Creating Depth in a Picture

Recently a couple of my students have asked questions about creating distance in a picture. Whether its drawing painting or printmaking the principles are the same. We’ve all seen paintings where the background  is coming forward or the foreground feels like it goes back. If that describes a picture you are working on at the moment, read on…….
To start with you’ve got to get the structure of your picture working first.  By that I mean the perspective and the relative scale of different things/ objects in the picture.
But even with all this correct, you can still have problems with depth.  You want your picture to create the illusion of depth, you want to  feel like you could walk into it, but instead it feels  flat.
Here is a few general rules to help you,  in order of importance.

  1. High contrast comes forward and low contrast goes back. So if you are working in black and white you want black and white near each other in the foreground, less contrast in the middle ground and less again in the background.  Note that less contrast can mean going greyer and paler in the background or it can also work going darker into the background. (Choose one or the other not both)
  2. Bright colours come forward and dull or more neutral colours go back.
    Looking Out Looking In oil on canvas by Shana James
    "Looking Out Looking In" oil on canvas by Shana James

    This rule is relative to other colours in the same picture.  You don’t have to have bright colours in the foreground but if they are brighter than those in the middle or background they will come forwards. If you want to put a bright colour in the background you may need to add a bit (and I mean a tiny bit) of the complimentary colour to push it back a bit.  Eg a bit of purple to a yellow makes it a slightly duller yellow. (If you got brown you added too much!)
  3. Warm Colours come forward, cool colours go back. Note that again this is relative to other colours in the picture and all other things being equal.  The previous 2 rules trump this rule.
  4. Large marks come forward and smaller marks go back. This one is pretty obvious if you are painting use a smaller brush for details in the background than you did in the foreground. If you are drawing use larger marks in the foreground than you do in the background.  If you are carving a  linocut use  a larger cutting tool in the foreground.
    "Growing Girl with Trees" Linocut by Shana James
    "Growing Girl with Trees" Linocut by Shana James

Of course in art rules are made to be broken and for any rule you can find an artist who has broken the rule and made it work. Now go back to your flat painting and give it some depth 🙂
See more linocuts by Shana James
From time to time at the Fremantle Arts Centre I teach a weekend workshop in colour mixing which covers all this and more.  If its not on this term check again next term.

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