A detail of Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks.

How Does Atmospheric Perspective Create Realism?

Atmospheric perspective, also known as aerial perspective, is a technique in art that creates the illusion of depth and distance in a two-dimensional image by mimicking how our eyes perceive the world in the presence of air and atmospheric elements. This effect is primarily due to the scattering of light by particles in the air, such as dust and moisture.

In this blog post, we’ll break down how to add depth and give our artworks a lifelike quality by applying the principles of aerial perspective.

Atmosperic perspective creates realism and a sense of depth in art by utilizing the following techiques:

• Shifting colors to cooler, more bluish, and lighter tones as objects move away from the viewer.
• Reducing contrast between light and shade as the objects appear farther away.
• Defining shapes of objects in the foreground sharply, while those in the background have softened edges.
• Placing more emphasis on details in the foreground, gradually reducing it as objects appear farther away in the background.
• Depicting atmospheric conditions such as mist, fog, or haze that influence the visibility of objects.
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci, public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons

The Importance of Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective is an essential technique in drawing and painting because it allows you, as an artist to create the illusion of depth and distance in a two-dimensional image. This technique simulates the way objects appear in the natural world, where things in the distance appear less detailed, less saturated in color, and lighter in value than those in the foreground.

The technique of aerial perspective is particularly important in landscape painting, where it is essential to create a sense of distance and scale in order to convey the vastness of the natural world. In addition to its aesthetic benefits, atmospheric perspective can also be used to describe the mood and atmosphere in a painting.

By altering the degree of haze or fog in the image, an artist can create a sense of mystery or tension, or suggest a particular time of day or weather condition, as my favourite painter Joseph Zbukvic does so masterfully with watercolors.

Techniques for Atmospheric Perspective

Aerial perspective is based on the observation that as objects recede into the distance, they become less sharp, less colorful, and less detailed, appearing lighter in tone.

Atmospheric perspective provides you with a set of techniques to create realistic art, including depicting objects closer to the viewer in greater detail, sharper focus, and more vibrant colors, while making those in the distance appear smaller, softer, and cooler in tint.

To create an even more convincing illusion of depth and distance in your artwork, you may wish to combine aerial perspective with techniques such as linear perspective and overlapping.

The Last Supper fresco by Leonardo da Vinci depicts Christ and the apostles at a table.
Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons

Shift in Color and Tone

Atmospheric perspective, the interaction of light and air greatly influences how we perceive color and tone in a scene. Light is responsible for the colors we see and interacts with the atmosphere to produce the effects of atmospheric perspective. When light enters the atmosphere, it is scattered in all directions by particles in the air, such as dust, water droplets, and gas molecules.

This scattering causes colors to appear less saturated and shift towards blue, as blue and violet wavelengths of light are scattered more than other colors. As a result, distant objects appear bluer, lighter, and less distinct than objects that are closer.

Objects in the foreground may retain their true and vibrant colors, while those in the background should appear progressively cooler and more subdued. While cooler colors predominate in the background, warm colors, such as reds and yellows, are often more pronounced in the foreground.

This contrast in color temperature contributes to the illusion of depth in the scene. Air also affects the tone in the atmospheric perspective. As objects recede into the distance, they appear lighter due to the atmosphere’s scattering of light.

Reduced Contrast

Additionally, air can create a haze or mist that further reduces the contrast and sharpness of distant objects. This effect is particularly noticeable on humid or foggy days, where objects in the distance can appear hazy and blurred.

Atmospheric perspective also influences the tonal range of objects. Things in the foreground appear to have a higher contrast of light and shade, and sharper details compared to those in the background.

By using more dramatic contrast between the light and shadow areas in the foreground and gradually reducing it as objects advance into the distance, you can enhance the sense of depth and help create a realistic spatial relationship between different elements in the composition.

Reduced Details and Softened Edges

Objects in the distance appear less detailed than objects in the foreground. To create the illusion of distance, you can use less detail in the background and focus on the general shapes and forms.

