Painting Landscapes with Atmosphere

atmospheric perspective landscape painting painting quick tips

I love how atmospheric perspective can make orange look purple and green appear blue in the distance! Let's learn a bit about atmospheric perspective and how it applies to landscape paintings.

If you'd like a full class on these ideas, check out Land & Sky: Principles of Atmosphere

Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective refers to the visual changes that tend to occur between objects and spaces that are close to or far away from the viewer. This effect can be more or less prominent depending on distance, humidity, weather, etc. While atmospheric perspective is most obvious in large open landscapes, the effect also occurs in smaller spaces such as interiors. The rules of atmospheric perspective can be employed and exaggerated by artists in order to enhance the feeling of depth in a painting.

How Value Changes with Distance

Near _____________________________________________________________ Far

With increasing distance value range and contrast decreases. At some point in the distance, there wouldn't even be a discernable separation between black and white as they'd both become a middle-light gray.

Lighter values get slightly darker, and darker values get lighter, usually toward a light middle value.

How Chroma Changes with Distance

Chroma is the intensity or saturation of a color. With distance, chroma decreases and all colors shift toward gray.

High chromas up close:

Low chromas in the distance:

How Hue Changes with Distance

This is where the real fun begins! With increasing distance, colors begin to drop off. For simplicity’s sake, we will talk about the primaries Red, Yellow, and Blue. (These aren't the real primaries in terms of color mixing, but we'll save that argument for another blog post.)

Up close, all colors are visible: Red, Yellow, Blue and all the colors between.

The first color to drop off the spectrum is Yellow. While this doesn’t mean there will be absolutely no yellow visible with some distance, it will be diminished. An object that appears yellow-green close up may look more blue-green. An orange may appear more reddish as the yellow is removed from the orange color.

After a while, red drops off as well and we are left with blues. 

(This is not a perfect representation, but keep following along!)

Why Does This Happen?

If you’ve learned about prisms in school, you may be familiar with the idea that once light enters a transparent object the light will be sorted according to wavelength and come out the other side as a rainbow. This happens as light comes into contact with particles in the air, such as water or dust or pollution.

If you are close to an object, there aren’t very many particles for the light to pass through before getting to your eyes. The further away you are from an object and the more moisture or pollution in the air, the more the visual signal gets scrambled. This results in certain hues being scattered, a reduction in intensity of the signal (chroma) and compressing of values.

Examples of Atmospheric Perspective in Paintings

Check it out... I sampled the color up close in this painting and you can see that the light side of the big rock is a reddish-orange. Then notice the color sampled from the distant rock (presumably it would be the same color if you walked right up to it) and it's a gray that leans toward purple. How cool, right? Add to this the fact that value contrasts are reduced with distance, and you have two of the basic principles of atmospheric perspective.

Learning these principles makes landscape painting more fun, but you can also add incredible depth to any painting once you learn how to apply them in your color mixtures! If you get excited about this kind of stuff like I do, then check the page for the class Land & Sky: Principles of Atmosphere and see if there's a session coming up!

Here we have another painting of some green hills overlapping each other into the distance. The first hill has earthy greens, meaning there's not just blue and yellow in the mixture, but also a touch of red. In the middle sections the greens still have some yellow in them, but they are now a cooler blue-green without red to warm them up. Finally, the most distant hills appear blue, even though we know they're actually green if we were able to see them up close. The atmosphere between here and there is blocking the signal of yellow and red.

In black and white we can see the differences in contrast between light and shadow in each level. Of course there are bigger differences between values and more texture up close, less contrast and texture in the middle areas, and almost no contrast or texture in the distance. 

Now that you've learned all about atmospheric perspective, can you see how I used it in this little painting of three apples?

If you learn these principles, you can also learn to implement or exaggerate them in your artwork in order to invent and push depth! You don't need to copy photos or even copy what you see in real life.

Learn atmospheric perspective in depth, explore the color patterns that appear in skies at different times of day and night, how to paint clouds, and more in the 6 lesson class Land & Sky: Principles of Atmosphere.

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