Art Term Tuesday: Atmospheric Perspective

Sydney Coyne, Education Intern

Artists are magicians: they have the ability to seamlessly transform a two-dimensional canvas or paper into a flawless depiction of a three-dimensional scene! To do this, they master a number of techniques, one of which is perspective! There are several different kinds of perspective that artists use to add depth to their works, but we’re going to focus on atmospheric perspective.

Artists use atmospheric perspective when they want us to believe that a particular object is far away from us by recreating the ways in which the atmosphere affects our vision. Think about your daily surroundings. What kinds of factors might affect the way you see the world? Whether it’s the fog that hangs in the air on your morning commute or the dust that catches the light in your home, there are countless environmental factors that may influence you perception the world around you!

A pastoral landscape with a dirt road bisecting the canvas, a group of sheep on either side and a ramshackle house on the right in the background. The grass is green and the trees are full of white and pink flowers.
Carl Philipp Weber, American b. Germany, 1849-1921. Untitled. Watercolor on paper. Gift of James H. Benninghoff and S. Colleen Smith Benninghoff in memory of Howard Benninghoff and Ellen M. Doyle Benninghoff, 2006.01. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Artists make use of many elements to mimic the way the atmosphere effects our perspective, such as value, color, contrast, and texture. Landscape painter Carl Weber, for example, used atmospheric perspective to invoke a sense of realism in his works. Take a look at Weber’s painting. How well can you see the sheep in the background, underneath the tree across from the house? It took me a few seconds to realize that they were there! Weber darkened the color of the sheep, using different values to help us recognize that the sheep in the back are farther away.

A wooded landscape with a dirt road and fence line recedes towards large hills in the distance.
Homer G. Davisson, American, 1866-1957. Autumn Landscape. Oil on masonite, 19th-early 20th century. Gift of Mrs. Homer Davisson, 1965.12. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Let’s look at Indiana Impressionist Homer G. Davisson to see how other artists use color to mimic the effect of the atmosphere on our vision. The blues and purples in the mountains in the back are a completely different color to the greens and yellows in the closer trees and hills. Davisson is imitating the impact of the sun’s angle on how we see colors. When the sun is at a lower angle, the light has to travel farther, so greens and blues are scattered. This leaves us seeing mountains that are purple or pink, like the ones shown here! We also see the use of contrast here, as the bright spring trees pop against the far away mountains.

How do artists use texture to mimic the effect of the atmosphere? In John Ottis Adam’s Brookville, we see that objects in the foreground are much more textured than those in the background, contributing to the illusion that certain objects are closer than others. The hay in the foreground is not only more detailed than that in the background, but the paint is layered thickly.

A painting of a pasture with bundled hay. In the background is an artist with their easel. In the far background a church steeple is visible.
John Ottis Adams, American, 1851-1927. Brookville. Oil on canvas. Gift of Lorraine Davis, 2017.51. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Indiana Waterways: The Art of Conservation is a great exhibition to see atmospheric perspective in action! Below are two paintings by Dan Woodson. How does he use atmospheric perspective to add depth to these works?

See more work from Dan Woodson and four other Indiana artists, Tom Woodson, Avon Waters, John Kelty, and Curt Stanfield at FWMoA through March 19th.

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