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

>> More info


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

Basic Art Element — Line

A line is a long, narrow mark or band connecting two points. It has one-dimension — length. When two ends of a line meet, a shape is created. Lines can suggest forms by creating volume. Lines can also create textures and pattern when combined with other lines.

A line is a basic building block* of all visual art. They are very important to a composition as lines perform a number of functions. They can be used to divide the composition, direct the viewers gaze, define shapes, and/or make a statement.

Lines allow the artist to direct the viewer’s eye into and around the composition along a path from form, color, or shape within a work of art. They can vary in width, direction, and length, and they often define the edges of a form. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, straight, curved, thick, or thin.


Texas Flag Barn canvas art“Texas Flag Barn”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on gallery wrap stretch canvas

>> More info


Types Of Lines

  • Horizontal lines
    • suggest landscape and the horizon
    • impart a sense of peacefulness, vastness, stability and constancy
    • associated with earth bound things and suggest a feeling of rest or repose
  • Vertical lines 
    • are perpendicular to the horizon and stretch from the earth to the heavens
    • communicate a feeling of solidity, loftiness and spirituality
    • impart a sense of height, grandeur, and formality
    • gives the impression of dignity that extends upwards toward the sky beyond human reach
    • suggest power with a strong foundation
  • Horizontal and vertical lines used in combination 
    • are structurally stable and are not likely to tip over
    • communicate stability and solidity
    • suggests permanence, reliability and safety
  • Diagonal lines 
    • suggest depth and the illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer into the painting
    • appear to being unbalanced, either rising or falling, neither vertical nor horizontal
    • convey action, movement or direction, restless and uncontrolled energy
    • can appear solid and unmoving if they are holding something up or at rest against a vertical line or plane
  • Curved lines
    • sweep and turn gracefully between end points and is another type of line that the eye like to follow
    • provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture
    • are more aesthetically pleasing, as they are associated with comfort, familiarity, relaxation, softness and sensuality
    • can also communicate confusion, turbulence, even frenzy, as in the violence of waves in a storm, etc.
  • Organic lines
    • occur in nature and are associated with things from the natural world, like plants and animals
    • are irregular, curved, and often fluid
    • convey a sense of gracefulness, dynamism, and spontaneity
  • Implied lines
    • don’t actually exist at all and can not be shown visually
    • are lines created by values, colors, textures or shapes that guide the eye though the piece of artwork
    • are what is implied in the mind’s eye when we see and mentally fill in the spaces between objects
    • are created with directional elements such as shape, hand gesture, eye contact or gazing in a direction (even off canvas)
  • Contour lines 
    • define the edges of objects and also the edges of negative space between objects
    • create boundaries around or inside an object
  • Geometric lines
    • are mathematically determined
    • are rarely found in nature, but often found in man-made constructions
    • have regularity and hard or sharp edges
    • convey a sense of order, conformity, and reliability

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

Homework

Draw an example of each type of line as described above.

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

The Basic Elements of Art (Introduction)

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Form

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Shape

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value