Creating Depth On A Flat Surface

Enjoy this page? Please share it. Thanks!

national park wall painting
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.

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 what each of these are.

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.

Other things to remember 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 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

Have a question?

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

Teresa’s Insider News

Be the first to know! Sign up here to be among the first to receive sneak peeks of recently completed paintings, new announcements and other updates at the art studio.

Teresa has an insider newsletter and it’s FREE! This is her way of keeping her friends up to date by giving you sneak peeks of new paintings she completes, as well as other announcements before they are made public. Her newsletter is published every other month, so be sure to get on her mailing list. You don’t want to miss a thing!

Thanks for reading this!

Feel free to share this with your friends.



Enjoy this page? Please share it. Thanks!