Painting Atmospheric Perspective

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With the mild weather upon us, it’s a good time to consider packing up your paints for a plein air painting session.

Months in the studio still life painting and working from photos and reference material can be stagnating.

Grab some sunscreen, a baseball cap and plan a trip to the great outdoors for a refresher course in atmospheric perspective.

Perspective Revisited

Successful landscape painting requires some basic familiarity with two-point perspective. Two-point perspective is the use of two vanishing points on a line, which may be real or imaginary.

Drawings using two-point perspective will have a three-dimensional quality, as objects recede as they move back from the viewer along their planes. The stock example is telephone poles along a road, diminishing in size into the distant horizon.

These are mathematical tenets. There is little room for error for architectural depictions, and too much artistic license in landscape painting will leave the artist with an unconvincing rendering.

Although based on physics principles, atmospheric perspective leaves the artist open to interpretations that are more subjective. However, there are basic guidelines with which an artist should be familiar when painting landscapes.

What Is Atmospheric Perspective?

When painting a landscape that expands over a broad distance, the local conditions affect the way we see objects in the space. The state of the atmosphere or air makes an impact on our perception of the color, value and hue of a given area or object.

The air around us appears empty and transparent at close range, but looking up at the sky there appears color as well as clouds, which are particles of water or particulate matter such as smog or dust. These particles reflect the sunlight and obscure objects behind them.

When you are looking at an object from a close distance, it is clearly focused. The colors have depth and vibrancy. You are looking through the atmosphere, but due to the short space, particulate matter does not interfere with clear perception.

Overlooking a distant area with hills, trees and bushes, you will notice that objects in the distance appear lighter and less defined than objects closest to you. As objects appear closer to you, they are more distinct and have more depth of color. This is an example of atmospheric perspective.

Atmosphere lightens the value, changes the color, blurs detail and compresses the contrast of entities the further removed it is from the viewer.

Value Ranges Compress With Distance

The background of a landscape has a very limited value range. A tree in the background has fewer lights and darks as the same tree portrayed in the foreground. Up close and personal, a tree will have a full range of color values from white highlights to black shadows. That same tree in the background will show very little shading or highlights to define its three dimensional qualities.

The foreground presents the full range of values, allowing an artist the potential for intricate shadowing and highlights to model a complete three-dimensional representation.

Color Saturation Diminishes With Distance

In addition to visible contrast reduction, objects also lose color saturation when they appear further back in the scene. Images become less vivid in color, as they are obscured by particulate matter in the atmosphere.

An extreme example of this is the effect fog has when it settles over a landscape. Color fades and becomes more grey or white as the fog and distance increases.

Local Colors Change with Atmospheric Conditions

The apparent color of a form will transform in relationship to the atmospheric conditions of the sky. On a clear day with a blue sky, hills in the distance will have blue undertones. The same scene, viewed during a golden sunset, will show the hills tinged with yellow tones. This is more noticeable the greater the distance is from the viewer.

Images in the middle ground and foreground will not be affected to the same degree as the background shapes. This is also due to the particles in the atmosphere reflecting the sunlight.

Detail Is Lost And Edges Blur With Distance

Objects in the foreground have crisper edges and present more graphic information than objects found in the middle ground. That same object in the background becomes a hazy mass without detail or defining shadows, and the edges blur into the surroundings.

Using these devices will give your piece a sense of reality since your eyes perceive the world in those terms. These basic tenets are not difficult concepts to master and spending a little time outdoors observing your surroundings will give you tons of on-the-job experience with atmospheric perspective.

You should plan your sessions for different times of the day to see various conditions. Make quick color wash sketches, snap plenty of photos for reference material and above all, observe.

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