The Illusion of Depth

The Illusion of Depth

Contrast, Aerial Perspective and Form

How do we create the illusion of depth? How do we fake 3-dimensionality? In the next few videos I’ll try to explain all the ways that I know of.

Now this is not going to be about how our binocular eyes see two slightly different images from 2 different angles and our brain interprets those as a 3d image, none of that scientific optical jargon about how our eyes work. I’m talking about how to create depth on a flat surface like canvas, paper, a wall or a computer monitor. I’ll go over actionable things that you can use now to improve your drawings. We, 2-dimensional artists, only have the x and y axis to work with, but we need to learn how to draw 3d objects and 3d environments if we want to effectively portray our world. To do this, we need to be able to imply the z axis, that’s the one that goes towards you and away from you.


The first and one of the most important concepts to know about to create depth is contrast.

This can include contrast of value, contrast of hues, and contrast of chroma, but the most effective is contrast of value… Areas with a lot of contrast will come forward; areas with little contrast will recede.


For example, in this image the foreground has a lot of contrast, which is fine. But the background also has a lot of contrast, meaning the range from the lightest light to the darkest dark is wide. it includes almost the entire value scale. If we want to push the background back and make the foreground elements pop out, we can lower the contrast in the background elements. I’m doing this digitally with a photograph, just to illustrate the concept, but I would do the same thing if I was drawing a figure or painting a landscape. We make these kinds of decisions to improve the visual impact of our pictures.

Quite often, when drawing a figure or portrait I will push an area closer to the value of the background, to make it recede. For example with this collar, as it wraps back around the head I want to push it back by lowering the contrast. I made the values almost identical and show only a thin line to suggest an edge. Higher, I darkened it a little to match the value of the hat. I was looking for ways to make the collar less visible as it recedes, instead of outlining the shape and giving it its own separate value. A common mistake is when we try to make everything important in the picture. We make everything pop forward and when everything pops forward, nothing pops forward. The image becomes busy and loses a focal point.

I tried doing the same thing at the top of the hat, by making the value lighter, closer to the background. By doing this around the perimeters of the portrait, it draws the eye to the center of the face, where there is a lot of contrast.

This not only creates depth, but also a sense of atmosphere. And it unites the person with the rest of the picture. It makes it feel like the object or the person belongs in the environment and not just a cut out shape on a page. Unless, that’s what you want.. You don’t have to add depth to your artwork, but this lesson is not about not adding depth.

Aerial Perspective / Atmospheric Perspective

You’ll hear landscape painters talk a lot about atmospheric perspective, or aerial perspective. This is the effect of the atmosphere on distant objects. When things are really far away from us, like miles away, this effect becomes very obvious. Mountains that are covered with green shrubbery or brown dirt, appear bluer.

That’s because we’re looking through a layer of particles and air molecules. This atmospheric layer scatters light from the sky and makes distant objects blue, during the day.. At sunrise or sunset, you could see warmer tones, reds oranges, and yellows. The greater the distance, the thicker the layer you’re looking through and the effect is more intense.

Things will also get lighter and colors less saturated. So, if you think about it, atmospheric perspective is really just a decrease in contrast. Contrast of value decreases as the value range shifts towards a lighter blue. Contrast of hue decreases as warm colors become cool, and contrast of chroma decreases as colors become less saturated.

This could be even more intense if there’s fog, mist, smoke, or dust in the atmosphere. Sometimes the air is so dense that you can’t see through it past a few feet. So, this concept isn’t just for landscape painters. You can use it to add atmosphere to any situation. Steam in a kitchen, smoke at a bar, or throw in a really intense atmosphere into any picture where you want to create a better sense of air and an environment.

I’ve been emphasizing decreasing contrast to make things seem further away and add atmosphere. But, don’t forget about the other end. Choose your focal points and increase the contrast in those areas. It’s a great way to make those areas pop out at the viewer and call out for attention.

Form – change of plane, gradation

A change of plane on a 3-dimensional object indicates turning of the form.

Let’s observe the planes of her cheek. She is facing to the right towards the light source. So, this plane is facing that way. The halftone to the left of that is facing us and then the shadow plane in the side of the cheek is facing towards the left side. These 3 transitions along the forms come together to create volume. Individually, they would look like flat value, but together, as a gradation, they appear 3-dimensional.

