15 Ways to Draw the Illusion of Depth

Updated: 16 Oct 2023

Pen and ink drawings of olive trees

When drawing in a realistic style, it is helpful to draw from direct observation, or by using reference images.

However, for an initial sketch, or when drawing from imagination, there are several proven methods to create the illusion of depth.

1. Volume

Unlike flat objects, 3D objects appear to have volume, and therefore indicate depth.

A three-dimensional object has highlighted and shadow areas, depending on the location of the light source.

3D object has volume and indicates depth Flat vs 3D object with volume


Pen and ink drawing of an olive tree Pen and ink olive tree

2. Size

According to the rules of perspective, the farther an object is, the smaller it looks.

For that reason, when you draw similar objects in different sizes, the observer can conclude that smaller objects are farther away, thus create a sense of depth.

objects with different size indicate depth Objects with different size


Pen and ink drawing of two olive trees Pen and ink olive trees

In addition, you can use size to create a sense of space.

Adding a small object to a defined space, makes it look big:

Pencil drawing of a kayak paddler in cave Small object defines big space

Adding a big object to the same space, makes it look small:

Man walking in cave pencil drawing Big object defines small space

3. Overlapping

A body concealing part of another body indicates that the body it is hiding is farther away.

Overlapping objects conceal each other Overlapping objects

Overlapping is a powerful method to add depth!


Pen drawing of two overlapping olive trees Overlapping olive trees

If you like my tree drawings, you are welcome to visit my guide on how to draw ANY tree with a pen.

Pen drawings of trees

4. Position/Height

When the base of objects is positioned higher on the drawing surface, they look farther away.

Using position to create illusion of depth Different positioning

In most cases, the base of closer objects is lower on the drawing surface, AND the top part of close objects is higher than far objects.


This happens when the horizon is placed in the middle (more on that later).

Position and height of near object Closer object position & height

The reason is our optics. Our vision opens like a cone (hence, cone of vision).

Meaning, distant objects occupy a smaller part of our field of vision, and therefore translated as looking smaller by our brain.

Observer angle of sight Observer angle of sight


There is no actual depth in a drawing; the paper sheet is flat. Therefore, use height to determine the illusion of depth.


Pen and ink drawing of a tree Tree position

Here is my review of recommended technical pens for drawing, which I use on a regular basis.

Drawings with pens

5. Contrast & Details

The contrast between the dark and light areas decreases, as does the amount of details, as an object is farther away.

Decreasing levels of contrast and details with distance Decreasing levels of contrast & details

That is to say, when drawing or painting, areas with high contrast come forward, and areas with less contrast recede.


Landscape with trees pencil drawing Trees pencil drawing

6. Edges

When an object or a surface ends in a sharp way, it means it has a hard edge.

Soft edges are when objects end in a gradual way, from dark to light.

Hard vs soft edges when drawing Hard/sharp vs soft edges

Hard objects have hard edges.

Cast shadows and soft objects (like hair, fur and fabric) have soft edges.

Soft and hard edges example

Attention to edges is critical for realistic drawing or painting.

A graphite drawing of a bamboo and dripping water

Foreground objects have hard edges, and therefore in focus.

Background objects have soft edges, and therefore blurry.

Foreground object edges are sharp Background objects have soft edges

This happens due to atmospheric perspective.

Meaning, with distance, there are more atmosphere (air) particles between the observer and the object.

These particles scatter light. That is why distant objects look blurry, and with fewer details and contrast.

You can use your artistic license to draw an effect of a camera, forcing depth between two objects that are relatively close.


Realistic pencil drawing of sparrow birds Two sparrow birds

7. Horizon

Dividing your drawing into ground and sky by a horizon line, mountain range, vegetation, or any other way, attests to depth.

In addition, by adding ground, the objects stop "hovering".

Use of horizon to create depth Horizon and ground

Pencil drawing example:

Pencil drawing of a Pine tree in the snow Snowy horizon & pine tree


Your drawing surface is flat! You have no depth, only width and height.

As objects are closer to the horizon, they appear farther away.

Objects close to the horizon look far Height as a measure of distance

In the image above, trees that are higher on the drawing surface (toward the horizon) look farther away.

Clouds that are lower on the drawing surface (toward the horizon) look farther away.

For a list of equipment that I use for drawing, visit my guide for pencil drawing materials.

Example of drawing materials, including pencils and erasers

8. Perspective

By using linear perspective, it is possible to demonstrate depth in a realistic manner.

Illusion of depth using linear perspective Linear perspective


Pen and ink drawing of a house in perspective House sketch in perspective

If you are new to linear perspective, read my linear perspective guide, it is an important drawing fundamental.

Examples for drawing in linear perspective

9. Foreshortening

Objects in front of the viewer, such as buildings, trees, mountains, people, etc., look smaller as they are farther away, but maintain the ratio between height and width. This means that there is no distortion.

