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Depth in painting – a short introduction

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A short Introduction to Depth in Landscape Painting

Are you a painter?  A photographer? How do you work with distance and space?  You’re welcome to share your own ideas in the comments, and please DO link back to examples!

One of the hallmarks of Post-Renaissance painting is the use of various techniques to convey distance and space on a two dimensional flat painted surface.  Different artists and schools of painting are notable not only for their creative and emotive genius, but also for new ideas introduced to convey volume and space.  For example, Da Vinci notably used changes in color and in saturation to convey distance in a landscape.  Others have used perspective and the vanishing point, chiaroscuro, blurring and loss of detail in distant objects, or even the curvature of the Earth as objects dip below the horizon.


Color saturation and atmospheric blur

View from bear mountain acrylic painting
View from Bear Hill, acrylic on panel (Sold), 9×12 inches.  Prints available


Because painters work on a two dimensional surface and often try to convey deep three dimensional spaces and curved volumes, sometimes the normal visual cues for depth space and volume are exaggerated in paintings.  Exaggerated color saturation is used in the acrylic painting “View from Bear Hill” (above) to convey distance.  Since distant objects are obscured by the Earth’s atmosphere, they appear softer in color.  Desaturation and a bluish cast from the blue scattering of the air create the illusion of far away distances.

In “After Rassuman” below, the bluish cast from the atmosphere is exaggerated, while the color saturation remains fairly constant.  If the sky blue is considered, the background colors are actually more saturated and intense than the foreground.  The sense of depth is preserved, because the landscape forms in the distance are less distinct and detailed.  They also have more of the color from the sky layered in.  The unusual and “unrealistic” use of color saturation in the distance versus the foreground creates a moody ethereal feeling.  It’s as if the landscape is falling into the sky.

“After Rassuman”, 24 x 30 inches, acrylic on panel.  Original    Prints


Perspective and Vanishing Point

Another way to convey distance and dimensionality is through the use of converging lines.  In landscape art, especially in built landscapes there is a construction known as the Vanishing Point.  This is used to order the two dimensional painted surface and create the illusion of distance by changing the painted sizes of objects and their position and angles as they converge towards the distant vanishing point.

In the photo at the left, an image from inside the Hudson Gallery in Gloucester is used to illustrate perspective and vanishing point.  Built interior spaces tend to be made up of rooms, doorways, corners, moldings  and other structures and features that use a lot of right angles and rectangles (even in New England!).  These features will tend to emphasize perspective over other ways of creating depth.  In the photo, the actual gallery is a normal set of rectangular walls, pillars, doorways, and ceiling features.  It is all right angled planes.  In the photo, the added black lines show how the shape of the rooms changes away from rectangles and right angles because of perspective and distance.  Our eyes and brains interpret this distortion as distance, and not some crazy funhouse geometry in the room.  The lines all converge to a single point, the Vanishing Point.  In perspective terms the Vanishing Point is so very far away that it can be treated as a sort of infinity.


In “A Walk to the Dunes”, below perspective and the vanishing point are also used, but this time in an outdoor scene with very few rectangles and right angles.  Here, the effect of perspective is softer and less obvious.  The trail is used to create the strongest sense of perspective in the piece, but the tops of the brush also are ordered by perspective and contribute to a sense of space.  Some of the atmospheric color ideas discussed above are also used to create a feeling of airiness and outdoor space.

dune path painting with extruded acrylic ribbons and mixed media
A Walk to the Dunes, Acrylic with mixed media on stretched canvas, 24 h x 30 w inches

Sold original – prints are available


Patterns and object sizes

If the painting or image contains a pattern of similar objects, a sense of depth can be create simply by shrinking the objects in the background.  This approach is fairly common in Primitive and Naive paintings (or painting styles that are strongly influenced by naive and primitivist ideas and aesthetics).   Examples would be scenes containing houses, people, plants – pretty much anything where the size is a cue for distance.  In “Wild Roses” below, the shrinking size of the flowers in the distance provides a sense of space, and organizes the painting using size as a cue for distance.



“Wild Roses”, 16 in h x 20 in w, acrylic and ink on panel    Original      Print


Big Picture Spaces

In some cases the different techniques for creating distance don’t work as strongly.  An example would be an abstracted seascape.  The patterns are self-similar moving waves and ripples, so size only creates a weak sense of distance.  Water has similar scattering properties to the atmosphere and reflects the sky, so atmospheric blurring and tinting creates an ambiguous sense of distance.  There really isn’t anything to align to a perspective construction.  It’s in these works that a big picture view of distance can help create space.  A really big picture!  The atmosphere scatters light, catches shadows and reflected light, and in certain situations acts like a giant lens.  Understanding how color changes in different parts of the sky and at different times of day can help create a sense of place and space.  An example is the Seascape (abstracted) “Pensive Waters“, below.



Pensive Waters, 30 in h x 30 in w, acrylic with glass lenses, retroreflective beads, fiber optic plate, mica, gravel and sand on cradled birchwood panel.     Original    Print

A daytime sky will tend to be a fairly deep cobalt or midrange blue straight above the viewer.  The color of the background sky changes towards the horizon.  Sky color grades from a mid-range “true blue” (cobalt blue – cerulean) to a much lighter greenish shade at the horizon.  The humidity in the air will effect how much this color changes.  Drier more arid air retains cooler and more intense colors and less fading out near the horizon.  Modern air pollution also has an effect.  Nitrogen compounds in the atmosphere have m,ade the modern sky a little bit lighter and greener  than at the time of the Old Master’s paintings.  This change is strongest near cities and suburban areas.

Using the big picture of sky color (and atmospheric physics and chemistry!) can create a feeling of huge atmospheric space in a painting.

Another big picture technique for creating distance is one that I frankly do not use very often.  In long distance vistas, the curvature of the earth will make distant objects appear lower and lower until they sink below the horizon.  This last one is not as easy to spot, because often the distant objects are blocked by nearer higher featured in the foreground.  You can spot this effect in real life when looking towards the highest peaks of a mountain range from the foothills, for example.  Sometimes sailboats and islands in the distance will also start to dip below the horizon in a seascape.


There are a number of different approaches to creating depth and distance on a two dimensional surface like a painting or drawing (or photo!).  Artists’ conscious choices to emphasize or avoid different illusions of distance can be used to create moods, to create a sense of place and locale, and to help define and underpin the artist’s unique vision and style.  I hope you found this article interesting and informative.


The next article (articles?) will look at Contemporary artists currently practicing.  Each one has a unique style and uses different approaches to distance and space to ground his or her work within a genre as well as to define a unique vision and style.  I think it will be an interesting little tour of the right-now painterly arts.  Perhaps you’ll discover a new favorite and make some new connections as we continue on this journey into depth and painted space!


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The Road to Perspective                                        Depth and Distance through the work of Contemporary painters

Big Perspective Themed Abstracts