How to Create Depth in Your Drawing: 7 Expert Techniques

How to create depth in your drawing: 7 Expert techniques. A pencil drawing of a tiger hiding in blurred grass

Have you ever lost yourself in a work of art that was so real you felt part of it? How do artists trick you into thinking that a flat surface is 3 dimensional? This is how artists create depth in a drawing:

Distant objects drawn in perspective, reduce in size, appear lighter, and lose detail. Hot colors advance and cool colors recede. Artists also blur the background and sometimes the foreground of a drawing to create the illusion of depth.

With that in mind, this post examines those techniques in more detail. It’s easy to follow.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

1. Create Depth in Your Drawing Using Scale

Ask a child to draw an avenue of trees and the chances are they will draw them side by side or even one above the other. Why? It’s because they know the trees are the same size and they draw what they know, not what they see.

Take two identical trees and place one at a distance to the other and the furthest appears to be smaller. We can see they are not the same size.

This is a guide to show you How to Scale Up a Drawing

Now place them in a landscape with a mountainous background. We know the mountains are enormous but we reduce their size in proportion. They appear smaller than the foreground tree but the illusion is perfect.

Create depth by using scale, an example penguin paddling in water pencil sketch
‘Paddling Penguin’ A pencil sketch by Kevin Hayler

This old sketch demonstrates the principle nicely. The penguins in the background are all the same size in reality but we see them as progressively smaller. They are also smaller and less detailed.

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2. Create Depth in Your Drawing Using Tone

Artists can use this knowledge to manipulate the observer by exaggerating the tonal differences.

The artist can have two objects of almost identical tone and separate them artificially by making the rear object much lighter than it is in real life. The object at the front stands out by comparison and jumps forward.

Not only is this technique invaluable for creating depth, but it can also add mystery and atmosphere to the artwork too.

Create Depth in Your Drawings Using Overlap

A minor point, but one that needs iterating I think. Placing objects behind each other, and overlapping, not only reinforces a sense of depth, but it’s also more pleasing to the eye. Compositionally, the image will feel more cohesive and blend naturally. We seldom see things separately.

Create Depth in Your Drawing Using Tone. Three wolves pencil sketch by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘The Pack’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

This drawing is an example of overlapping subjects. I only had photographs of one wolf and I selected the best 3 poses and drew them together as one. The perspective was tricky. I think it just about works. You’ll also notice how the rear wolf is a lighter tone than the first front one.

3. Create Depth in Your Drawing (or Painting) Using Color

The tonal range is straightforward for monochrome imagery, but not so clear cut in a painting.

Colors tend to mute and fade in the distance, but not always. When the air is crystal clear and there’s no atmospheric haze, the distance can be surprisingly vivid. That’s where warm and cool colors make a difference.

The warm colors, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, hit the eye more powerfully and jump forward. The cool colors like blues, greens, and purples sink back.

Landscape painting by Charles Weed.
n Your Drawing Using Color
Landscape by Charles Weed

Knowing these rules allows two different colors of identical tone, but opposing temperatures, to sit side by side and create the illusion of depth.

Like many men, I am red/green colorblind. I can’t see color very well, but I do know how color works. Indeed I started my art life as a painter.

This might interest you: How To Sell Landscape Paintings

I learned the rules. The rules work so well that it’s perfectly possible to replace the right colors, with dashes of the wrong color, as long as the temperature is correct.

I routinely added green to shadows on my portraits for instance and I never had a negative reaction. Quite the reverse, I was complimented for having an eye for color. How ironic is that?

4. Create The Illusion of Depth Using Blur (Depth of Field)

We can’t talk about the illusion of depth in an image without acknowledging the influence of photography.

Before the advent of photography, you didn’t see the depth-of-field effect simulated in artwork. Distant hills may have been indicated in a few brush strokes but never combined with the foreground too.