You can show a change of plane with transitions of value, hue, or chroma. But the most effective is value. You can show a little bit of form with transitions of hue or chroma, but not nearly as much as a gradation from a bright highlight to dark shadow.

Other “rules” or guidelines that I’ve heard are, cool colors recede and warm colors come forward. Light values comes forward, darks recedes. I want to point out though that these are very minor ways of adding depth and have a small role in the overall effect. A light object with little contrast might look further away than a dark object with great contrast. So, it really depends on the whole picture and how you use all the concepts.

Perspective, Details and Overlapping Forms

The most familiar way of indicating depth for most of us is perspective. You have converging diagonal lines, foreshortening of forms, overlapping shapes, and scale. With all of these principles of perspective we are using shape to create the illusion of depth.


First, the most basic rule of perspective is that as objects get further from the viewer, they will appear smaller. So, to show depth it’s a good idea to have objects of recognizable size in both the foreground and background. We know that these two figures should be roughly the same size, so this smaller one seems further away.

Everybody knows that my biceps are enormously large. A smaller bicep in the same scene will appear further back.

The objects don’t have to be the same, just any objects that the viewer recognizes and knows its approximate scale. The house on this hill gives us something to go off of to imagine the size of the hill. When we make the house smaller, now the hill looks like a mountain, and much further away.

Since distant object are smaller, there’s less space to put details. So, don’t try to cram as much details as possible just for the sake of having detail. In fact, removing information could be better. Putting more detail in the foreground elements and less detail in the background elements adds to the effect of depth. And consider simplifying distant shapes. Instead of attempting to include every subtle nuance of the object’s contours, focus on the rhythm of the shape and its role in the picture.

Converging Lines & Vanishing Points

Everybody knows you can’t talk about perspective without mentioning vanishing points. Basically as objects recede into space they get smaller and smaller and by the time they reach the horizon they are so far away they’ve shrunk to mere dots. This is best seen on boxy objects like walls and furniture and stuff.. The top and bottom of the walls are parallel, but when perspective is applied, all the lines in the scene that are parallel, will point to this one vanishing point. This is called one-points perspective. One point perspective brings the viewer into the scene to look at whatever action is happening near the vanishing point..

With two point perspective, now you have one side of the box going toward one point, and the other side towards another point. Instead of bringing the viewer into the scene like we did with one-point perspective, instead we get an effect of the closest object popping out towards the viewer.

We can choose to play up or play down this effect with the degree of the angles. For example with this car, the middle line at the headlight closest to us really jumps forward. It’s very difficult not to look there. The headlight screams “look at me, I’m in your face”. So, you would decide if that’s what you want. Is it about the headlight or the whole car? You can play down this effect by flattening the perspective a bit. Very different effect and something that many don’t even consider as they start plotting their perspective. Be careful with this because all these decisions could have an important role in how the viewer reads your picture.


Now, foreshortening and converging lines coming to a vanishing point are basically the same thing.. It’s just things receding back into space and getting smaller. Though with organic forms you rarely have obvious diagonal lines directing the viewer to a point. Foreshortened, organic objects, like a leg, appear to be going back because the viewer is familiar with its extended length and when it’s squished down to half the expected size, the viewer’s brain automatically thinks, “well, it must be going away from must be hidden from sight, behind itself”. So in this case it looks like it’s receding because it’s length is shorter than it should be.

Common mistakes

I see it all the time and I’m a victim myself.. Its a life drawing class, and we’re drawing a foreshortened leg. Except we don’t draw it foreshortened. We draw it as if it was fully extended. This is really common, because our brain just doesn’t want to draw it foreshortened. We’re so used to seeing a leg in its full length, that we just want to draw what we know. It’s an illusion. But, we’re not the viewers, we’re the artists and we should be in control of these effects and we should be thinking of how we can use them to our advantage. Be in control of it instead of fighting it.

Another mistake is we successfully measures the length, but then we just compress the width to make it resemble more of a leg shape.. Then you have a tiny leg. Seems silly, but it happens all the time. Stupid brain!

