Creating Depth On A Flat Surface

national park wall painting
Monument Valley National Park

Depth is a basic building block* of all visual art. It is an important element in any composition as it creates a strong sense of reality in a painting. It can be defined as the illusion of distance or three-dimension on a two-dimensional or flat surface. A lack of depth in a composition means it will be less than lifelike.

Primary techniques an artist can use to create depth in a painting are layering and overlapping, changing size and placement, linear perspective, and relative color, hue and value.


Marine still life with boat fenders“Boat Fenders”
Marine Still life by Teresa Bernard
9″ x 12″
Oils on canvas panel board

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Layering and overlapping is placing one or more elements in front of another element in order to create the illusion of depth in composition. Objects that appear in front of others seem nearer while those that are behind seem further away. This method is the strongest way of creating depth and it will over ride all other signs when there is seeming conflict.

Changing size and placement is another method artists use to create the sense of depth in a painting. This technique simply states that larger objects appear closer and smaller objects appear further away. Also objects that are positioned at the bottom of the painting appear to be in front and those at the top appear to be in the back.

Linear perspective allows artists to give the impression of depth by the property of parallel lines converging in the distance at infinity. An example of this would be standing on a straight road, looking down the road, and noticing the road narrows as it goes off in the distance. The point of infinity is what is called a vanishing point. These lines don’t actually need to be visible, though they can be. They can also be implied by the objects in the composition.

For more information about using perspective to add dimension to your paintings, read the article titled The Rules of Perspective.

Relative color, hue and value can also add the illusion of depth.

  • Darker colors look closer to the viewer and lighter colors look further away.
  • Colors that are close in value seem close to each other and strongly contrasting  colors appear to separate.
  • Warm, bright colors (red orange, yellow) seem to advance towards to the foreground and cool, dark colors (blue and bluish green and purple) seem to recede into the background.
  • Saturated colors seem to advance and low saturated colors seem to recede.

Lighting and Shading

Light adds depth by casting external shadows, it also shows depth in how it acts over the surface of one object. The closer to the light source, the brighter the surface is with more reflected light.

Cast and drop shadows are another common way to add depth. Reflections work similarly in that a reflection appears on a different surface. The illusion of depth can be increased by making the shadow larger and lighter and placing it further away from the object. Blurring the edges of shadows also increases the illusion of depth.

Focus, Texture, and Detail

Objects that more detailed, sharper in focus and more textured appear closer than those with less detail, blurred or little or no texture are perceived as far away.

*Click for more information about the basic elements of art.

Additional Reading

Creating Depth in Your Paintings via Atmospheric Perspective

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