A sharp focal point with blurred surroundings revolutionized the way we perceive distance. Art has benefited immeasurably from this new way of seeing.

e Illusion of Depth With Blur. Depth of field as a drawing technique. An example image of a tiger in blurred grass
‘Tiger in the Grass’ by Kevin Hayler

Take this drawing as an example. It wouldn’t exist without the influence of photography. The only reference I had was the tiger I saw in London Zoo. The rest is a construct. I shaded the background with a soft pencil, dabbed the paper with a lump of Blu-Tak, and dashed the foreground with a putty eraser.

It’s a very old drawing and if I drew it today I’d take more care, but hey, it works fine and people still buy it.

5. Creating Depth in Your Drawing Using Perspective

We already know that sizes reduce with distance but they will only look authentic if the perspective is applied properly

So many artists get the perspective wrong. There has to be a focal or vanishing point to a distant horizon. It’s very easy if you’re drawing a building. Your horizon will be your eye-line and the angles of the building will converge to spot along the line.

If you look at the building from an angle there will be two vanishing points, one on either side. Three if you are looking down from above.

The rules are the same for every object but it can be much more confusing to see where the vanishing point lies if you are drawing a person or animal.

The example below shows how lead lines draw your eye into the picture. It uses one vanishing point. and notice how the rear engine is lighter and smaller. Take a look at railway lines too. Can you see how the tone graduates from dark at the front to light at the back? Same with the pathway.

Creating Depth in Your Drawing Using Perspective Drawing of steam trains by Kevin Hayler using lead lines and vanishing points.
‘The Engine Shed’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

A common mistake amateurs make is be to believe the camera doesn’t lie. It does. We’ve all seen the kind of thing I’m talking about. The dog with a giant nose and strangely short legs. The trick is to recognize the error and compensate for the distortion.

Any photo taken with a wide-angle lens below 50mm focal length will mislead your eye. The image may look fine as a photo but will look totally wrong as artwork or an illustration.

Didn’t I say Brent Eviston (affiliate) was popular? I counted roughly 200,000 students overall

6. Add Depth to Your Drawing Using Shadow

Without shadow, the objects in your artwork will appear to be floating in space, flat, and lifeless. The shadow gives the subject a firm base.

There is always a shadow, even in soft light. The drawing below has very strong contrast but even so, look at the front paw and the chair legs. They all have extra shading at the base even though they are already in shadow.

6. Add Depth to Your Drawing Using Shadow. An example drawing of a kitten under a chair with heavy shadows
‘On the Prowl’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Shadow gives your work real definition and the illusion of being three-dimensional. Without some shadow, the whole picture would be more like a cartoon.

Being generous with contrast often improves the drawing. It doesn’t matter if the contrast was not apparent in the original photo, add it anyway.

This will teach you How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil

If you ever need proof that shadow and depth are inseparable just look at how the drop shadow on each of the images on this post lifts the picture off the page.

7. Add Depth to the Details of Your Drawing

I’ll end this post by taking a look at the detail of this elephant’s eye. It’s an enlarged section of a larger, very detailed drawing.

7. Add Depth to the Details of Your Drawing. An elephants eye in super detail. A pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
Detail of an elephant’s eye from a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

Notice how I drew the wrinkles as a dark line with a highlight running along one side. You’ll see that repeated everywhere. A gradation of tone simulates the curved folds. There’s also a shadow beneath the eyelid and gradation on the eyeball.

Depth is more than just playing with the perspective, it’s in the texture too.

There are some cracking tutorials on Proko (affiliate). This one by Steven Zapata will help you to add depth to your shading technique

How to Create Depth in Your Drawing – Final Thoughts

Sometimes I think of drawing as a puzzle that needs to be solved. I’ll get there eventually but the way is not always obvious. Creating a convincing sense of depth can be like that; you know when there’s something missing, but you can’t always see it.

When you can no longer see the ‘wood for the trees’ put the drawing to one side and when you return, with fresh eyes, those finishing touches will be more apparent.


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