Aerial Perspective Lesson
Aerial Perspective, which is also called Atmospheric Perspective, is the effect that the atmosphere has on the tone and color of a landscape when it is viewed over a distance. It is a very effective tool for landscape painting and is a less complicated technique to learn than linear perspective.
Aerial Perspective combines four key elements to create the illusion of depth and distance in a landscape:
- The size of objects become smaller the further they are from the viewer.
- The details of objects decrease the further they are from the viewer.
- The tones of objects weaken the further they are from the viewer.
- The colors of objects begin to fade the further they are from the viewer.
This is a simple lesson that demonstrates the visual impact of aerial perspective. It teaches students how to build up a landscape drawing in layers, while using graduating tones and colors to convey the illusion of depth and distance.
Researching Your Subject
Sketch sheet of references for aerial perspective.
Research your subject to get to know the type of shapes you will be drawing:
- Make some sketches or collect some images of rooftops, chimneys, clouds and distant horizons to use as visual references.
- In our research sheet above we have sketched three skylines: some domestic chimneys for the foreground, some factory buildings for the mid-ground and a city skyline for the background.
- The decreasing scale and diminishing detail in these three sketches make them ideal for creating the illusion of depth in aerial perspective.
Aerial Perspective Drawing - Step 1
Divide the paper into areas for the sky and the land.
To begin our landscape drawing:
- Take an A3 sheet of heavy cartridge paper and arrange it vertically.
- Using a pencil, lightly mark the center of the sheet to separate the areas of sky above and land below.
Aerial Perspective Drawing - Step 2
Sketch in the skylines and layers of cloud.
In the Land Area, draw three evenly spaced skylines across the paper:
- The lowest skyline focuses on nearby rooftops. The detail here may include domestic chimney shapes, some of which may be larger suggesting that they are closer to the viewer while others may be smaller suggesting that they are slightly further away. This starts to create an illusion of depth within a single skyline.
- The middle skyline includes middle distance rooftops. The detail here could include a greater variety of architectural shapes to create a mixture of domestic and industrial structures and the scale of the buildings should be smaller than the lower skyline.
- The top skyline is the distant horizon. The detail here should include high-rise buildings and towers that would be visible from afar. The scale of the buildings should be smaller than those in the middle skyline.
In the Sky Area, draw three evenly spaced layers of clouds:
- These should be spaced equally to leave a gap above the top skyline which forms a fourth layer of cloud.
- You may now erase the guide line that separates the sky area from the landscape area.
Aerial Perspective Drawing - Step 3
Complete the drawing with some vertical trails of smoke.
To complete the drawing, we have added some vertical trails of smoke to the middle skyline:
- Each trail of smoke was 'welded' to a different layer of cloud to strengthen the illusion of depth as their scale decreases in the distance.
- They break up the parallel structure of the composition which seemed too horizontal.
- They also act as transitional shapes between the hard lines of the architecture and the soft contours of the clouds.
Aerial Perspective Painting
Color scales with graduating tones
Graduating Tone and Color:
- Before you start painting your landscape, you should practice mixing color scales with graduating tones.
- Each scale consists of five equal shifts of color from dark to light which help to generate the illusion of spatial depth and distance.
- Choose one of these scales to use in your landscape painting.
- Paper: Use a heavy grade paper that does not buckle too much when painted.
- Paint: Acrylics, gouache or the type of tempera paint and blocks you get in schools are all suitable for this project.
- Details: White color pencils, white pastel pencils or a sharpened stick of chalk are suitable materials for adding the detailed highlights and tones to our final image.
- When you draw your landscape you work from the front towards the back. When you paint your landscape you should reverse this process and work from the back towards the front.
- Apply your lightest tones first. It is easier to darken a color than it is to lighten it as you use much less paint to do so. Consequently, it is best to start with your lightest tones and proceed towards the darkest.
- If you start with your lightest tones it also makes it easier to cover any slip ups in your painting technique as you will be applying darker tones over them.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 1
The first layer of cloud
- The sky is generally brighter than the landscape as it is the main source of light in the picture. Therefore, the range of graduating tones used for the sky should be lighter than those used for the landscape. Consequently, if you are using a color scale of five tones, choose the four lightest tones to paint the four layers of cloud.
- Start painting the sky with your lightest tone and apply it to the lowest layer of cloud just above the skyline.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 2
The second layer of cloud
- Paint the second layer of cloud using your second lightest tone, paying particular attention to the quality of edge where the layers meet.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 3
The third layer of cloud
- Paint the third layer of cloud with your third lightest tone, still paying attention to the quality of edge where the layers meet.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 4
The final layer of cloud
- To complete the painting of the sky, apply the final layer of cloud with your fourth lightest tone.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 5
Paint the most distant skyline first using your third darkest tone
- Using your third darkest tone, start to paint the buildings on the most distant skyline, again paying particular attention to the quality of edge where the sky meets the land.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 6
Paint the middle skyline next using your second darkest tone
- Using your second darkest tone, paint the middle skyline, still paying attention to the quality of edge where it overlaps any previous layers.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 7
Complete the painting with your darkest tone.
- Using your darkest tone, paint the bottom skyline to complete the image.
- You can now see the full tonal effect that conveys the illusion of aerial perspective.
- You could consider the work finished at this stage or you could go on to add some tonal detail as illustrated in our next step.
Aerial Perspective Painting - Step 8
Adding more details to the landscape
- In this final image we have enhanced the detail of our landscape with sharp highlights and softly smudged tones, resulting in a more atmospheric image.
- We have emphasized the form of the buildings and clouds in following ways:
- Highlighting the left-hand edges of the architectural forms and details on the two bottom layers.
- Applying a soft light tone which adds a misty depth to all three landscape layers.
- Applying a soft dark tone to strengthen the form of the clouds.