15 Ways to Create the Illusion of Depth in a Painting

Updated: 11 Sep 2018

Intro

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

However, for an initial sketch or when drawing from imagination, there are several useful methods to create depth in a painting.

1. Volume

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

A three-dimensional object will have highlight and shadow areas depending on where the light source is located.

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

Example:

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 will look.

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

objects with differnet size indicate depth Objects with different size

Example:

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

3. Overlap

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

Overlapping objects conceal each other Overlapping objects

Example:

Pen drawing of two overlapping olive trees Overlapping olive trees

4. Position

Objects that their base is positioned higher on the painting surface will look farther away.

Using position to create illusion of depth Different positioning

Topography conditions, such as mountains, hills or valleys, are important in object placement.

When it comes to a flat area, and the horizon is at eye level and in the center of the painting, in addition to the base of near objects being lower on the painting surface, the top part of closer objects will be higher on the painting surface.

Position and height of near object Closer object position & height

Example:

Pen and ink drawing of a tree Tree position

The reason is the observer's visual angle, meaning not measuring in meters but in degrees, in perspective.

Observer angle of sight Observer angle of sight

When looking from above, the top part of closer objects will be lower on the painting surface.

Height of objects when viewed from above View from above

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 Decreasing levels of contrast & details

6. Edges

When an object or 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 and out of focus Hard/sharp vs soft edges

Foreground objects will have hard edges and therefore in focus.

Background objects will have soft edges and therefore blurry.

Foreground object edges are sharp Background objects have soft edges

7. Horizon

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

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

Use of horizon to create depth Horizon and ground

Example:

Pine tree in the snow pencil drawing Snowy horizon & pine tree

8. Perspective

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

Illusion of depth using geometric perspective Linear perspective

Example:

Pen and ink drawing of two olive trees House in perspective

9. Foreshortening

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

On the other hand, objects, which are part of the ground, like a lake, road or lawn, will look shorter in height than in width as they are farther away.

That includes anything that is along the line of sight, as opposed to across the line of sight. Thus, even clouds will be subject to foreshortening as they are farther away.

The reason is the change in the viewer's angle of sight.

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 of far away objects Foreshortening

Note: Cast shadows on the ground will be subject to foreshortening.

Example:

Pen drawing of an olive tree & shadow Cast shadow foreshortening

10. Colors

According to the rules of the atmospheric perspective, the farther an object is, the more its color (hue) shift towards 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 will be.

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

Far objects are less saturated Far objects are dull or grayish

12. Temperature

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

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

The farther away an object is, the more atmosphere particles will be between it and the observer, i.e. the atmosphere color will have a bigger effect.

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

Foreground objects will be 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

13. Values

According to atmospheric perspective, farther objects will have higher brightness values, meaning their color will be 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 the drawing pencil for darker values or to use pencils with different brightness values.

Mountains brightness values with pencil Foreground objects are darker

14. Cast Shadow

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

Cast shadow to create illusion of depth Cast shadow

15. Brushstrokes & Marks

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

In these cases, larger paintbrushes can be used for foreground strokes.

The same can be done with a technical pen. Using a pen with bigger nib size for bigger marks when drawing foreground objects and smaller nib size for background objects.

Differnet nib sizes for different marks Different nib sizes

Summary

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

Colors:

While using colors it is important to pay attention to color attributes such as hue, saturation, value and temperature.

In a monochromatic drawing, correct brightness values are crucial.

Landscape vs still life:

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

When painting a still life, methods like contrast, overlap, edges and so on will be used to create depth.

Most sketches for this article were made using a technical pen and marker pens.