How do paintings, which are two dimensional surfaces, create the illusion of a three dimensional world? There are many aspects of a painting that you can manipulate in order to create depth. The final impression will result from a combination of all the elements discussed below. See them as control knobs on your mixing table: there are many possible permutations and with experience you will learn to balance them in the right way.
Ramsgate harbour - Watercolour by Benoit Philippe
- Linear perspective: Linear perspective is a system used to create the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface. The main tools are that the horizon line running across the canvas with a vanishing point placed on the line. Because of the way our eyes see the world, all lines defining the side of three-dimensional objects (orthogonals) are converging towards the vanishing point. In addition, the further away an object is, the smaller it looks.
- Using design elements: One way to create an impression of depth is to have a series of similar elements that become smaller in the distance: fence poles, street lights, trees (a row of poplars along a road), and houses along a street. You can use optical illusions to reinforce the impression of distance. Gardeners use a trick to make a garden looks longer than it is: they design a straight alley that is wider at the start and narrower at the end, so that our brain is fooled and “sees” more distance than really exists. You can achieve the same effect by exagerating the perpective in your work. Some compositional elements, like paths or rivers, naturally lead the eye towards the horizon.
- Focal point: The focal point (or point of interest) is the area of your work where you want to direct the viewer’s attention. In order to create a focal point, you use contrasting techniques (warm versus cool or hard edges versus soft edges) that also contribute to giving depth to your painting.
- Successive planes: By overlapping elements in your composition (for instance, a tree in front of a house), you reinforce the cohesion of your work and create a natural flow from the foreground to the background. As an example, painters back in the 17th century used in their landscape paintings a dark mass of trees to frame a view into the distance. In some compositions, you can easily identify successive planes. Otherwise, you will always have at the minimum a foreground, a middle ground and a background.
- Atmospheric perspective: With distance, there is more air between the viewer and the objects and distant objects appear lighter in tone, bluer in colour and with less defined edges.
- Using colour temperature: Warm colours tend to advance while cool colours recede. A distant object will appear bluer and cooler than an object in the foreground. The first colours to fade away with distance are yellows, then reds disappear and blues are last to remain.
- Tones: Tones are different from colour hues. You can represent tones with a scale of greys distributed between white and black. The further you look in a landscape, the greyer and paler in tone elements will be.
- Playing with edges: Details are lost with distance and edges are less defined. You can make an object recede by blurring its edges. A crisp edge will bring an object forward.
- Brushwork: You can reinforce the depth of your painting by varying the type of brush strokes you use. Smaller strokes and smoother rendering are better for far away elements, while more vigorous brush strokes will bring the foreground to life.
There are many elements you can play with to give depth to your painting. Experimentation is the key and, as with most techniques, the easiest way to make progress is to concentrate on one aspect at a time.