View Full Version : ESP (Explore Soft Pastels)- Aerial Perspective

Deborah Secor
03-07-2006, 04:25 PM
Hi all--I thought it was way past time to post another installment in the ESP threads. This time I thought I'd explore how to create the feeling of depth in a landscape. These elements can also be used in other subject matter, of course, but landscapes are my specialty!



Aerial perspective, sometimes called atmospheric perspective, is the most effective mans of creating a sense of air between the elements in a landscape painting. There are five key elements that change:


First and most noticeable is that everything becomes cooler in color and lighter in value. The intensity of warm colors fades. Slowly detail is lost, edges soften and the contrast in value diminishes. In his book Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, written in 1929, respected art instructor John Carlson explains that as one looks sideways through the progressively thickening atmosphere it is as if there were curtains of air hanging at regular intervals, like veils through which you see. Another way to picture this is to think of one-square-mile blocks of slightly bluish air stacked sideways and upwards, filling the distance. The farther away an object is, the more blocks you must look through and therefore the paler and bluer things become, until even the most distant range of giant mountains is reduced to a mere line that is nearly sky blue. Leonardo da Vinci, the consummate eyewitness of physical effects, noted this bluing of objects with increased distance. In the 1500s he observed that if an object “is to be five times as distant, make it five times bluer.” His advice still applies today. The only exception to this visual rule is the color white. In the distance white becomes slightly dull and warm, a pale pink or very light creamy-yellow. Distant snow is not the same bright white as that in the foreground. Clouds atop the far peaks are somewhat muted in color.

The values of all the other colors become paler in the distance. For instance, although you know that the mountains in the distance are made of the same rock, covered by similar trees, bushes and meadow grasses as those closer to you, the values appear to be muted and grayer. Test this by squinting your eyes so that the distracting color fades away.

Take time to notice the point at which, as you look out, the light of the sky seems to overwhelm everything. Blue light has a short wavelength, which is scattered as it bounces off air molecules more quickly than are the longer wavelength colors red and yellow. This scattering makes the sky blue. As objects increase in distance, warm colored ones are not as rapidly overwhelmed by the blue of the atmosphere, although they eventually lose their strength, as they too are progressively filtered out. This is the reason businesses use red and yellow lettering on their signs, so that they may be spotted sooner and seen for a longer period of time, and why campers choose blue tents that visually blend into the landscape.

Remember that in the foreground plane you see all of the mixtures of red, yellow and blue, while in the middle distance the blue light of the added blocks of air has begun to overwhelm yellow. This leaves all the combinations of red and blue colors until in the greatest distance all but blue is lacking, which is why we think of mountains as purple or blue rather than yellow.
At its most rudimentary you could reduce the landscape to three simple colors: yellow land, purple mountains and blue sky. Notice that these colors move progressively away toward blue on the spectrum. Painting a distant mountain yellow or the foreground plane purple sacrifices the sense of intervening air.

In addition to the elements I’ve discussed, consider these other points:
• Overlapping: When you cover one object with another you create depth.
• Spacing: Things bunched together (like trees) appear farther away.
• Brightness: The brighter the object the closer it seems (except for reflective things.)
• Shadows: Closer shadows are darker in color and value—though still transparent.
• Size: Smaller objects look farther away.


Here are some examples of well done aerial perspective.

This is a painting by Bill Hosner called Three Crosses on the Hill. Notice how the distant hill is colorful but more muted in tone than the rest. He’s saved his warmest colors for the foreground buildings, letting the warms become slightly more pink (adding blue), then lavender (more blue), until the sky and clouds are left. Notice that the greens also proceed from yellow-green to blue-greens, retaining a nice variety of colors.

This one is by Richard McDaniel. It also shows the effects of distance on colors as they become bluer and paler in tone. Notice too that McDaniel has used the strongest darks and heightened details in the immediate foreground, as well, which gives a great sense of receding space to the image.

Richard McKinley’s painting, Carmel Springs, shows great control of details, allowing the spare strokes of color to describe retreating hills behind the trees. Notice how he’s used stronger greens in the foreground, which become ever paler and more lavender in color. The strongest rusts are reserved for the trees.

Our own Peggy Braeutigam (PeggyB) shows how to do it in a slightly abstracted landscape, using the red nodding flowers in the fore to catch your eye. The golden-green patch recedes because, although it contains yellow, it remains cooler in color. The details keep you up front, while the elegant simplicity of the shapes behind recedes.

