Applied Painting Theory and Techniques

31 Jan 2023

Aerial perspective

Perspective in painting

There is a white sheet of paper in front of you. Or a canvas. Whatever it is, it is a 2D flat space. And you have to, as an artist, reproduce a natural phenomenon in these boundaries. The problem is, that your object for painting – a still-life composition or a sunset over a Californian beach – has at least three dimensions in the real world.

This feature – a 3D perspective of your image – is something everyone expects from a modern artist, working in one of the classical styles.  

This wasn’t always true. 

For centuries, artists created 2D images to describe the surrounding them reality. Their compositions were flat, people’s faces were unemotional, and the colours were not real enough.

Stela of Aafenmut, c.IX BC

A mosaic panel of The Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, approx. c. VII-IX

The first artist, who integrated a 3D perspective in his artworks, was an Italian master, Giotto. In the early beginning of the XIVth century, Giotto revolutionised traditional painting methods; his works were full of life, with volumes created by lights and shadows, with a veritable perspective. 

Giotto, « le Don du manteau », c. XIV

Giotto was the one who gave a start to an incredible development of painting art in the Renaissance period. 

His findings were applied and improved by Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael et Leonardo Da Vinci – the artistes that are still astounding in the level of their realistic approach; those who continue to be, even now, in the XXI century, a universal reference of an art masterpiece. Old masters, who gave us the basic, academic painting rules, especially the rules of perspective.

Aerial perspective

Aerial perspective is a visual illusion of a change of certain objects in space, caused by air and our visual limits. 

It is important to understand, that the perspective is just an illusion, caused by our own (human) brain limits and incapacities. As it is an illusion – our, artists’, role is to capture it, simplify and reproduce it, making a 2D space on our canvas resemble an experience that we live when we see a natural landscape. 

And yes, it’s about human limits of our vision. 

Predators like eagles (and even cats) capture things differently in space; they see surrounding objects as fade and blurry; but being able to spot every detail of a moving object, even at a great distance. They, surely, have their own aerial perspective illusions, different from ours. But, here, today, we will just try to classify our own limits of perception, put them in structure and study them in order to be able to recreate them on paper. We paint things for people, and we have to make our artwork recall their visual illusions...

(Painting landscapes for eagles one day? Or at least for a cat?! 

That is a veritable artistic challenge. But we are still as far from knowing the surrounding us small furry aliens, as early medieval artists were far from knowing human nature…)

 Well, back to us, with our visual limits. 

Air is responsible for some of our illusions, as every object we see, we see through the surrounding air. The problem is that air is just not fully clear. It consists of transparent gazes, and it carries tonnes of water drops and other terrestrial organic and non-organic particles (dust). Non-transparent air encircles every object on Earth, changing their look. 

The differences in air transparency depend on air cleanness and also on lighting, season, time of day, weather conditions, qualities of the object’s surface to reflect the light, and everyone’s own personal physiological and psychological perceptions. 

In general, the objects that are father in space, we see as less sharp (form), smaller (perspective), fader (colour), lighter or darker (value). The farther they are, the more they mix with the surrounding air. 

Photo credit: OCDE

We can classify the aerial perspective in 6 general rules.

Rule 1: Bigger and smaller

The closer the object is, the bigger our eyes see it. 

The aerial perspective is assured by changing the size of objects that are on the second and third lines; they make them inexistent around the horizon.

Rule 2: Sharp and blurry

The objects on the first line we see sharper than the objects that are farther from us. 

The parameters of sharpness depend a lot on air transparency. After a good rain, we can see clearly and sharply from a very long distance; we do not have the same visual capasities in Paris’ smog :)

Rule 3: Values

Light objects in distance become darker, and dark objects in distance become lighter. On the horizon, light and dark objects become uniform.

Practically, you cannot use a pure white colour for even a very white object on a second or third line, (only to underline its lightness, maybe, a game of the sun, etc). 

The same about black colour – it does not technically exist for the objects which are not on the first line of the composition. You will have to add grey or blue or purple or brown or anything to your black objects in distance, and to the shadows. 

Rule 4: Volume

The surrounding us objects have well-designed, distinct shadows. They are full of volume; we can see every facet.

With the distance, our eyes can see only the main, front facet of an object. That is why distant objects look flatter, with a fade game of shadows, or without shadows at all.  

Rule 5: Colours

Colours fade with distance. 

The actual colour of the object, enveloped by air masses, mixes with the colour of the sky (the air's colour). The farther it is, the more it loses its original colour. 

Technically, if you paint a lot of red balloons, at 10 different distances; those, that are closer to the horizon will have 1/10 of red and 9/10 of your sky’s colour (proportions are given as an example).

Rule 6: Optical colour mixture

If objects have multiply distinct colours on their surfaces; these colours will optically mix with distance.  

Using the example with balloons: if our balloons have blue-red stripes – we will see these stripes on the first lines of our composition only. Those balloons that are farther, will more likely seem purple (a mix of blue and red) + your sky’s colour. 

Competition « Mondial Air Ballons ». Photo credit Stefu Wälchli/GEMAB21

These were the six rules of the aerial perspective. 

Is it going to be difficult to have them all in mind all the time?  

I will tell you one insight secret) While painting, even very great modern masters take some steps away from the easel, to check if they have not messed up with the composition and perspective. And they always find something to correct!   

So you just have to do the same during all your painting process: check your artwork for these 6 rules of aerial perspective; apply all the necessary changes; and your work-in-progress will become much more realistic.

Remember, that your veritable artistic practice does not only consist of painting. You will surely get more confident after dozens of painted canvases. But the true learning process is in observing. Go for a walk, look around you, and with your artistic educated eye, try to find all these rules of the aerial perspective in surrounding nature. 

(And when you see how real they are, remind yourself that they are just our human illusions... )

© Bogacheff Marina. France, Switzerland. 2023

The difference in 500 years between these two paintings of Venice:

Marco Polo leaving Venice, c. XIII

Venice by Canaletto, c. XVIII

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