbrush, and some spatter, helped contribute to the effect.

These are fairly extreme examples of aerial perspective. It’s generally subtler, but, nonetheless, ever present. My advice would be to go outside, observe, paint on-location and be aware of the influence of atmospheric conditions on the landscape. It will not only improve your visual acuity, but it will add an air of authenticity to your work.

Happy painting!