Representational painters constantly have to deal with the problem of conjuring up the third dimension on a two-dimensional surface. Portraying depth is crucial to making a realistic picture that will capture the imagination of viewers, but depth on a flat surface is just an illusion, and to create this illusion you must know how to draw. More specifically, two important aspects of creating depth are proportion and perspective, so here are a few strategies for taking control of these factors and giving your scenes plenty of room to explore.
Creation of space in a picture depends on many things, but perhaps the most important is the relative sizes of the objects in the picture. As you know, objects appear smaller as they recede into the distance. But that’s not all there is to it. In a picture, the difference in size between objects creates the distance between them. The illustration on the next page, which contrasts two sketches of vastly different relative sizes between the same subjects, is a good example of this principle. You can place a person in front of a mountain, but the illusion of depth that you give the scene can vary by as much as miles, even before you add anything more to the picture.
Don’t forget, however, that the more space you create, the more you have to fill. In this simple example, the act of placing the person and the mountain miles apart leaves the picture with miles of emptiness, so be sure to use the territory in a way that suits your subject. Consider adding elements to the picture that will enhance the presence of this space. Repeated objects—a house or a tree, for instance—that retreat into the distance and thereby appear gradually smaller are an especially effective device.
When designing a composition, the first object you draw is extremely useful because it defines the scale for everything else. Once that object is drawn, the amount of depth you want in the picture will determine the size of all the other objects. If it’s a human figure, for example, any houses or buildings at the same level of depth in the picture should permit the person to fit through the doorway. The degree to which these sizes differ will determine the perceived distance between the objects in the third dimension. The figure of a person serves as a good example for this technique, but you can use any shape (a tree, a chair, etc.) in a similar manner to establish the proportions of all your other elements.
When distances between objects are small enough that they don’t justify noticeable differences in size, merely overlapping the objects can create space between them. In addition, depending on the source of light, shadows are a great indicator of the third dimension. For instance, the shadow side of a building next to the sunlit side shows a change in plane that provides a great sense of depth.
Getting Your Perspective: To make figures recede into the distance, find a vanishing point by drawing lines from the foot and the head of the first prominent figure that meet in the distance at eye level in the picture. Any figure within those lines (with adjustments for an individual’s height) will be in perspective, and figures off to the side can be measured by connecting them horizontally to your original lines. Doing this correctly is important to making the space between the figures appear convincing.
Establishing proportional size is a vital part of creating depth in your work, but the more space you create, the more you have to fill. Once you’ve opened up the extra dimension, make the space convincing by giving the viewer a firm and reliable sense of perspective. According to the rules of perspective, it’s generally not hard to make sure that receding parallel lines meet at an imaginary vanishing point on the horizon. But correct perspective is a little more difficult for objects that aren’t composed of straight perspective lines, yet this principle is still very important for the illusion of realistic space.
These objects have what I call hidden perspective, where the lines of perspective don’t appear in the final drawing. Take as a subject a forest composed of many different kinds of trees, for instance. If the trees are varying in size, the terrain is varied and the deepest parts of the forest are drawn mostly as undefined masses (as is often the case), you’ll have to imply a sense of perspective instead of defining it. Fortunately, these very complications can make your job easier. Undulating planes are a great way to add depth naturally, serving a purpose similar to that of multiple stage sets as they recede. By obscuring the land behind them, these small elevations give you a bit more flexibility in establishing perspective than flat ground does. Also, the density of your arrangements allows you to make the best use of overlapping and changes in size. Gradually giving distant trees less definition and contrast is a way of putting space in between them and the viewer.
The Effects of Distance: In this grouping of trees, the illusion of space is created by several factors, including simple overlapping and an undulating terrain that creates different stages of distance. Also, as the trees recede into the distance, I gave them less definition and detail, lighter values, and less change in value and contrast.
You’re entitled to take a few liberties with perspective, too. In my drawing of Assisi, Italy, the ground isn’t level and the buildings are disorderly. Instead of complicating the process by finding all the actual vanishing points, I just estimated the perspective as I drew. Even so, these points are all roughly at the horizon, or eye level, which lies just below the large umbrellas. This keeps the picture anchored, so that all the space created by so many interrelated people and structures appears easily inhabitable.
The more practice you get as an artist, the easier these depth-producing techniques become. At the same time, I think experience gives you a better appreciation for how important the feeling of depth is to a realistic painting, as much for still lifes and portraits as for landscapes. Opening up that third dimension is a way of inviting the viewer to step into the world of the artwork, and that’s the first step in making any piece of art successful.
John Elliot is a pioneer in the use of oil pastels. He’s founder and president of the Oil Pastel Association, and can be contacted through his Web site at www.allart.com. In addition, he’s conducted and composed music, and is an active member of the Bloomfield, New Jersey, Mandolin Orchestra. His sketchbooks are filled with co-performers and other musical notables.