UART Tip #06: Aerial Perspective with Lee McVey

It’s a challenge to depict three dimensional space on a flat two dimensional surface. That’s where aerial perspective comes in. Sometimes called atmospheric perspective, it depicts the changes in the atmosphere as it goes back into the distance.

Stated simply, as objects recede, they appear lighter, grayer or less color saturated, smaller, with less contrast and less detail than they appear at a closer distance. When painting landscapes in humid or smog areas, aerial perspective is easy to see. These locations have a visible haze which makes it easy to see objects like trees become lighter, grayer and bluer.

A problem beginning artists often run into when painting landscapes is painting dark objects too dark without taking into account aerial perspective. This especially happens when using photographs as reference material because the camera’s eye averages the darks and lights. A photograph will show the same value and intensity of color on a path in the foreground as it does as the path recedes into the mid-ground. In order to show the space, make the path slightly lighter, grayer or less intense of a color.

In southwestern United States, with the humidity often below 20 per cent or even in single digits, aerial perspective is harder to see. But an artist must still understand it in order to depict space on their paper or canvas. In the case of low humidity or when working from photographs, it’s best to manipulate the intensity and value of the color of what is seen in order to convincingly portray distance.

As you stand looking out at the landscape, the sky is an arc that follows the curve of the earth. At the horizon, the sky is furthest from you and as you look upward, the sky and the clouds are closer to you. The sky at the horizon is lighter in color because you are looking through more atmosphere. Looking up, at the zenith of the sky, the color is darker and more intense because it is closer and you look through less atmosphere. Even in a narrow strip of sky, it is best to show a hint of this arc of the sky by painting the sky at the zenith darker and more intense than it is at the horizon.

Clouds, however, show the reverse of the land’s aerial perspective. Clouds in the distance approaching the horizon appear warmer, more rosy, not cooler as the ground receding appears. Clouds closer to us appear to be cool in color compared to those in the far distance.

I often use a scumbling of pale violet over my ground color to show  a path or meadow in the far distance. I apply it very lightly so I am slightly altering the existing color but not heavy enough to replace the color. At the horizon of the sky, I often use blues that have more yellow in them than I use as the arc of the sky goes toward the zenith.

I am a landscape painter so I focused on the landscape here, but even in still life painting, aerial perspective comes into play, although it is much more subtle.


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