Welcome to The Helpful Art Teacher, an interdisciplinary website linking visual arts to math, social studies, science and language arts.

Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

Please click on my page to see my personal artwork and artist statement: http://thehelpfulartteacher.blogspot.com/p/the-art-of-rachel-wintembe.html

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Saturday, November 13, 2010


Below is a landscape of some hills.

What do you notice about the color of the hills as they get farther away? What do you notice about the value (how light or dark the hills are)? Does the value and color change?

Let's talk about the color first. Why do the hills in the distance appear bluer? Are they really bluish gray?

No. If you were to hike over to the hills in the distance they would be just as green as the ones in the foreground. So what is going on?

Now let's talk about value. The word 'value' means how light or dark something is.

In order to make it easier for you to look at the value I have reproduced the photograph in gray scale. As you can see, the hills appear to fade into the distance. They get lighter as they get farther away. Why do they do that?

Gray scale photograph
This picture clearly shows how objects fade in the distance. The hills in the background appear lighter in value.

Let's look at some other landscape photographs now

In all of the above photographs, the background appears to fade off into the distance. The farther away something is the lighter the value and the bluer the color.

This phenomenon is known as 'Atmospheric Perspective'. Things appear to fade off into the distance because of dust, humidity and air pollution in the atmosphere.

So, what is causing the mountains in the distance to appear blue?

Let's look at another photograph to help us answer this question.
This photo is a bit different from the others...

I took this picture on an overcast day, right before a rain storm. It was so cloudy that I could not see the sky at all, The mountains across the lake still appear to be fading but they don't have much blue in them.
Why not?

The particles in the atmosphere reflect the blue of the sky, causing the distant mountains to appear grayish blue. When there is no blue sky visible you won't see as much blue in the distance.

Other atmospheric variables:

If the air is misty or there is low lying fog, atmospheric perspective (objects fading off into the distance) will become more noticeable. Rain or snow may also magnify this effect.

Twilight on the Quileute 
Indian Reservation,
Near Forks, Washington

Twilight on the Quileute 
Indian Reservation, 
Near Forks, Washington

Twilight on the Quileute Indian Reservation,
 Near Forks, Washington

Fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean,
San Francisco California

Fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean,
San Francisco, California

Pelicans, Malibu California 

Santa Monica Mountains, California 

Santa Monica Mountains, California

Los Angeles, California as seen  from Griffith Park

Below is a collection of my photographs showing atmospheric perspective.

In sunshine or rain, on foggy and clear days, in broad daylight, at sunset and at twilight, the phenomenon of landscape features fading off into the distance and reflecting the color of the sky remains the same.

Aliciasmom's Atmospheric Perspective album on Photobucket
Advancing and receding color:

Please read my post 'Color theory 101' before trying this exercise.

Colors in the foreground of a painting tend to look brighter. Colors in the background tend to look washed out and duller.

When we talk about how bright or dull a color is, we are referring to it's intensity.

If you accidentally paint a bold, bright color in the background of a landscape painting you will inadvertently flatten your image and make your artwork look less realistic.

So, how do you change a color's intensity? How do you dull down a green so that it looks 'right' in the middle ground or background?

By adding it's complement or adding white or doing both. 

So, if you have a green hill and you want to make it look far away, try adding a bit of red to it. It should still look green but, with a tiny bit of red, the green will not be as bright.

As you paint the colors in the background, try gradually adding white so the colors dull down more and appear to fade.

Add a tiny bit of blue (because of atmopheric perspective) to this mix the farther away the mountains are. Refer to the sample below to help you:

If you are using transparent watercolors, use water instead of white to lighten your colors.
If you add a tiny bit of black to some water and then mix it with the background colors you can make your colors appear to fade as they get farther away.

The Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel The Elder (1525-1569) employed atmospheric perspective to make his  paintings come to life. Many of his paintings are hanging in the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna.  Here are a few of his paintings:

                The Tower of Babel

Hunters in the Snow
To learn more about the painting Hunters in the Snow, watch this Smart History video by the Kahn Academy:

Peasants Dancing

In each of these paintings Bruegel was careful to dull down the colors in the background. The objects in the background are lighter in hue and appear to fade. They become grayer in the distance. He also used less detail when depicting distant objects.


