What Is Aerial Perspective in Art? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Perspective is one of the most important techniques for an artist to know. In this lesson, we'll explore one kind of perspective that has been used for millennia, and check out some examples.

Perspective

Mark Twain once wrote that distance lends enchantment to the view. What a nice thought. What he meant was that the farther away things are, the harder they are to see - which hides the less admirable parts of the scene and lets your imagination fill in the gaps. This is true in life, and it's also a pretty important aspect of art. Artists who work in 2-dimensional media, like painting, often find themselves faced with the challenge of representing 3-dimensional space on a flat surface. Reality has depth, a painting does not, and so the artist must create the illusion of depth. This illusion is called perspective. In art, as in life, we find that a little perspective can go a long, long way.

Aerial Perspective

There are multiple ways to create the illusion of depth, but today we're talking about one technique called aerial perspective, or sometimes atmospheric perspective. This technique, as the name might imply, involves creating the impression of atmosphere between the viewer and the subject, thus implying distance. The effect is created by reducing the clarity of objects meant to be interpreted as further away, and by representing them in increasingly monotone shades of blue. This is done to create a sense of depth by imitating how our eyes perceive distance. Unlike other forms of perspective that are focused on the reduction of size over distance, aerial perspective is all about the changing appearance of objects across space.

Next time you're outside and in a position to look at things across a distance, check out how they appear. Things farther away tend to be sort of blue. Why is this? Our atmosphere contains billions of tiny molecules of water, as well as minute particles of dust, which scatter light waves as they pass through. You know how light breaks into a rainbow when you shine it through a prism? It's a similar concept. Each color of light has a different wavelength, and so as they scatter we see some more than others. Blue light has the shortest wavelength and so over distance objects tend to appear blue, especially if they are naturally darker or cooler. This same phenomenon breaks up the clarity of objects far away and blurs lines together, and is what the illusion of aerial perspective is all about.

Examples Throughout History

Now, ancient peoples did not know much about the behavior of light waves through invisible atmospheric particles, but they were still just as intelligent as us and noticed that things far away tended to be bluish and blurry. So, we actually see examples of atmospheric perspective that date back to ancient Greece and Rome, the first Western cultures to really focus on trying replicate reality in art. Obviously, lots of ancient art has been lost. Luckily for us (although not so luckily for ancient Romans) a giant volcano exploded in 79 CE and buried the city of Pompeii, preserving its art. Look at the wall fresco from Pompeii. As the columns retreat into the distance, they become slightly more blue and less defined.

In this wall fresco from Pompeii, aerial perspective can be seen in the retreating columns
Pompeii

Europeans weren't the only ones to observe this fact. Check out the ink brush painting by the early 15th-century Chinese master Dai Jin. While Dai Jin did not really work in color, he still captures the essence of aerial perspective in the contrasts of clarity. The trees in the front are dark and well defined, while the edges of the mountains blur to the point of being invisible. Chinese landscape painting frequently used this technique to illustrate distance, creating a unique aesthetic.

In this 15th-century Chinese painting by Dai Jin, the fading lines creates an impression of distance
Dai Jin

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