Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective

Art Terms Used in a Discussion on Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective (also known as aerial perspective) refers to the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as it is viewed from a distance. In art, and especially painting, artists attempt to mimic this effect as a way of creating depth or distance (three dimension) on an otherwise two dimensional (flat) surface.

Color saturation is a color’s purity of hue; it’s intensity.

national park wall paintingMonument Valley
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
16″ x 12″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info

Background is that part of a painting that appears to be farthest away from the viewer.

Horizon line is where the land (or sea) and sky appear to meet. This is an optical illusion however. It’s actually an imaginary line to which things recede.

Middle ground is the part of a painting that lies between the background and the foreground.

Foreground is the part of the painting that appears to be closest to the viewer.

Creating Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric or aerial perspective is achieved when the illusion of depth is created by depicting distant objects as paler, less detailed, and usually bluer or grayer than objects close up. Some ways this illusion can be created are by using the following techniques.

size and placement in perspectiveSize and placement — Objects appear smaller as they move further away from the viewer towards the horizon line. Larger objects tend to appear closer and smaller ones tend to recede into the background. Also related elements placed lower to the bottom of the canvas will appear to be closer to the viewer than those which are placed higher on the canvas.

overlapping objects in perspectiveOverlapping objects — The easiest and fastest way to create depth on a 2-D surface is to overlap objects. By partially covering one object with another it gives an appearance of depth. This can be accomplished by allowing the contour of one element to slightly cover the contour of another, so it looks like one item is physically sitting in front of another.

color saturation in perspectiveColor — As objects recede or move off into the distance the intensity of their color becomes less saturated and shifts towards the background color which is usually a blue-gray middle value. Even bright whites and rich blacks tend toward medium gray and will eventually disappear into the background.

  • Foreground = object are normal intense color
  • Middle ground = the color would b a little lighter in tone and bluer
  • Far distance, horizon line or background = colors would be much lighter and even more bluer

Contrast — As the distance between an object and the foreground increases, the contrast between the object and its background will decrease.

Tone or Value — Objects further away will appear lighter than those up close. Using a lighter tone on what’s in the distance of a landscape painting immediately gives a sense of depth.

Spacing — Objects that are clustered closer together seem farther away. Also horizontal lines will move closer or even converge (disappear) as they near the horizon line.

Focus — Objects tend to lose detail as they recede into the horizon. This does mean they are out of focus or blurry.


  1. Use atmospheric perspective to create depth in an illustration or painting of only two or more mountain ranges.
  2. Create depth in an illustration or painting of a field of sunflowers or other type of flower using “size and placement”.

Additional Reading

The Rules of Perspective