15 Ways to Draw the Illusion of Depth
Updated: 16 Oct 2023
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.
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.
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.
In addition, you can use size to create a sense of space.
Adding a small object to a defined space, makes it look big:
Adding a big object to the same space, makes it look small:
A body concealing part of another body indicates that the body it is hiding is farther away.
Overlapping is a powerful method to add depth!
If you like my tree drawings, you are welcome to visit my guide on how to draw ANY tree with a pen.
When the base of objects is positioned higher on the drawing surface, they look farther away.
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).
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.
There is no actual depth in a drawing; the paper sheet is flat. Therefore, use height to determine the illusion of depth.
Here is my review of recommended technical pens for drawing, which I use on a regular basis.
5. Contrast & Details
The contrast between the dark and light areas decreases, as does the amount of details, as an object is farther away.
That is to say, when drawing or painting, areas with high contrast come forward, and areas with less contrast recede.
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 objects have hard edges.
Cast shadows and soft objects (like hair, fur and fabric) have soft edges.
Attention to edges is critical for realistic drawing or painting.
Foreground objects have hard edges, and therefore in focus.
Background objects have soft edges, and therefore blurry.
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.
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".
Pencil drawing example:
Your drawing surface is flat! You have no depth, only width and height.
As objects are closer to the horizon, they appear farther away.
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.
By using linear perspective, it is possible to demonstrate depth in a realistic manner.
If you are new to linear perspective, read my linear perspective guide, it is an important drawing fundamental.
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.
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.
Cast shadows are subject to foreshortening (unless they are in front of the observer).
Understanding foreshortening is THE key advantage of experienced artists, especially when drawing from imagination.
Once your sketch is correct, it is ready for rendering.
If you are new to foreshortening, visit my guide on drawing from imagination (It is an advanced guide, but explained step-by-step).
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.
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.
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.
For a review of markers I use for drawing, visit my markers guide.
According to atmospheric perspective, farther objects have higher brightness values, meaning their color 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.
In addition, transitions (gradient) in brightness values can be used to create the illusion of depth.
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.
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.
For an initial sketch, the direction of lines/marks or brushstrokes is important.
Same basic shape with different marks direction tells a different story:
When planning a painting, the direction of marks play a major role:
And, they are necessary when painting.
If you are new to oil painting, it is good to know the different types of paintbrushes for oil painting.
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.
Use a three-quarter view for your portraits.
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.