How to Create Depth in a Landscape Painting

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Create Distance in a Landscape With Tone

Aerial perspective through lighter tones or colors in a painting
On the left is the work-in-progress, on the right I've edited the photo to lighten the sea/sky at the top of the painting. Using a lighter tone on what's in the distance of a landscape painting immediately gives a sense of depth. Marion Boddy-Evans

If a landscape seems flat, without a sense of distance in the scene, the first thing to check the tone or value in the painting. Using a lighter tone on what's in the distance of a landscape painting immediately gives a sense of depth. You can see this in the painting above: on the left is the actual painting, still a work-in-progress decidedly lacking in depth. On the right I've edited the photo to lighten the sea/sky at the top of the painting; instantly it's got a feeling of depth to it. (Nothing else has been changed in the photo.)

The sense of distance created through tone is known as Aerial Perspective. The P Word (perspective) scares many an artist, never mind complicating it by adding the term "aerial" to "perspective". But, truly, it's nothing to be frightened of, if you've looked at landscapes then you already know what it is. You merely haven't used the artspeak for the concept. Know how when you see a series of mountains or hills in the distance they get lighter and lighter the further away they are? That's aerial perspective or a change in value or tone that give a sense of distance.

The next level in developing aerial perspective is knowing that we see things further away as bluer. So in addition to lightening the tone, make the colors a little bluer or colder the further away it is. When choosing greens, for instance, you'd use one that leans towards yellow for the foreground and one that leans towards blue for a hill in the distance.

As a basic 'recipe' for applying aerial perspective to your landscape paintings, think

  • Foreground = Normal
  • Middle Distance = A Little Lighter in Tone and Bluer
  • Far Distance = Much Lighter and Bluer

Remember that red objects appear closer, so if your perspective is looking flat, don't put a red object (for instance a person wearing a red shirt) in the distance but put it in the foreground, and try adding light blue to the distance.

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Position of the Horizon Line

Horizon line in a painting to give depth in a landscape
Photo © Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

The horizon line is the foremost visual component or clue of perspective in a landscape. It's the thing we immediately use to interpret the perspective in a painting we're looking at; we do it instinctively.

So if the horizon line is too high or low on a painting you're losing crucial visual information that critical to how the viewer's brain will interpret and perceive the perspective. Instead, the viewer has to first struggle to deal with where the horizon line is, to see it for what it is and put it in relation to everything else in the composition. Only then do they "unpack" the rest of the painting. This moment of confusion can be enough to make the landscape feel awkward, not quite right.

Too high a horizon line, with only a tiny sliver of above it and the brain won't instantly register that area as the sky. Too low, and the sliver below the horizon risks not being perceived as land. This is not to say you need stick rigidly to Rule of Thirds or Golden Mean for positioning the horizon line, but rather that you need to remember to have enough above and below the horizon line for the viewer to read immediately.

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The Road Illusion

Painting the Golden Gate Bridge
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

An easy and effective way to create the illusion of distance in a painting is to include an element of a known size that gets smaller into the distance following the rules of perspective, such as a road, railway, or as in the photo above, a bridge. We know, instinctively, that the road is the same width along its entire length but that the further away from us it gets the narrower it appears. Thus seeing a road doing this in a painted landscape registers as depth in the painting.

Another way to do this is to add an element into the composition such as a figure that instantly gives a sense of scale. Our eyes tend to be pulled strongly towards figures, and our brains will then automatically scale the rest of what's in the composition to this.

An animal will do the same thing, as will something like a tree though this doesn't work as strongly as even the same species of tree occurs in a wide range of sizes. Yes, humans do too, but we tend to instinctively know if a figure is an adult or child from their size, posture, and clothing.

Don't forget to decrease the level of detail towards the background. We may see every leaf on a tree in the foreground of a scene, but it doesn't have to be very far away from us before we no longer see every leaf individually. So paint detail in the foreground and a sense of texture, tone, and color for the distant tree.

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Canvas Format

Depth in a landscape painting, Tuscany Italy
James O'Mara / Getty Images

Was your choice of landscape or portrait or square canvas a conscious one, or did you merely pick up the first one that came to hand? Depth or distance is easier to perceive in a wide landscape format rather than a narrow portrait format. Effectively the width of the canvas allows for more components of perspective to tie into the horizon line (the obverse to this can produce a very striking effect, for example, "Christ of St John of The Cross" by Salvador Dali).

We also tend to look at landscapes horizontally not vertically, our eye is trained to look at landscapes sideways not up and down. That said, built-up scenes in cityscapes or inside something like a forest benefit from portrait orientation where you're seeing down tunnels of tall buildings or trees.

Don't neglect hard and soft edges. A soft or lost edge will seem further away as if you can't quite see it. A sharply defined edge will, conversely, seem closer. Don't forget about layering the arrangement of elements in layers one behind another with parts obscured. Create the sense of the landscape marching away into the distance.