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.
Creating the illusion of depth in a work of art involves a number of techniques. Objects reduce in size at a distance, appear lighter, and lose focus. Hot colors pop to the front and cool colors recede. Accomplished artists use these optical tricks, combined with a knowledge of perspective and an eye for composition, to produce convincing artwork.
With that in mind, this post examines those techniques in more detail. It’s easy to follow.
Create Depth in Your Drawings 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.
Further Reading: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways and Save Time
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.
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.
Create Depth in Your Drawings 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.
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.
Create Depth in Your Drawings Using Color
The tonal range is straight forward 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.
Further Reading: How To Be An Artist When You Are Colorblind
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. 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?
How to Draw Depth of Field
We can’t talk about the illusion of depth in an image without acknowledging the infuence 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.
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.
Creating Depth in Your Drawings 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 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.
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.
Add Depth to Your Drawings 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.
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.
Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All the Best Secrets)
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 lift the picture off the page.
Adding 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.
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.
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.
There are more posts like this one for you to enjoy:
- Is it Cheating to Trace your Art? Is it Really OK?
- Can Anyone Learn to Draw? 5 Great Tips to Get You Started
- Is Drawing from Photos Bad? Are you Cheating?
- How to Make Your Drawings Interesting: 14 Hacks to Add More OOMPH
- How to Find Your Own Art Style. It’s Easier Than You Think
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