At first, just think of it as an abstract shape. It’s not a leg, its just a shape. Removing the identity of what you’re drawing from your mind should help you stay analytical

Overlapping Lines/Form

With an organic form like a leg, you also have “overlapping” forms to help show depth. The leg is made up of many smaller volumes, the muscles and bones, and as these recede, some will be in front of others. You can show this by overlapping the lines. Femur is in front of the vastus medialis, vastus medialis is in front of the adductor group, which is in front of the pelvis.. These overlaps tell the viewers eye that the forms are receding backward, one after the other..

So, we started with a simple abstract shape for the leg, but that’s flat. After you’re done with the simple shape, go back and establish the overlapping forms.


The Illusion of Depth – Edge, Line, Cast Shadow and Paint Thickness


Sharp edges are visually a lot louder than soft edges and so they tend to pop forward and separate object, whereas soft or blurry edges recede and bring things closer together. So, a sharp edge between these two object will separate them. Blurring the edge will somewhat merge them and bring them closer together.

When our eyes focus on something, things further away or closer to us from that object will be blurred. In photography this is called, depth of field. When the depth of field is high, sharp details are seen in a very large range. Objects far away from the focal distance are still sharp. This can seem unnatural because that’s not really how our eyes see things. Naturally we will see a narrower depth of field to help us focus on a particular area. A narrower depth of field is a great tool to add depth to a drawing.


Line isn’t really a type of edge; sharp, firm, or soft, but it is a way to indicate the edge of a form. It’s a stylized way that doesn’t exist in reality, but nonetheless it is a way to indicate depth and can be very effective. The type of line you use can make or break the illusion of depth. You can vary the thickness of the line and the value of the line to achieve this.

As forms recede back into space use a thinner line. This is related to perspective, since the objects further away from us will appear smaller, including the lines. We tend to use the same line throughout the drawing. Sometimes this might be because of our tools allowing for just one line weight, such as the tip of a graphite pencil or a ballpoint pen. In that case, you’ll have to go over the line a few times to make it thicker unlike with a brush or a pencil sharpened to a taper, where you can vary the angle to change the line thickness. Also, consider varying the value of the line. Make the objects further back lighter and the ones that you want to pop forward darker. This is related to atmospheric perspective that I talked about in part 1.

Line can be used not only in separate objects, but within an object as it recedes or where there is overlapping form.

Such as in the figure. This tricep is closer to us than the deltoid. But, I want to show that the edge of the tricep is wrapping around and behind the deltoid. So, instead of using the same line in the overlap, which is still effective because of the overlap, I could use line weight to make it even more effective. I could make the line thicker in the areas that are closer and thin out and lighten the line of the tricep as it wraps around the deltoid.

Cast Shadows

Cast Shadows are another way you can show that something is in front of something else, especially when there is no overlap to do that. In fact this is heavily used in graphic design to pop things forward. Photoshop and other similar programs have a “drop shadow” option that immediately pops a shape out from the background.

In this figure drawing the cast shadow helps to bring the arm away from the body. And suggests that its further away at the elbow because of the greater distance to the edge of the cast shadow.

A cast shadow on a ground surface can indicate that there is open space behind the object and also can serve as a great way to add converging lines to add some perspective to a scene.

Paint Thickness

The final thing I want to mention is quite literally adding depth to a picture. If you’re using paint, you can physically bring something forward by using thicker paint on that area.

I won’t go not too much detail about it, but I think it’s easy concept to grasp. If you have two objects, using thicker paint in the distant one might not be a good idea. But thicker paint in closer objects can serve as a great attribute for depth. Just an idea..

Ultimately, creating the illusion of depth in your artwork will be achieved through a combination of the concept I went over in the last 3 videos, and its up to you to decide which ones you want to use and how you want to use them. It depends on your style. If you’re a beginner, try all of them and don’t worry too much about style. As you develop, your taste will grow and change, and your style will come naturally.


Video The Illusion of Depth

VIDEO 1 Contrast, Aerial Perspective and Form


VIDEO 2 Perspective, Details and Overlapping Forms


VIDEO 3 Edge, Line, Cast Shadow and Paint Thickness