TUTORIAL: ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE IN URBAN SKETCHING

When you hear the word "perspective" as a beginning urban sketcher, what do you think? Probably something like, "Oh no! That's not for me!", "Way too difficult!", "No, no, no! That means I have to follow a whole course at an art school, and I have no time for that. Forget it!" And even if it's not as difficult as you might think, you are definitely not alone in this.


For my Dutch-speaking readers: find the Dutch version of this article here at Urban Sketchers Nederland.

With or without perspective, what do we all want most, whether we are experienced or beginning sketchers? Right! We want our artworks to look beautiful and engaging. So the main question is, how do we make that happen?


There are many different ways to make your drawings impressive and attractive. It can be done through color, the correct use of shadows and depth, details, unique composition, and much more. But for all of this, you need at least some knowledge of color theory, perspective, and composition. Does it mean you can't draw without that knowledge? Of course, you can! But if you want to breathe a little more life into your sketches, it is definitely worth learning something about this and trying to apply it. In small steps, without any pressure to do it perfectly.


Let's look at how to make the first step towards an engaging and beautiful sketch fairly easy. In this article, I want to show you how to use the atmospheric perspective (not to be confused with the linear perspective that everyone is so afraid of) to create depth and tension in your drawings.


But first, it's essential to clarify some definitions. What do we mean by perspective? There are two main types:


Linear perspective

This is the most famous and feared variant. It refers to the relative size of objects in your sketch: the further they recede into the distance, the smaller they appear. Using helplines, vanishing points, and the horizon line, we can determine the size of objects in our drawings. Linear perspective is a concept (the helplines, vanishing points, and the horizon don't really exist), so we need to understand a few rules and practice quite a lot to get the hang of it. But once it happens, it's not that hard anymore.


If you need to work on one-point perspective and two-point perspective, I have two Skillshare classes just for that: Urban Sketching for Beginners: One-Point Perspective and Urban Sketching for Beginners: Two-Point Perspective.

Atmospheric perspective

This is something I want to talk about in this article. This time it's not a concept but the way our eyes perceive the world -- how much detail we see, how we experience the colors, and the contrast between the light and the dark parts. Atmospheric perspective is mainly used in landscape painting. I think everyone knows paintings with light mountains in the distance and dark ones in the foreground. However, I'm convinced that it is also an excellent technique for urban sketching to emphasize depth and thus make your sketches more captivating and atmospheric.


In a perfect world, a sketcher needs to master both types of perspective. However, not all sketches require linear perspective. If you are just starting out, play around with atmospheric perspective first. If you paint landscapes or front views of buildings, atmospheric perspective will be enough.

 

THE PRINCIPLE OF ATMOSPHERIC PERSPECTIVE


Now let's review the basics of atmospheric perspective as I see it.


It is essential that you look at all your potential sketching scenes as a theatre stage with cut-out pieces of scenery: the planes. The closest to us is the foreground, the farthest is the background, and somewhere in between is the middle ground. Let’s take a look at each visual plane one by one.



The foreground: The closer the objects are to our eye, the larger they appear. I say "appear" because objects always remain the same size. The only thing that changes is our perception. The details and textures can be seen very well in the foreground. For example, we can clearly see every leaf on a tree, every stone on the ground, and every letter on a license plate. We can also clearly see shadows and highlights of objects and all the small details. It creates a lot of contrast. Add some smaller details and textures when drawing the foreground, create a lot of contrast, and you will get an impressive and engaging picture.


The middle ground: objects get smaller in the distance. Details also appear much smaller than in the foreground. We can't see every detail anymore, but we do see that a tree has leaves, and in most cases, we can also distinguish their shape. Shadows appear less detailed here, colors get less intense, and there is less contrast than in the foreground. Lights and darks begin to merge a little bit.


The background: everything gets even smaller, we can barely see the details, or in most cases, we can’t see them at all. The shadows are more general and appear much lighter than in the middle- and foreground. The colors are light, they are slightly bluish, and there is not much contrast. A bright orange object in the foreground becomes cool pink in the background. It’s an illusion, of course. If you walk close to that farthest object, it would have the same color as the one in the foreground. But the dust and mist in the atmosphere cause the light to refract, so we see objects differently in the distance.


How do we achieve all this?