Suzanne Stough Reimel’s painting, Autumn Reflections, shows that the principles here can be applied to any subject matter. The softness of the distant foliage is a great contrast to the near tree’s great rendering, and the delightful reflections.

And Gil Dellinger's painting, North From Rocky Creek, is another great example of aerial perspective! Look at the rich color and control of values he uses...

I'd love to see other good examples of aerial perspective in your paintings, or others by artists you know of. If you do post any work here by others, please be sure to give them full credit by name and title, if you can, and let's try to keep all of them pastels, too!


03-07-2006, 08:08 PM
This is so informative, Deborah. Thanks so much for posting it.


Bill Foehringer
03-07-2006, 08:15 PM
It just so happens.... I have a just completed studio painting up my sleeve.
The main elements of aerial perspective that I used were lessening of detail, lighter colors, bluer colors and lessening of contrast. The air portrayed was the crystalline air of midwinter say 20 below with little moisture content so that the bluing was less a factor than the reduction of contrast and lighter colors to denote distance.
"Winter Lake Morning" 12 x 18 Soft Pastel on 140 CP WC paper with a graded wash of light UM Blue underpainting.



Deborah Secor
03-07-2006, 08:46 PM
Happy to post it, Binkie! :)

Wow--Bill, this is a terrific example! I love the exciting palette that speaks so much of cold and warmth, the icy air and the sunrise colors. Delicate yet bracingly strong. Very nice. :thumbsup:

This is one of my paintings, which I posted as its own thread. I was trying to catch a feeling of space between the front branches and the rock--not a terribly long distance. Sometimes it's harder to get 'air' into a narrow space. It was tough with the darkness of the rock predominating, but I think having the nearest tree a strong, warm color helped.

I hope others have examples to share. Show us your work, too!


03-07-2006, 09:01 PM
A great thread, Deborah... thanks for sharing the great info! Got to mention, though, how much I love your use of purples in the rocks! YUM!

Deborah Secor
03-07-2006, 11:19 PM
Yummy purple rocks, eh? Rock on! :D Thanks, Tammy...


Mikki Petersen
03-08-2006, 02:52 AM
Deborah, another wonderfully informative ESP with great illustrative examples. I really like the addition of your example and the painting by Reimel because they show the same rules of aerial perspective in a very short range.

I learned a lot about the bluing (cooling of colors) and fading of detail working on my last few landscapes, Colorado River and Tahoe Scene. Especially on the Colorado River scene (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=330929), I kept wanting to add mre detail to the distant cliffs because my ref had more detail. My instructor kept telling me to knock back the detail and I would do it and then begin adding it back. Finally I saw that her instruction distanced the cliffs and my added detail kept pulling them forward even though they were cool in coloration. I can be so stubborn....sigh...

Then for my newest painting, Gossip (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=332030), an animal scene, it all gelled and I instictively made the forward elephant warm in color and the further back elephant more purply blue. Amazing! Seems like they would be contradictory or like two different species, but they don't look that way at all...the farther elephant just looks farther away.

I think this has been a very important lesson.

Another detail that we discussed in class last week about landscapes or anything outdoors under a blue sky was that the blue of the sky will reflect in some way on everything under it, no matter how close or warm. So much to learn...


Bill Foehringer
03-08-2006, 10:08 AM
Yes Mikki, I throw in too much detail in the distance also. I see the lack of detail in the distance of other's paintings yet don't pull out the details myself.
I think that what I am doing is 'seeing' the inferred detail in distant subjects. So I put in detail that my mind has inferred yet is not really there IRL. This is precisely the detail that I should let the viewer infer for themselves. The lack of detail denotes distance to the viewer of the painting even though the viewer may 'infer' more detail than is actually present in the painting. Did that make sense? If I put in that inferred detail it works against aerial perspective. Even in the painting I posted above I could have left out more info from the most distant tree line... BillF

Deborah Secor
03-08-2006, 12:41 PM
'Inferred' detail is a lot of what painting landscapes is all about. (Really any subject matter, as Mikki pointed out so well! Great examples, Mikki.) Let the viewer complete the picture, which engages them in the process.

For instance, look at this painting by Tony Allain:
How much more detail would you really need to understand the place? Interestingly enough, he uses little detail in the fore and somewhat more in the distance, yet there is still a sense of far distance beyond. It has a feeling of atmosphere, even without details.

