Creating a sense of deep space has been a goal for landscape painters for centuries. Our understanding of the visual cues that create that sense of space dates all the way back to the Italian Renaissance.

LINEAR and ATMOSPHERIC (sometimes called aerial) Perspective are two different systems that were developed for creating the illusion of deep space on a flat surface. Both work to create a definite foreground, middle ground, and background, but using different systems.

Linear perspective uses converging parallel lines. Atmospheric uses the way that particles in the air create changes in how we perceive shape, surface, and color from the foreground to the background.

“Minervaville, Winter”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Minervaville, Winter”, oil, 4 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

As with most systems, problems arise when they are applied too rigidly or when they’re misunderstood.

I see two main problems with the way that most people explain the effects of atmospheric perspective on color.

To begin with it’s important to understand right up front that you only get the illusion of deep space when looking away from the light source. Looking towards the light source flattens space out since the greatest contrast is at the furtherest distance.

This is one of the first places that so many painters trying to paint observationally fail. Not every lighting situation creates a sense of deep space.

You only get a sense of depth when the light source is behind you or to the side. If you’re looking at the light source, the space will not feel as deep.

"Winter Evening", oil, 5 x 7", © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Winter Evening”, oil, 5 x 7″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

You’re looking towards the setting sun in this painting so the space becomes flatter.

The second is assigning a specific value and hue shift in going from foreground to background. Describing the changes in value as just going from dark to light is a gross over simplification. As is describing the temperature change as being from warm to cool.

This only takes into account one particular time of day and lighting and certainly does not hold true for every case.

Think about night scenes where in general the overall value shifts from predominantly middle values in the foreground to dark in the back.

"The Bend, Twilight", oil, 6 x 6", © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“The Bend, Twilight”, oil, 6 x 6″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

What does work is to realize that changes in color that create the illusion of depth are, like the other elements, changes in degree of contrast. They go from a very wide contrast in the foreground to a very narrow contrast in the background.

Look closely at this photograph and you can see that as you go back in space the range of contrast in all aspects of color decreases.

Photo of landscape

So to create the greatest sense of depth using atmospheric perspective, decrease the contrast in the four aspects of color – value, hue, intensity, and temperature – as you move from foreground to background.

“Fall Fields and Sky”, oil, 5 x 7″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Fall Fields and Sky”, oil, 5 x 7″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Observe the natural world and record the effects of light and atmosphere on the shaping of space, and consciously use color to your advantage in creating that illusion.

“Evening Light, Edisto Island", oil, 6 x 8", © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

“Evening Light, Edisto Island”, oil, 6 x 8″, © Mary Bentz Gilkerson

Don’t let “rules” trump what your eye sees. Practice looking as much as you practice painting.

Trust me, putting observation and an understanding of color contrasts to work for you will be a game-changer for your painting practice.

And to help you remember those color transitions, I’ve got a fantastic new freebie called the“Color in Atmospheric Perspective: A Visual Roadmap” PDF poster that you can print out and post in your studio as a handy reminder.

Get Mary’s “Color in Atmospheric Perspective: A Visual Roadmap” Poster

Remember that if working with color was easy, everybody would be great at it already. You are with me right now because you want something more for your paintings. And using color effectively to create a sense of space will dramatically improve your work.

Learning to control color is a process, but if you start to taking steps TODAY, I promise you that you WILL see a difference.

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