What Is Aerial or Atmospheric Perspective in Art

Aerial view of tractor driving over bare dirt
Jason Hosking / Getty Images
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What Is Aerial Perspective?

Ariel perspective of a landscape

S Tschantz

Aerial Perspective is the visual effect of light when it passes through an atmosphere. The purpose of using aerial perspective is to give our drawings depth and reality, whether they are based on a real place or from our imaginations. To do this, we must understand what happens in real life. 

What do we see when we view a real landscape? Features and objects appear lighter and less detailed as they recede into the distance. They also appear to lose color or saturation, fading into the background. This color is normally blue but can be red or even golden yellow, depending on the time of day and atmospheric conditions.

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Drawing Aerial Perspective

Landscape from an arial perspective

H South

This effect is sometimes called atmospheric perspective. This represents the way objects struck by light traveling through an atmosphere appear to change.

We could go on to discuss the way light is diffracted by particles in the atmosphere, but you don’t need to understand the science to use this effect in your art. You only need to see its effects and understand how to draw them. Atmospheric perspective includes representing the way things change color as they recede into the distance, as well as the depiction of fog, haze, ​rain and snow.

In our drawings, as objects recede toward the horizon, we need to draw them lighter and with less detail. While this may seem obvious, now, it is all due to Leonardo daVinci’s ideas which have become part of our artistic vocabulary.

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The Renaissance Perspective

Crisp floating objects before Leonardo Da Vinci's atmospheric background to the Mona Lisa

H South

Aerial or atmospheric perspective has not always been an ingrained part of the visual vocabulary that it is for modern artists.

Before the Renaissance, more distant objects were drawn or painted higher on the picture plane. They were also smaller but with no less detail or color saturation. Atmospheric or aerial perspective was not generally a part of western art until it was defined during the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci. He called it ‘the perspective of disappearance.’

"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." - from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Jean Paul Richter, 1880)
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What Does Aerial Perspective Look Like?

Photograph of a landscape from an arial perspective

S Tschantz

The principle behind aerial perspective is simple. As the distance between a person and an object increases the object’s color fades into the background and loses detail.

In this example, you can see how pale and dull the distant hills are compared to the ones in the foreground. This is despite the fact that both areas are covered in the exact same vegetation.

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Observe the Horizon

The horizon viewed on the beach

S Tschantz

Quite often, the sky and land seem to fade into each other. Spend some time looking at the landscape around you from a viewpoint that allows you to see well into the distance. Also, look at pictures and photographs.

It can be helpful to desaturate photos in the computer to remove color from the image. Extra copies also allow you to draw on the copy to help isolate the shapes need to draw the contours of the landscape.

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Begin With the Distance

The beginning of a drawing in the arial perspective

S Tschantz

What does all this mean when we draw? How does it affect how we work? Quite simply, we are going to use value contrasts to give the impression of depth in our drawings.

  • Start by lightly lining in the shapes and contours of the drawing. Keep your lines extremely light; a 2h or HB pencil with no pressure is good.
  • Lay in an even tone of very light graphite on the furthest objects. You will want to tone this in with no variation or features.
  • A smooth, clean coverage is best. You can do this with a sharp, hard pencil or by using powdered graphite or blending with a tortillon.

These furthest objects should almost blend into the sky, so toning the sky will add to the depth and beauty of your work.

The sky is an important part of a landscape drawing and attention to it is also important. The sky, like the rest of the drawing, will fade into the horizon. Notice that when you look straight up, the sky is bluer, a deeper more intense color than when you look straight ahead towards the horizon, especially in the direction of the sun.

Use Toning 

To tone your paper, you will start by using a shape pencil or charcoal and lightly cover the paper with an even, medium tone. While not difficult, this does take time.

  • You want to do this by using the point of your pencil/charcoal. Lightly rub in one direction while turning or rotating the pencil in your hand to keep the point.
  • You do not want any strokes or directional lines, but a smooth, even tone.
  • Avoid blending and rubbing to try and achieve this because this will ​work the graphite/charcoal into the paper and make it hard to lift.
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Developing the Drawing

A drawing work in progress

S Tschantz

As you come forward, the direction of line and contour become more important. There will also be a suggestion of detail, lights, and darks that appear. When drawing the “lay of the land” the underlying structure becomes important.

  • You do not want random scribbles. Instead, allow your pencil “flow” with the land formations.
  • Use loose but directed lines, suggesting variations in vegetation and terrain.
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Drawing the Foreground and Final Details

The final details of a drawing with aerial perspective

S Tschantz

With each step forward, more saturation or value changes develop, and more details are seen. Things “come into focus” as it were. You will be able to define shade and shadow more as well as contour. Things become more dimensional.

Remember that this also happens in your sky, the clouds do recede from you towards the horizon. They also become larger and more detailed as they come closer to you.

  • In the foreground, add details that will make your drawing interesting.
  • Add the shadows and shading to objects. These closest objects will have defined texture.

You can also use your artistic license – you aren’t a camera! What you see can be modified as you draw, using more or less clarity, texture, and contrast to achieve the effect you want in your drawing.

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Aerial Perspective Is Not Aerial Landscape

Aerial landscape drawing

S Tschantz

Aerial perspective should not be confused with the aerial landscape genre. In the latter, a drawing or painting is designed to give a “bird’s eye view” of a landscape.

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Photo of a landscape from far away

C Greene

Atmospheric perspective offers exciting creative opportunities. Have fun with its creative possibilities, using it as the focus of your composition.

Rather than using it as an 'extra' in service of a drawing and focusing on the details in the landscape, make the aerial perspective the star of the show. Use the elements of the landscape to convey the sense of depth, perspective, and atmosphere as a key dramatic element.