Here's another one of his with a bit less distance, but a sense of 'less is more'. What bits of detail he uses are so effective:
Of course, I think Allain is a master at this.

Then there's someone like Fred Somers (this is his painting called Lights Fantastic), who manages to do the same thing using plenty of detail:
Even though the depth of this one is not great, he spares some details in the more distant trees, controls the color and values, to arrive at 'air'!

I sometimes challenge myself to paint a complete landscape with as little detail as possible just to see if I can do it. Here are a couple.
Orange Cloud

The Gold of the Land

Less is more for me!


03-08-2006, 02:52 PM
Again, thanks a lot for a excellent lesson. Very interesting and informative.

03-08-2006, 04:27 PM
Dee...Interesting post. I really enjoyed viewing the works of Tony Allain!! Does he have a site that you might be able to share? Mike

Deborah Secor
03-08-2006, 04:37 PM
Mike, if you just Google his name you'll get all kinds of hits. I've never found any one site that was his alone. He's well known in the UK, with lots of representation and many signed and numbered prints. Look at this one (http://www.islandfinearts.com/pages/thumbnails/19.html)... Jackie Simmonds put me onto him, and I have to say that I want to paint like him when I grow up! :wink2:


03-08-2006, 04:38 PM
I LOVE lessons that have such gorgeous work accompanying them! All of them, just so inspiring and so very interesting to view. Ahhh, more and more inspiration and I'm learning all the while! :)

03-08-2006, 06:36 PM
Mike, if you just Google his name you'll get all kinds of hits. I've never found any one site that was his alone. He's well known in the UK, with lots of representation and many signed and numbered prints. Look at this one (http://www.islandfinearts.com/pages/thumbnails/19.html)... Jackie Simmonds put me onto him, and I have to say that I want to paint like him when I grow up! :wink2:


Thanks Dee..I had look at that site earlier..in addition to his landscapes I also like his figure work...very interesting work!!
Thanks for sharing

03-08-2006, 07:57 PM
What a great thread this is. thanks


Tom Behnke
03-09-2006, 08:22 AM
I loved this, Dee!

This lesson was so clearly explained and informative. I just finished a painting where I was trying to convey depth, and wish I had read this first!

03-09-2006, 08:35 AM
Deborah, I love The Gold of the Land. That's a WOW painting! :) :clap:


Kathryn Wilson
03-09-2006, 09:12 AM
My most recent painting that illustrates this lesson would be this one:

Warmer yellow greens in the front, receding to cooler greens in the middle distance, then to the back slope (although in the sun), then to lavenders and purples.

Dee, this is a wonderful lesson!

(And, yes, that awful bush on the right is gone. :evil: )

Bill Foehringer
03-09-2006, 11:32 AM
Thanks for the effort Deborah, your ESPs are virtual workshops! I can't afford workshops in real life so these are extremely helpful to me. To use the term 'virtual' is a misnomer because these ESPs and WC as a whole give us real help. I can't imagine the cost of all of the information contained in all these forums if we had to enroll in an art school. Plus much of the information is from professional artists, WC's even more real world than art school in that respect. In addition in an art school the number of teachers is limited. On WC we have so many more teachers. BillF

03-09-2006, 04:32 PM
Another well written lesson Deborah. Thanks for taking the time tp write it. Also a big thanks for introducing me to Tony Allain. I too want to paint like that when I grow up!


03-09-2006, 07:32 PM
Very excellant subject and handled clearly. Thank :clap:

Deborah Secor
03-09-2006, 09:18 PM
Wow--thanks all! I'm delighted you've enjoyed this lesson. It's a pretty basic part of landscape painting and one we all have to get, but it's something most people just take for granted when they begin painting. I know I did. The good news is that you can learn just by mimicking what you see, but sooner or later seeing the lesson applied and making the connections really helps, doesn't it?

Hey, Kat, your painting is another great example. (Glad the bush did its disappearing act! :lol: )

Oh, thanks, Jamie. I'm glad you like that painting. It went to a student of mine--always nice to know who has the good ones, doncha know!

And Bill, it's true, there's a ton of great teaching and learning going on here at WC. Lots of generous and entusiastic folks here, sharing, growing, and cheering one another on. :heart: That's the idea!

