Creating Depth On A Flat Surface

Creating Depth On A Flat Surface
Monument Valley — Navajo Nation
by Teresa Bernard

Depth is a basic building block of all visual art. What makes it such an important element is that 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. Therefore one can see just how important creating depth on a flat surface is.

Creating Depth

Primary techniques an artist can use to create depth in a painting are (1) layering and overlapping, (2) changing size and placement, (3) linear perspective, and (4) relative color, hue, and value. Let me explain each of these.

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

Changing size and placement is another method artists use to create a sense of depth in a painting. This technique states that larger objects appear closer and smaller objects appear further away. Also, objects 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. The objects in the composition can also imply them.

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

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 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.

Other things to consider are:

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 further away from the object. Blurring the edges of shadows also increases the illusion of depth.

Focus, Texture, and Detail — Objects that are 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

Using Atmospheric Perspective to Create Depth in Your Paintings

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If you have a question about this painting, please contact us, and we’ll be happy to answer any of your questions.

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