The texture of surfaces also becomes less defined as objects move farther away. Fine textures give way to smoother and less detailed surfaces in the distance. By softening the edges of objects in the distance, such as mountains, trees, or buildings, and making them less defined, you can further enhance the sense of depth.

Atmospheric Perspective

Applications of Atmospheric Perspective

Aerial perspective, which involves the use of atmospheric effects to create a sense of depth and distance, is typically associated with landscape painting. However, it can also be applied, to a certain extent, in portraits and still life drawings and paintings.

While the primary focus in portraits is often on the subject’s face and features, the background can benefit from the application of aerial perspective, as seen in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

In environmental portraits that aim to capture the subject within a specific environment, incorporating outdoor scenes with aerial perspective adds realism to the scene.

In still-life compositions, especially those with multiple objects arranged at various distances, you can use aerial perspective to convey depth and effectively depict elements like smoke or varying light conditions.

Aerial Perspective in the Work of Famous Artists

The discovery and use of aerial perspective in art history evolved through observations of nature, scientific study, and the contributions of artists and theorists over the centuries.

Ancient artists applied aerial perspective intuitively to their murals. Later, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci were the greatest contributors to the development of aerial perspective, understanding how light, air, and distance influence the perception of space.

In the following section, we’ll list some of the greatest artists who skillfully use atmospheric perspective in their artwork.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was a master of the technique of aerial perspective and used this technique in many of his paintings that are still admired and studied today.

While his notes don’t present a systematic treatise on atmospheric perspective, they provide valuable insights into his observations of the natural world and how he applied that knowledge to realistically portray space and depth in his paintings.

Leonardo’s work laid the foundation for the formalization of these principles in later art theories and practices. In the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo used aerial perspective to create a sense of depth and distance, making distant landscape elements hazy and less detailed.

The Virgin of The Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting the   Virgin Mary with Saint John the Baptist,, and an angel
The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons

J.M.W. Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), a prominent English Romantic painter, was known for his innovative use of light, color, and atmospheric effects in his landscapes. Aerial perspective played a major role in many of Turner’s works, contributing to the dramatic and atmospheric quality he became famous for.

The use of clouds, mist, and atmospheric phenomena not only contribute to a sense of depth but also evoke mood and emotion. An excellent example of Turner’s use of aerial perspective is in his painting “The Fighting Temeraire”.

He uses color and light to create a sense of depth and distance, with the ship in the foreground appearing closer and more vividly colored than the ships in the background, which are painted in muted tones and partially obscured by atmospheric haze.

The Fighting Temeraire painting by J.M.W. Turner, depicting a battleship towd up the Thames.
The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken by J.M.W. Turner public domain, PD-US, source: Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet

Examples of Monet’s (1840-1926) use of aerial perspective can be seen in many of his paintings, particularly those depicting landscapes and seascapes. In his Houses of Parliament series, Monet depicted the iconic London landmark under various lighting conditions, weather, and atmospheric effects.

Houses of Parliament painting by Claude Monet.
London, Parliament, Reflections on the Thames by Claude Monet, public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Zbukvic

Joseph Zbukvic (born 1952), a contemporary watercolor artist known for his expressive and atmospheric landscapes, uses aerial perspective in his works not only to create a sense of depth but also to convey mood, as he writes in his excellent book ‘Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, atmospheric perspective is a powerful technique for achieving realism in art, as it simulates the way the atmosphere influences how we perceive space and distance.

Aerial perspective creates a sense of depth and space in our artwork with techniques such as shifting color and tone to cooler and lighter, gradually reducing contrast, sharpness, and the number of details as objects advance farther away from the viewer.

Additionally, by altering the atmospheric conditions in a drawing and painting, we can also effectively influence the mood of the artwork and evoke different emotions.

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About Me


My name is Debora, and I’m the founder of Drawing Fundamentals. I work as a civil engineering technician. I acquired the basic knowledge necessary for freehand and technical drawing during my school training, further developing and perfecting these skills throughout my years in the profession. Through my blog, I aim to assist anyone interested in learning to draw.

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