Still hoping to see more examples from all of you.... Show us your paintings!


03-09-2006, 09:58 PM
As always for me, a picture is worth a thousand words! Your examples are wonderful! Actually SEEING the techniques used IN use is worth so much! Thanks for the lesson and thanks to all who allowed their work to be used, as well!

Kathryn Wilson
03-09-2006, 10:25 PM
Terry, I know we all would love to see one of your paintings.

Jo Castillo
03-10-2006, 12:39 AM
This is a recent landscape, with some atmosphere. Fading to blue and purple in the distance. Color in the photo is a little off, but you get the idea.



03-10-2006, 01:58 AM
The winter scene is one of my first pastel pieces... since I've done only a dozen to date, I don't have a lot ot atmospheric pieces to choose from... :rolleyes: ... this is the closest I've come to it.... I think. As I have followed the lesson and pictures posted, I realize how much I have been missing by not making better use of the "atmosphere" as another way to create depth. In the fall painting that I just finished and posted a few days ago, the colors were strong... even fairly strong at the end of the path... well, at least not misty or blued. So that would leave perspective as the method that created the depth in that one? The weird thing is that both have depth for different reasons... and I guess I just never quite gave enough thought as to the reason until until following this great thread.

Thanks Deborah and all who've contributed!! :)

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/10-Mar-2006/47447-WINTER_MEMORIES_II_SM.jpg ........ http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/10-Mar-2006/47447-FP-WIP-009-sm.jpg

03-10-2006, 12:18 PM
Wow, this is such a cool thread! I'm really enjoying it, and the pictures posted here. So now I'll bring down the tone with one of mine. LOL, this is a very early painting of mine. A lot of the folks here know I'm a real art newbie, started with a drawing class in Jan. 2005, and about March of 2005 our instructor let us try some pastels to try color - and that was the beginning! I've been a pastel fiend ever since.

Well very early on, when I'd only been doing pastel about 6 weeks, I got my first "commission", :D. My sister asked me if I could paint her an elephant. This was well before I'd ever even *heard* of WC, so this picture has never been posted here before. But this is what I did for my sister.

I'm actually not unhappy about the elephant, though I seriously dislike the mountain in the background, but I was still learning (and still am!). But I post it to show that even then at least I had warmer colors in the foreground and cooler colors in the background.

Deborah Secor
03-10-2006, 12:26 PM
Terry, I know we all would love to see one of your paintings.Yeah--what she said... :D

Jo, this painting has great atmosphere, created not only by the control of value and color, but also to a great degree using the contrasting scale of the bales and the house. Very dramatic and good example of another means of creating depth!

Tammy, you're so right, the two you show are examples of such different means of giving the painting air. The snow painting uses values mostly, contrasting strong darks in the fore to the soft grays of the distance. The misty look of the distant trees is beautifully done. The other one uses linear perspective to do it. Terrific colors in this one!

I love seeing all these examples. Thanks for sharing!


03-10-2006, 08:32 PM
Excellent advice, I've been working on an atmospheric painting at the moment so this was good to read. (Here's my photo I'm working from, the painting isn't quite ready yet.)

-- Linda

03-10-2006, 09:44 PM
Now THAT'S atmosphere!!!! Can't wait to see the painting, Linda!!!

Thank you so much, Deborah!!

03-10-2006, 11:52 PM
WHERE have you been, Tammy???? We miss ya around here, ya know! Glad to see you're still painting so beautifully! Good perspective on both paintings...another way to get depth in such as the brighter, second one it so lessen detail in the distance a lot and SOFTEN the color a step without losing the gorgeous hues. You did all that too, looks like!

03-11-2006, 12:10 AM
Awwww... thanks, Sooz!! It's good to be back, and awfully nice to have beeen missed! :wave: The fall piece I just finished and posted a couple of days ago was the first thing I've done in almost a year... the move and hubby's health this past year just about did me in!!! :p I did peek in once in a while on your pastel coveting thread... that is so much fun!!!

03-11-2006, 09:45 AM
fantastic thread, dee!! and those last 2 paintings of yours on teh first page, whoa, good stuff there!! i really love those. it is so hard tho sometimes, even knowing what you *should* do, to stop myself from putting in all the tinsy details that i know are there!! argh!! but, when i do, i am that much more pleased with my work. i hope this thread gets saved in the library?!

