For those of you who are interested in learning about the optical phenomena, here is a research paper that I wrote on aerial perspective. I would like to remind everyone, before you read, that plagiarism is lame. This paper is here for your enjoyment and education. Not for you to use or replicate as your own.
By Shauna Leva
Looking out my second-floor window on a partly cloudy day I can see far off into the distance. The parking lot below my dorm room is filled with cars of bright color and sharp detail; but only a hundred yards away, things start to loose their detail and color even though they are bathed in the same sunlight. The grass looks lighter at the far end of a field than the grass that sits under my window, and the trees have darker bark and branches the closer they are to me. The trees far in the distance begin to look gray—even blue, and their branches blend together into tree shaped halos sitting above the horizon. This phenomenon is known to artists and scientists as aerial perspective; it is the concept that as objects recede into space, they not only become smaller, but also cooler, paler, and less detailed. This knowledge applied to painting enhances the illusion of three dimensionality on a two dimensional surface.
Most people have some understanding of linear perspective; they understand that objects appear smaller as they recede into space, and parallel lines seem to converge on a single point in the distance. Aerial—or atmospheric—perspective is different; it deals not with lines but with hue, value, saturation and temperature. “In nature, the distant parts of a landscape assume a less brilliant color than objects in the foreground; they are often made hazy or given a bluish white tone by the volume of atmospheric moisture through which they are viewed.”1 It is easy to confirm this statement with a quick glance out the window; but why does it happen?
Objects far away appear different than those up close because the light bouncing off of them must travel through more air to reach the eye. The particles of moisture and matter in the air reflect and disperse the light, and the more air it travels through, the more the light is dispersed.2 Blue and violet light are the first wavelengths to be scattered by air molecules because these colors have the smallest wavelengths. The wavelength and size of the particle are comparable, and so the two interact. Larger wavelengths such as red and yellow are not scattered by the small air particles because the wavelengths are much larger than the particles.3 Occasionally, the trees at the top of a mountain may appear clearer to the eye, and closer than the trees at the bottom, even though the mind knows they are farther away. This is because the air is thinner at the top of the mountain and the outlines of the trees and their color has not been obstructed by the thick atmosphere at the bottom of the mountain.4
Objects in the distance are also distorted because of the refraction of light, which is essentially the bending of a light ray. When light passes through areas of dense particles into less dense particles, the light is bent. The shorter the wavelength of the light, the more it will be bent by the substance it passes through.5 Blue and violet, with the shortest wavelengths, are blurred the most by the air. This makes the blue objects in the distance look soft around the edges.
Leonardo Da Vinci is credited with the discovery of Aerial perspective and was the first to implement it in his paintings.6 Before Da Vinci, there was a tendency for artists to paint objects in the background just as clear and warm as those in the foreground; this is because when we look upon a landscape, we know that the field in the distance is made up of blades of grass similar to those at our feet, and that the forest is made up of individual trees even though our eyes cannot see this. Our eyes see blurs of color and our brains fill in the details that we know are there.7 Leonardo Da Vinci was truly relying on his eyes when he noticed and included the actual behavior of receding colors in his paintings. “The Mona Lisa,” possibly the most famous painting in the world, employs Aerial perspective in its background to enhance the depth; the background can be simplified into essentially three bands of color (from nearest to farthest), red-brown, green, and blue. Each band of landscape becomes progressively cooler and paler as it approaches the horizon.
“The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund,” painted by Thomas Cole, and part of the collection at the Wardsworth Atheneum is another perfect example of aerial perspective used in a landscape. Painted in 1827, Thomas Cole uses a wide range of temperatures, values, and intensities to recreate the white mountains of New Hampshire. After all, “a color’s apparent position in space relative to another color is dependant upon the interrelationships of saturation, value, and temperature.”8 Cole uses few saturated colors, but the reds and greens in the foreground are more intense than those in the background. The temperature of dirt and gray rocks closest to the viewer are perceived as being warm because of their interactions with the colors around them. Finally, the objects in foreground have more contrast; they contain the darkest darks paired up next to light values, adding crispness and clarity to the rocks’ edges and shadows, bringing them forward in space. The mountains as they go back into space, loose this contrast and clarity and the light shadows fade into the light lights. The resulting haziness demonstrates Cole’s awareness of the effect of great volumes of atmosphere on the forms he paints and how including this air in his piece can enhance the illusion of reality.
Paintings present an environment to the viewer on a two-dimensional plane. There is no real space; the artist sets up the illusion and implication of space, by presenting an artificial world as we would experience the real world. Aerial perspective allows the artist to create depth in both non-representative paintings that do not deal with linear perspective, and to enhance the depth in representative paintings that do. “If there were no air at all there might still be linear perspective…but in thoroughly good painting the air must be reckoned with, for it changes the appearance of objects quite as much as a simple form shrinkage.” Usually, fully saturated, light, and warm colors appear to come forward, while neutral, dark, and cool colors recede; however, colors can be arranged so that the opposite is true.9 The position of a color in space is dependant on its relationship with other colors—its interactions with the colors around it.10 But the deliberate and careful arrangements of colors and tones can create an amazing feeling of space, light, and airiness on a flat piece of canvas.
1 Ralph Mayer. The Artist’s Handbook. (New York: Viking, 1985.) 564.
2 John C. Van Dyke. Art for Art’s Sake. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893.) 124.
3 Bob Wilhelmson. Light and Optics. Department of Atmospheric Sciences. University of Illinois. 2010. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/%28Gh%29/guides/mtr/opt/home.rxml>.
4 John C. VanDyke, Art for Art’s Sake, 128.
5 Bob Wilhelmson. Light and Optics.
6 Museum of Science. Causes of Aerial Perspective. 1997. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://www.mos.org/sln/leonardo/CausesofAerialPerspective.html>.
7 John C. VanDyke, Art for Art’s Sake, 127.
8 Stanley W. Taft, & James W. Mayer. The Science of Painting. (New York: Springer, 2000.) 45.
9 Stanley W. Taft, & James W. Mayer. The Science of Painting, 45.
10 John C. VanDyke, Art for Art’s Sake, 124.
Mayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook. New York: Viking, 1985.
Museum of Science. Causes of Aerial Perspective. 1997. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://www.mos.org/sln/leonardo/CausesofAerialPerspective.html>.
Taft, W. Stanley, & James W. Mayer. The Science of Painting. New York: Springer, 2000.
Van Dyke, John C. Art for Art’s Sake. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893.
Wilhelmson, Bob. Light and Optics. Department of Atmospheric Sciences. University of Illinois. 2010. 5 Mar. 2010. <http://ww2010.atmos.uiuc.edu/%28Gh%29/guides/mtr/opt/home.rxml>.