15 Proven Ways to Create the Illusion of Depth in Art

Pen and ink drawings of olive trees

Intro

In art, 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 proven methods to create depth in a painting.

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1. Volume

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

Flat vs 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

For recommended drawing pens, visit my technical pens review.

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/Height

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.

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

Position and height of near object

Closer object position & height

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

Example:

Pen and ink drawing of a tree

Tree position

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 with distance

Decreasing levels of contrast & details

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

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 when drawing

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

Pencil drawing example:

Pencil drawing of a Pine tree in the snow

Snowy horizon & pine tree

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

8. Perspective

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

Illusion of depth using linear perspective

Linear perspective

Example:

Pen and ink drawing of a house in perspective

House drawing 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 drawing of a lake

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

Example:

Seashore oil painting

Seashore oil painting

12. Temperature

Purpleblue and green are cool colors; they bring to mind the ocean.

Redorange 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

Done with marker pens for artists.

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 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 to 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

Author’s comment:

These sketches were made with my favorite drawing pencils, Staedtler Mars Lumograph.

See on Amazon

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.

Pen drawing of pine trees and shadow

Cast shadow

Example:

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, 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

Example:

Tree drawing with a pen

Pen drawing of a tree

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, marks direction play a major role:

Initial sketch for tree drawing

Marks as first step

And they are necessary when painting.

Example:

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.

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.

Simply put, there is no actual depth in painting but an illusion of depth.

When you draw or paint from observation, the knowledge of what to look for will improve your art and, when drawing or painting from imagination you can use your artistic license with these methods.

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.

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