Helping to Create Depth


What do I want my viewer to feel and see when they “enter” my paintings? Usually, I’d like my viewers to linger comfortably in the space I’ve created. If there is a quality of ambiguity or uncertainty, it can come across as poor drawing or amateurish technique. Therefore, I’d like to convey the qualities of space and depth in my paintings in the most convincing manner possible. This is true even when my style may not be strict realism. There are some basic tools and concepts that can help me do this. These are basics of visual form that help us create the illusion of space on a 2-dimensional plane.

They are really simple concepts but, when we are confronted with the visual field, be it when we are plein air painting or even when using a photograph as reference, it can be difficult to reduce visual information into a convincing depiction of space

So here goes. Let’s keep it super simple to begin with. Let’s look at a circle. It’s just floating in the picture plane. We have very little information about it on it’s own. We don’t really know what size it is, where it’s sitting. We need something for it to relate to. Here’s another circle.


Now we have a little more information but not much.

Let’s arrange the PLACEMENT and overlap the two circles. One of the circles is behind the other, but because they are so similar in both value and scale it’s impossible to tell which one is in front. So, still not very much information. This is what happens a lot in the landscape; it’s difficult to distinguish the placement and scale of foliage masses because they are very similar in value. Everything blends together! What to do? Let’s change the SCALE of one of the circles.

Now we are getting somewhere. We have more information, but it’s still a bit ambiguous. This is what happens with foliage masses; we can’t distinguish where they are in space because their value is too similar.

et’s do this. Let’s change the value of the smaller, more distant circle. Now we are on a roll. We have more information. We know much more definitively what’s happening in this space. Let’s add a horizon. Ok, wow…with one line we have given our shapes a context!


Let’s try this again with some tree shapes, just for fun.

Very little depth
Very little depth
Now we have created some depth of field!
 Overlapping two objects gives us information about how the objects sit in space in relation to one another. Anytime we see one object overlapping another, we know one is closer to us. When object don’t overlap we can’t observe the depth of field, so the space looks flat. When objects are lined up, it’s harder to determine what is happening in the space.
Very little depth
Very little depth
Now we have created some depth of field!
Now we have created some depth of field!

Even when the depth of field is shallow, we get lots more information when the elements in our picture are overlapped.

Overlapping gives us information and adds interest to our compositions.

I always hesitate to suggest that there are simplistic ways to look at our compositions and simplistic “tools” or tricks. All of the principles of visual form work in concert with one another to create the playgrounds that we are blessed to work in as artists, but I do think it’s worth breaking these down so that they might be in the forefront of our process and help us to improve!

With Warmest Regards,

Painting Minilessons
with Marla Baggetta

My free online minilessons in art are a fantastic way to learn more about your craft, regardless of your skill level. There are lessons available on everything from basic drawing techniques to complex painting methods, and no matter what your interests are, you’re sure to find something that appeals to you. Whether you’re a beginner who’s just starting out, or a seasoned artist who wants to brush up on your skills, these minilessons are a great resource. These lessons are available anytime, anywhere. So whether you’re looking for a quick refresher or want to explore something new, be sure to check out some of my minilessons at Painting Lessons with Marla.

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