Let’s get the supplies ready. Here’s a checklist of what we need for this sketch:


Paints:

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour (tubes):

  • Ultramarine Blue

  • Ultramarine Violet

  • Quinacridone Gold

  • Transparent Orange

  • Perylene Violet

  • Burnt Sienna

  • Potter’s Pink

  • Opera Rose


Other supplies:

1. Paper: Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour, 100% cotton, Cold Pressed, 300 g/m2, 22.9 cm x 30.5 cm


2. Three brushes: Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Synthetic Sable brushes:

  • size 12 for large areas,

  • size 8 for medium areas and large details,

  • size 4 for small areas and details


3. 3 black fineliners: 0.1mm, 0.3mm, and 0.5mm (I use different thicknesses to empathize the depth, but if you only have 0.5 mm, it's enough)

4. 2B Pencil

5. Kneaded eraser

6. Mixing palette

7. Jar (or two) of water

8. Paper towel



Ok, it's all set! Now we are ready to start! Let me take you through the step-by-step process of creating atmospheric perspective for this watercolor painting.



Step 1. Create a pencil sketch. You can copy my sketch here if you want to treat this as an exercise. Or you can create your own sketch if you want an adventure:) Make sure your pencil lines are not very bold, do not press on the pencil too hard because it will be difficult to remove it from the page.


Step 2. Refine the sketch with a thin fineliner (0.1mm) in the background first, a thicker fineliner (0.3mm) in the middle ground, and the thickest one (0.5mm) in the foreground, or draw everything with the fineliner you usually use. Don't forget, the further the objects are, the fewer details we draw.


Step 3. Paint the background. Start with the lightest color: create the first layer with lots of water and a little paint, using a large brush (size 12)—no shadows or contrast at his stage.


Step 4. In this picture, we actually have an extra plane between the background and the middle ground (the house on the right and the greenery on the left in the distance), but I don't want to give it a name to avoid confusion. I still assume that there are only three planes, and all objects in between two planes have properties of both but are weakened. So, in this case, I draw a large shadow on the house, and in the following image, you can see that I also shaded the green a bit. It is a bit too bright, in my opinion, but I'll see how that turns out later.


Step 5. Paint the part of the house on the right (in the middle ground) with a medium brush (size 6-8). Use less water and more pigment than you did in the background.


Step 6. Add some large shadows to the middle ground (under the roof and on the stairs) with the same brush, creating just a little contrast, but don't get carried away!


Step 7. Paint the first layer of the foreground (the house in the middle, the one on the right, and on the left). You can use the large brush (size 12) for large shapes and the medium-sized brush (size 6-8) for smaller shapes and large details.


Step 8. Paint the greenery on the balcony, and add large shadows and some details using the large and medium-sized brushes.


Step 9. Add small details with the smallest brush (size 2-4).


Step 10. This step is a matter of preference. I like to have a lot of textures and details in the foreground. If you also feel you can add something to your sketch to make it more lively, feel free to add more details and color. But don't get carried away! At some point, it might become too much, and that's not what we want to happen. Make sure that the objects in the foreground have sufficient contrast. Keep the light parts light, but don't be afraid to make your shadows pretty dark. Do not touch the background anymore. Keep it light and simple.


Your sketch is done! How does the depth look to you? Please leave a comment below about your experience or DM me on Instagram.


I hope this post helps you understand how to use atmospheric perspective to create depth in your watercolor sketch and make your drawings more expressive and atmospheric. The same rules apply to any other medium you use: lighter colors, vague shapes, and fewer details in the distance.


If you've done this tutorial and want to share your artwork on Instagram, don't forget to use the hashtag #winsorandjulia. I'll be happy to see what you've created and run some features in my stories.

 

Interested in learning about linear perspective? Here are my Skillshare classes (expand the list for details):

Urban Sketching for Beginners: One-Point Perspective

Urban Sketching for Beginners: Two-Point Perspective

If you are not on Skillshare, click the button below to get your free trial membership:


It is my mission to help art enthusiasts enjoy their creative journey while making small but regular steps toward better technique. Keep practicing, join my Skillshare classes, follow me on Instagram, and subscribe to my newsletter for valuable tips, ideas, inspiration, and free tutorials!





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Hello, I'm Julia Henze.

 

ARTIST | URBAN SKETCHER | TEACHER ​

Art is my passion. Urban Sketching is my love.

My work (and this site) is devoted to sharing ideas, tools, and resources that will help you to find your way in the world of art.

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