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

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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

Two Composition Techniques to Use In Your Paintings

In art, composition is how you arrange the various elements to create a pleasing and eye-catching arrangement or design in your oil painting. Good composition is paramount to whether or not your painting will be a strong and interesting work of art or a weak and disordered one. When the composition is done well, you do not notice it so much. You just know there is something interesting about the painting that you find appealing. However when it is done poorly, the painting doesn’t look quite right and just feels awkward.

painting with covered wagon“Covered Wagon on The Prairie”
Western landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on stretched canvas

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Creating a good composition will be challenging in the beginning and you will have to work at producing a strong one, however eventually with practice, it will become second nature. Here are three easy methods of good composition that you can use to dramatically improve your oil paintings.

Rabatment of The Rectangle

Rabatment diagram
Rabatment of The Rectangle

A technique for creating better compositions is called “rabatment of the rectangle.” Rabatment is a way to divide up the space within a rectangular shape to create a square with four equal sides that are equal to the short side of the rectangle. In other words, it is the perfect square that can be found inside any rectangle.

For each landscape (horizontal) rectangle, there is either a right or left rabatment and for each portrait (vertical) rectangle there is an upper or lower. It is within these squares that you would place the most important aspects of your composition, thereby creating a center of interest. Compositions are much more interesting to view if they are not located directly in the center of your canvas. See diagram above.

rabatment exampleWhen you use this simple technique to compose your oil paintings, you are more likely to create a composition that is unified, harmonious and balanced. Next time try enclosing the main center of interest within the rabatment square on the canvas. You can use either upper or lower square on a vertically oriented canvas, or left or right square on a horizontally oriented canvas. The elements outside of the rabatment should compliment the center of interest that is located within the square.

The Golden Ratio

golden ratio diagram
The Golden Ratio

The next technique used for compositions in art is called “the golden ratio” and is a little more complicated than the first one talked about. The golden ratio is a mathematical ratio commonly found in nature that can be used to yield pleasing, harmonious proportions within a painting. It has many names, with the most common ones being the Golden Section, Golden Ratio or Golden Mean. Some lesser known names for this rule is called the Golden Number, Divine Proportion, Golden Proportion, Divine Section, Golden Cut, Fibonacci Number and Phi (pronounced “fie”).

golden ratio exampleThe gold ratio isn’t merely a definition, it’s an actual ratio of 1:1.618. There is a simple way to demonstrate this ratio and that is by using a rectangle with a width of 1 and a length of 1.618. Within this rectangle is a square with a ratio of 1:1 and another rectangle with a ratio of 1:1.618. If you were to draw another square within the smaller rectangle, once again you have a 1:1 ratio square and another rectangle whose proportions are 1:1.618 just like the larger original rectangle. You can continue to divide the resulting smaller rectangle as before on into infinity. Give it a try.

The golden ratio can be used to create beauty and balance in the layout and design of all your paintings. Note the point where the diagonal lines intersect. That particular point is key when using this ratio to compose your paintings. You want to place your key elements or focal point at this intersection. As already stated, the golden ratio is infinitely divisible. This means multiple intersections can be identified where sub elements of a scene can be placed.

Great compositions don’t just happen by accident. They require a lot of thought, planning and patience, as well as a familiarity with the visual elements.

Additional Reading

Creating Better Compositions In All Your Paintings

Principles of Good Design: An Introduction