On the other hand, when you change the object (or your) angle of sight, and the object is now along your line of sight, it gets shorter in that direction.

Foreshortening painting when being looked at an angle Foreshortened oil painting

This distortion is due to the angle of sight. The more an object is in your direction of sight, the more it is distorted (becomes much shorter in that direction).

For example, a lake that in reality can be round, in perspective becomes more elliptical as the distance between it and the observer grows.

Foreshortening drawing of a lake Foreshortened lake


Cast shadows are subject to foreshortening (unless they are in front of the observer).

Pen drawing of an olive tree & shadow Cast shadow foreshortening

Understanding foreshortening is THE key advantage of experienced artists, especially when drawing from imagination.

Initial sketch of paper rolls Foreshortened cylinder

Once your sketch is correct, it is ready for rendering.

Toilet paper rolls drawing with markers Coloring with markers

If you are new to foreshortening, visit my guide on drawing from imagination (It is an advanced guide, but explained step-by-step).

Step-by-step examples for drawing from imagination

10. Colors

According to the rules of atmospheric perspective, the farther an object is, the more its color (hue) shifts toward the background color, which is usually blue sky.

Far objects hue shift toward the sky Green slightly shifts to blue

11. Saturation

The farther an object is, the less saturated its color is.

In other words, its color is less rich, bright, or intense, therefore becoming dull or neutral.

Far objects are less saturated Far objects are dull or grayish


Seashore and mountain oil painting Seashore oil painting

12. Temperature

Purple, blue and green are cool colors; they bring to mind the ocean, and other cool things.

Red, orange and yellow are warm colors; they bring to mind fire, or other warm things.

The farther away an object is, there are more atmosphere particles between it and the observer, i.e. the atmosphere color has a bigger effect.

When the sky is blue, the color of background objects shifts gradually toward a blue hue due to scattered light, and therefore becomes cooler.

Foreground objects are warmer than the background objects since there are less atmosphere particles between the observer and the foreground objects.

Opposite phenomenon may occur in sunrise or sunset.

Temperature in landscape painting Temperature in landscape

For a review of markers I use for drawing, visit my markers guide.

13. Values

According to atmospheric perspective, farther objects have higher brightness values, meaning their color is lighter.

Far away objects brightness values Farther object is lighter

For monochromatic drawing, like pencil drawing, the same principle applies.

The key is to press harder with a drawing pencil for darker values, or to use pencils with different brightness values.

Mountains brightness values with pencil Foreground objects are darker

In addition, transitions (gradient) in brightness values can be used to create the illusion of depth.

Pencil drawing of a man in tunnel Transition from dark to light
Man with torch in tunnel pencil drawing Transition from light to dark

14. Cast Shadow

It is important to draw or paint cast shadows when necessary, and to adjust their direction to the opposite side of the light source.

Pen drawing of pine trees and shadow Cast shadow


Pen drawing of a landscape and shadows Landscape with pen & ink

15. Brushstrokes & Marks

Some painting styles are done with a collection of single brushstrokes. For example, painting grass blades or leaves.

In these cases, use larger paintbrushes for foreground strokes.

You can do the same with a technical pen.

Use a pen with a bigger nib size for bigger marks when drawing foreground objects, and a smaller nib size for background objects.

Different nib sizes for different marks Different nib sizes


Tree drawing with a pen

For an initial sketch, the direction of lines/marks or brushstrokes is important.

Same basic shape with different marks direction tells a different story:

Direction of lines when sketching Marks direction for creating shapes and depth

When planning a painting, the direction of marks play a major role:

Initial sketch for tree drawing Marks as first step

And, they are necessary when painting.


Tree and sunset oil painting Tree in sunset oil painting

If you are new to oil painting, it is good to know the different types of paintbrushes for oil painting.

Bonus: Composition

When planning a drawing, it is important for it to be interesting for the observer.

A good composition can add depth.

In many cases, try to avoid front or side views. They look flat.

A three-quarter view is more interesting.

Views of a box from the side, front, and three-quarter Side, front, and three-quarter views

Use a three-quarter view for your portraits.

Realistic cat graphite pencil drawing Three-quarter cat portrait

In order to learn how to compose a scene and render it, read my tutorial on composition drawing.


The key to create depth when drawing is the use of different methods to produce a three-dimensional look on a two-dimensional surface.

Simply put, there is no actual depth in drawing (or painting), but an illusion of depth.


When using colors, pay attention to color attributes such as hue, saturation, value, and temperature.

Color is an important painting fundamental. Here is my guide on mixing colors for realistic painting.

In a monochromatic drawing, correct brightness values are crucial.

Landscape vs still life:

For landscape painting, it is beneficial to understand linear and atmospheric perspective.

When painting a still life, use methods like contrast, overlap, and soft edges, to create depth.

Where to go next?

After understanding depth, you might want to visit my beginners guide to realistic pencil drawing.

And, learn about the 8 key factors for painting realism.

If you like drawing with pens, here is my flower drawing guide.