Part 4, project 2, exercise 2: Perspective – aerial perspective

Updated on 21 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some contents).

7 November 2016. The project on aerial perspective (for an overview see The Editors of Encylopaedia Britannica (2015) and Tang (n.d.)) is going to be a challenge for me, since it requires paying controlled attention to several aspects, i.e. loss of focus, colour saturation and change in colour temperature. The required simple landscape would need to make do without the elements of linear perspective and in order to put myself in colour-only mood I made an excursion to Egon Schiele’s aerial perspective paintings (1890-1918, Austria), as e.g. in Fig. 1 below:

Figure 1. Egon Schiele: “Four Trees”, 1917, oil on canvas. Source: Egon Schiele (1890-1918) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
The above work contains hardly any elements of linear perspective, apart from, maybe, the narrowing of spaces between the horizontal layers of clouds. The tiny mountain range at the centre (had to stop myself writing “at the back”, because of course on the canvas they are not) show all elements of aerial perspective, though: colder colours, loss of contrast and (comparatively) fading outline as well as a loss of colour saturation. And these, no matter how small the difference, are sufficient to allow the correct sorting of foreground and background and allocation of a roughly measurable distance between viewer and trees as well as trees and mountains. It is the viewer’s experience of the characteristics of the visible world and the associated workings of the mind, which do the trick.

The above is easy to interpret due to its known representative elements of a landscape, but when comparing e.g. Nik Harron’s (*1981, Ireland) completely abstract aerial perspective  “Untitled” (Harron, 2009) the system still works. There are colder colours, less saturation as well as loss of contrast and focus of nothing in particular and it becomes a believable landscape. It works due to the mind connecting with whatever knowledge I have of the world and it works, because it makes sense. Which makes me want to explore it the wrong way round (but for once I will resist the temptation!). In order to be able answer to the question in the study guide (“Is it necessary to combine all three to achieve the desired effect?”), I decided that it would be necessary to adopt a stepwise approach.

8 November 2016. Since the weather outside turned nasty within hours (sleet in masses), I chose a photo of a wonderfully dark volvcanic landscape from our 2014 visit to Iceland. It is absolutely reduced and appears very suitable for exploring aerial perspective.

So, what I did was, in steps:

1. Make a black brush drawing avoiding linear perspective, but using increasingly narrower lines towards the back
2. Reduce line colour contrast by painting over with increasingly lighter greys towards the back
3. Introduce colour, warmer in front, colder at back
4. Modulate colour saturation (enhance/fade) and colour contrast (enhance/reduce)

Here is the sequence (Fig. 2-5):

1. Brush drawing with black paint, increasingly narrower lines

Figure 2. Line drawing, narrowing

This on its own already provides an impression of space, helped by the standing rock cutting off the view of the gentle slope to the back of it.

2. Brush drawing changed to have increasingly less dark lines towards the back

Figure 3. Line drawing, less dark at back

The difference is not large, probably also because it was not easy to have very narrow lines painted with the brushes I have.

3. Introducing colour and contrast

Figure 4. Adding colour and contrast

10 November 2016. Volcanic sand and rocks look a very dark warm grey closeby, but increasingly cooler towards the horizon. This first layer of colour helped the painting to increase in depth, but it is clearly visible that any small mistake in choice of colour has a profound effect on the perception of perspective. This is particularly evident in the wide darkish horizontal strip behind the large stone in the bottom lefthand corner. It makes the rocky outcrop in the middle ground hover rather than sit on its hill. So it is clearly not enough to simply reduce contrast and colour saturation on a rigid recipe basis. It is essential to pay attention to the respective properties of all parts of the painting and balance the effects around each change.

4. Correcting saturation and contrast

By introducing a selection of purer warm hues used in mixing the above greys and adjusting tonal values, including some light and shade in the foreground and middle ground, as well as covering the sky with a dilute layer of greyish blue I intensified the differences between the different parts of the painting. Although linear perspective is present at no point in the painting, the space created by techniques relating to aerial perspective looks believable. I find that I make many of these adaptations subconsciously without referring to an external set of instructions.

Figure 5. Correcting colour and contrast

Overall I think that even the first line drawing using nothing but decreasing line width creates a working spatial composition. The same would apply to using staggered warm and cold coloured areas alone (similar to the third step), even if a landscape were inexistent. In order to be recognized as something derived from the real physical world, however, the above rules must not be broken. The human eye and brain are tuned into detecting the slightest discrepancy in information, a probably life-saving ability in our complex and not always welcoming universe.


Harron, N. (2009) An Aerial Perspective [acrylic on canvas] [online]. Private Collection, [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 7 November 2016]

Schiele, E. (1917) Four Trees  [oil on canvas] [online]. Belvedere, Vienna. Available at: [Accessed 7 November 2016]

The Editors of Encylopaedia Britannica (2015) Aerial Perspective. Encyclopaedia Britannica, London. Available at: [Accessed 7 November 2016]

Tang, I. (n.d.) Linear and Aerial Perspective: The Techniques of Linear and Aerial Perspective [online]. Inge Tang, [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 March 2017]


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