Get Deep about Painting

Updated: May 8

Depth and Flatness

Welcome back to my studio chats, this month I’d like to discuss the pros and cons of atmospheric perspective and, alternatives to it such as flat pattern.

Putting Perspective In Perspective

Paintings, by virtue of being 2D, are naturally flat, so when you think about it, the whole idea of making them appear otherwise is rather absurd. In fact creating a credible illusion of depth in two dimensions by using perspective is not merely a trick, but might even be ‘the’ trick for most Western European artists since the Renaissance . After all creating something which looks real has for centuries been considered to be the mark of an accomplished artist.

Matisse and Picasso, amongst others, held passionate views about the validity of that view, however before we get into that, it’s worth looking at how artists can create an illusion of depth, using linear and atmospheric perspective.

Atmospheric and Linear Perspective

In artistic terms perspective can be usefully defined as creating the illusion of depth on a 2D plane. There are two main ways of creating this illusion, namely linear and atmospheric perspective.

Linear perspective is just what it appears to be, the technique of replicating how objects appear to become smaller as they become more distant from our viewpoint. The classical way to imagine this is to set an imaginary horizon line at eye level, ensuring that all diagonal lines nominally converge upon it.

In practical terms artists simply need to plot an eye- line and a vanishing point, ensuring that all of the parallel lines which face the vanishing point, converge with it.

A lot of hot air is written about how difficult multi point perspective is; but it’s simply a matter of placing extra vanishing points, a cube will have two if seen at an angle for instance, three if it is offset, and complex geometric shapes, (as one sees in the scientific instruments painted in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ ) many more.

Now all of this works very well in a geometric universe, but nature has a habit of being a bit more random than well ordered cubes, cylinders or pyramids, so in practice you will need to combine linear and atmospheric perspective to create a more believable impression of depth.

Atmospheric or Aerial Perspective

Unlike linear perspective which imagines the world as a series of parallel lines, converging upon one or more vanishing points, atmospheric perspective defines the world as a series of overlapping, near to distant planes.

At a minimum one would normally divide a scene into three planes, specifically, a foreground, a middle ground and a background. Each of these planes must be painted in a manner which makes them appear to be closer or further away from the ‘front’ of the picture.

The most common way of dividing them is to make the far plane rather more blue in colour than the nearest one, although its important to appreciate that this common trick is simply one instance of how planes may be made to create atmospheric perspective.

More globally, any increase in ‘range’ will make a plane appear to advance, any decrease in range, to recede. We can define range in many ways; for example.

Range Options

  • Thick to thin

  • Opaque to translucent

  • Warm to cool

  • Saturated to de-saturated

  • Detailed to implied

  • Dark to light

  • Textured to smooth

So the standard method of making the distance cool , and the foreground warm, fits this schematic, however the illusion would work be improved if the foreground was warm and dark, and the background cool and thin. By multiplying the range options you’ll be able to create a greater illusion of depth.

However, the key to making atmospheric perspective work is to bear in mind that its all relative. For instance it’s quite possible to create atmospheric perspective with a warm colour such as red, providing the red on the foreground plane is darker and thicker than the red on the background plane.

Most of the perspectival rules of thumb - a cool background, a warm foreground or making the distance less distinct are simply tried and tested manipulations of range .

When combined with linear perspective, atmospheric perspective is the classic means by which to create an illusion of depth on a two dimensional plane, although both of these methods should be incorporated with a sound understanding of optical depth from the classical modelling of Form.


Regular readers will recall that I dealt with how value changes create Forms in article one of this series, and that if this is allied with optical management and edge control, then an illusion of spatial depth may be created.

Flat is good

So to summarise - a formal illusion of depth requires you to plot single or multi point perspective, delineate that further into far, middle and near planes, manage the range for each of those, and for a bonus point simultaneously control the value, opacity and edges of any Forms within your picture. If that sounds complex and contrived then you’re in good company. By the late 19th century many artists were questioning, whether the tail of technique wasn't wagging the dog of original creative vision.

Better by far, they suggested, that Art should be an honest, direct and idiosyncratic expression of creative vision, rather than some tired old parlour game aimed at making a flat surface appear otherwise.

The gains for following the rules and conventions of perspective, were more than lost, they argued ,when one considered how applying them eroded creative freedom.

Luckily, the Western European fascination with illusory perspective was just that, and alternative aesthetics were both easy to find and eagerly adopted. From the strikingly graphic flatness of Japanese prints to the concepts of hierarchical scale (important things are bigger) used in almost all pre Renaissance Art.

The most interesting results of this re-evaluation lie not in absolute adherence to, or avoidance of, the rules, but with artists such as Klimt, Picasso, Cezanne and Bonnard who freely mixed the systems to their own creative ends. It’s hard now to imagine the works of Jenny Saville or Christian Hook without the works of those pioneering artists.

Putting it into practice

Over the last five months we’ve looked at all kinds of rules and principles, applicable not only to painting, but to Art in general, however one overriding question remains: Should one follow or break the rules of Art?

The answer of course is that rules of any kind are good servants but bad masters. Rules are there to serve technical skills and skills allow creative potential to be realised.

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