What is Aerial Perspective? (And How Can It Create Depth in Your Paint - Creative Catalyst Productions

What is Aerial Perspective? (And How Can It Create Depth in Your Paintings?)

November 14, 2018 4 min read 1 Comment

In anticipation of landscape painter Michael Holter’s brand new video workshop with Creative Catalyst, 7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes, we’re deep diving into perspective with a four-part series. The first week we asked what is perspective and how you might use it in your art.

For the next three weeks, we’ll explore three different types of perspective including aerial (or atmospheric) perspective, linear perspective, and Michael’s own, solar perspective.


When you are out in the world, objects appear to get bigger or smaller based on how close or how far away they are from you. This gives your brain visual cues. Your brain processes these cues even if you don’t realize them consciously.

If you can learn these cues - or rules - you can use them in your art to help translate an experience of a place. You know how far a rock is from you because you are there. But the viewer of your painting doesn’t know. Perspective is a tool you - as a representational artist -  can use to help the viewer place that object correctly within the painting.



Today we’re starting with aerial (or atmospheric) perspective.

You see aerial perspective at play when you are standing high on a ridge, overlooking, for example, the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Or, you’re at the top of a skyscraper looking out a long distance across a city. Visual cues tell your brain that this thing is closer or that that thing is farther.

If you want to create depth in your representational paintings, learning aerial (or atmospheric) cues will help. And remember, if you look out across a scene or a reference photo and don’t see them exactly, you can still use them in your painting to create a sense of depth. After all, you’re the artist. You’re in charge.


Value is how light or dark an object is. When it comes to perspective, closer objects will appear darker while objects further away will appear lighter.

This happens because there are particles in the air including dust and moisture. Your eye has to look through more particles the further an object is from you. This lightens the object.

Where you might use this:

Back to the Blue Ridge Mountains: The mountains closest to you will appear the darkest, and then they will lighten the further they get from you.  You’ll be able to make it seem like peaks go on forever.


Intensity and saturation have to do with how bright a color is. Your paint is it's most saturated when it comes out of the tube and become less intense (or saturated) as you grey it down.

Because of those particles discussed above, objects closest to you will appear the most intense/saturated while objects further away will appear greyer.

Where you might use this:

Say you’ve taken a photo of a vibrant New England fall. On-site, the colors were exploding in intensity and stretched for miles. But back home, the whole photo looks pretty lackluster. Knowing what you know about atmospheric perspective, you can mix a puddle of bright orange for the foreground trees and then slowly grey it down as you move back in the painting.



In perspective, warmer colors come forward while cooler colors recede.

When we are talking color, a color wheel is a good place to start where color exist on a spectrum.  Some colors are warmer and some are cooler. For example, blue is cooler than red. However, within colors themselves (say red for example) colors lean warm or cool. Cadmium Red is a warmer red, while Quinacridone Red is a cooler red. This is because Cadmium Red is closer to the yellows while Quinacridone Red is closer to the blues.

Where you might use this:

You are standing in a grove filled with Saturday apple picking. Bursts of red and green play against each other on the landscape. If you wanted to create depth in your painting, the green of the trees and the red of the apples within would be warmer the closer they are to the viewer while the greens and reds would be cooler the farther they got from the viewer.  


When you set out to paint a representation scene, ask yourself which of these are happening in front of you. And maybe none of them are especially dominant, however, as an artist, you have an opportunity to help your viewer get a sense for how close or how far something is. Aerial perspective is a way you can do that.

“If you paint what you see, sometimes the whole scene becomes flattened out,” says Holter. “To try and get depth and distance into a painting, a lot of times the further objects have to be pushed lighter in value. You have to interpret what you’re seeing in front of you and adjust to make the painting appear to have more depth.”

And aerial perspective will help you do just that.

“Aerial perspective is, perhaps, the most important for a watercolorist who paints representational work,” says Holter. “It is the most natural way of applying the pigment to the paper. More water equals lighter value. Paint the light values first and allow the paper to dry between layers and you will create paintings with depth.”

Michael Holter’s 7 Steps to Watercolor Landscapes demonstration video is now available. Learn more here


1 Response


April 11, 2020

I love painting. I never had a chance to put pigment to paper until recently. About two years ago I took a class. The teacher was really bad. At of the class I kept staring at my work and I kept telling my teacher and many people who knew about painting why is my painting painfully 2D? I wanted it to be three D but no one including my teacher could answer me. Eureka. I found my answer in your website. I cannot wait to start applying those concept into canvas.

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