Below are landscape paintings by a few of my students

Landscape painting by a 5th grade student

Landscape painting by an 8th grader
For more information on landscape painting please see my post

You should also look at the paintings of Thomas Moran (1837-1926) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). They painted landscapes of the American West.
You can find many examples of atmospheric perspective in their paintings.

Click here to see some beautiful studies of atmospheric perspective
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Lake Lucerne, William Turner, 1802

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland

James Abbott McNeill Whistler,1828

Click here to learn more about atmospheric perspective
 from The Helpful Art Teacher.


  1. Is the sky always the reverse of this in that is the distance it is washed out with little intensity and closer it is more vivid? The Bruegel's appear to be almost white at the horizon and more colour intensity to the top and bottom of the page.

    1. Great question. It is washed out nearest to where the sun is.

  2. Convention, during the Renaissance, dictated that artists normally not include the light source in their paintings. So, unless the picture was depicting a subset or dawn, you rarely see the sun in a Renaissance landscape painting.  A landscape depicting mid-day would show the sky lighter towards the top. A landscape at twilight would show the sky lightest at the horizon.

    1. See my post ' Watercolors. Painting landscapes 101:shadows for a more complete explanation.

  3. beautful pictures... i am a art student and i love to draw and shade ....

  4. Are the ridges or tops of the hills lighter, and do they darken as they move down the hill?

  5. Nice article, but I think you are wrong about the cause of the blue colour and are missing one of the most startling things about atmospheric perspective. Air itself is visible, though few artists paint it (Turner was one of the exceptions). Most artists paint only light and objects and treat air like it is invisible.

    You say:

    "The particles in the atmosphere reflect the blue of the sky, causing the distant mountains to appear grayish blue. When there is no blue sky visible you won't see as much blue in the distance."

    Most of the colour comes not from particles suspended in the air but from the air itself. The reason the sky is blue is because blue light is far more likely to be scattered than red light. If you look at a bit of air that sunlight is shining through you won't see much red light - it goes straight through, but some of the blue light will be scattered in the direction of your eye. The atmosphere is thinner than you might think. If it were the same density as it is at sea-level all the way up then it would be only 8 km deep. That means that when you look at something 8km away you are looking through the same amount of air as there is between you and space (looking straight up).

    If there is a lot of moisture in the air then all wavelengths of light will be scattered (like a cloud) so the hills will look lighter but not bluer, but if most of the scattering is from the air itself, blue light will be scattered a lot more and the hills will look lighter and bluer.

    I think it's a shame that something so beautiful and so important goes so unnoticed - a bit like fish not noticing water. We talk about 'the sky' and and 'the wind' but rarely air itself. Air is synonymous with 'nothing'.

    (I have a degree in physics and studied atmospheric physics and as an artist I am particularly interested in air)

    1. Adam, that is a lot to take in...fascinating! So much about our world that goes by unnoticed. I've been studying color for most of my life and just when I think I've got it, I don't! Thank you for your additional information. My next painting is definitely going to include air!

    2. Adam Neiman, I initially dismissed your comment as trolling, but I just happened to re-read this article and actually read it. Now I am using your idea as the staring for painting (and thinking about) atmospheric perspective. Thanks for the explanation.

  6. Your blog is fantastic! I love learning and I'm a constant researcher . For me learning never ends...

  7. Thank you, thank you! I am teaching myself drawing, color--everything relating to watercolor. Fantastic information!!! Thank you so much!

  8. beautful pictures... i am a art student and i love to draw and shade ....
    thanks for sharing...


  9. thank you, your pictures are great visual aids to better understand atmospheric perspective!

  10. I read your post. It's really very informative. Thanks for sharing information.

  11. This site is excellent and so is how the subject matter was explained. I also like some of the comments too. Looking forward to your next post.
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