03-11-2006, 10:07 AM
Some amazing paintings there Deborah, really makes me feel like going and doing a landscape now! Yours with the purply rocks is a beaut! (I'm off to look at the reference library now!).

(I've got a dogs nose to fix first though, :D )


Winny Kerr
03-12-2006, 10:05 PM
Hi Deborah,
Thank you for all your input and help with pastels, I look at the website quite often and especially look forward to your "lessons". Your Gold of the Land is especially helpful as I tend to be way too detailed and really want to be more loose in my paintings as Gold of the land shows.
Winny Kerr

03-14-2006, 10:31 AM
An EXCELLENT thread Dee especially for the landscape challenged like myself :lol: I'm rating this one way up there. :clap:

Cheers, Dianna :cat:

03-14-2006, 02:51 PM
Great lesson, Deborah, as always! Thanks very much!

Bhavana Vijay
03-16-2006, 08:16 AM
Another wonderful informative thread, thank you so much Deborah. All your lessons are in my favourites, this one's going there too!

Deborah Secor
03-16-2006, 08:17 AM
I'm looking forward to seeing Linda (Goewyn's) painting! That shoreline photo is stunning. Makes me think of a Gil Delllinger painting.

I've been so busy I don't even know what dog's nose Gail needed to fix--or if she ever did...

And Dianna, you're landscape challenged--I'm a still life cripple! Never have been able to make those shapes behave.

Thanks to you all for kind words. I have one more painting to share. I call this one Loose Reflections...
I'm not sure how well the distance works since the warms are all in the farther distance, but I like the painting anyway. Gettin' looser!


03-16-2006, 09:30 AM
Thanks! I took it up along the Big Sur, CA coastline (that's Bixby bridge, if anyone's familiar with it). I have another pic taken a few minutes later with a rainbow in it. :) Right now I'm waiting for some pastel pencils to arrive so I can pencil in the details.

The biggest challenge I'm having atm is that cliff in the foreground. I started this picture before in oils but stopped and started again in pastels because I can change the development of it more quickly.

-- Linda

04-03-2006, 08:55 AM
This is the first time I've had a chance to look at this thread. Great information and put into words so well! . . . and beautiful examples you gave.

Thanks for the link to Tony Allain -- and those other wonderful British artists.

Here is one of my recent ones I think illustrates aerial perspective. Lately I have been playing around with creating this depth from photos that don't really show it well. Of course, my plein air painting has helped with that, too.

Again, thanks for a very informative lesson.

Deborah Secor
04-03-2006, 03:35 PM
Wow--very nice example, Marsha. Thanks so much for sharing it here! I love the last tree's shadow, the way it melts into the background. Lovely.


04-04-2006, 02:30 PM
Thanks! I took it up along the Big Sur, CA coastline (that's Bixby bridge, if anyone's familiar with it). I have another pic taken a few minutes later with a rainbow in it. :) Right now I'm waiting for some pastel pencils to arrive so I can pencil in the details.

The biggest challenge I'm having atm is that cliff in the foreground. I started this picture before in oils but stopped and started again in pastels because I can change the development of it more quickly.

-- Linda

That is the same spot as the Gil Dellinger example painting in the first post of this thread :) I believe it's called Hurricane Point? Here is a photo of the same location that I snapped last September:

04-05-2006, 01:23 AM
After looking up the name, yup, it's the same place. I always say, there is no way to take a bad picture up there, you could close your eyes, hold your camera out at arms length, and still get a good shot. :) Here's another picture taken about 2 minutes after this one with a rainbow.

There's tons of artist colonies around there, and a lot of famous artists and writers made it their home at one time or another. Easy to see why.

I also have the good fortune to have reason to be up there fairly frequently. :D Always soooo hard to leave.... :p

-- Linda

04-05-2006, 06:57 PM

Being new to both the wc site and to pastels... I love the idea of all of this great info... especially since I would prefer painting landscape scenes.

Can't wait to finish reading and trying to accomplish some of these techniques.


05-26-2006, 10:25 PM
Hi Deborah - What great information. I wish I had read this before I did my landscape!! And also had been able to see all the great artwork examples. Richard Mc Daniel had BLUE in his grasses.... wow, I hadn't thought of that!! I loved your pieces, esp the tree limbs, and The Gold of the Land. They are both terrific. Thank you for this valuable information. Jo