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The Art of Creating a Sense of Depth and Recession.  By: Don Finkeldei:   There are many factors that one should keep in mind to help build a sense of depth and recession in a landscape painting.

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The most widely understood method to create a sense of depth is to follow the general rule that warm colors (the reds and yellows) drop out and planes/objects get cooler (bluer) in relation to perceived distance into the painting.  Of course, there are many other factors that one should keep in mind to help build a sense of depth and recession.

If you need a glossary of terms used in this article you can get them from: Glossary of Terms for Artists

I’ll be using some terms more than others in this article, which, I’d like to define first. 

  • Recession Planes:  The best way to describe this is to use a diagram (below).  There can be objects which can be generally classified as upright (trees, for instance), slanted (mountain slopes for instance), and Horizontals (ground planes) within each of the planes.
    Recession Planes in a Landscape

    There may be the near ground plane in layer one, Trees in layer two, Another distant plane in layer three, and mountains in layer 4.  There also may be different types of planes in each layer (horizontal, slanted, upright).  The point to understand is that these layers recede from front to back.
  • Spherical sky plane: The spherical sky plane is a little different than the recession planes described above in the fact that it is a spherical shape.  Recession planes in this zone can be either described in layers going from zenith to horizon or vice versa.  The point to understand here is that there are general relationships to keep in mind going from zenith to horizon.

This article deals with the all factors needed to create a convincible integrated approach to help your painting recede properly.  

  1. Value Relationships of Recession Planes:
    Values get closer together for objects and plane types within each recession plane as distance increases.  Also, the general overall value of each plane as distance increases often becomes lighter.  A good way to view this is to turn a photograph of your painting (or the photo you are using to paint) into a gray scale in a photo editor (such as Adobe Photoshop).  You can also posterize the gray scale photograph using 10 or so increments from black to white.
    Value in Grayscale of a Painting

    For instance, you may have the same kind of trees in the foreground as you do in a distant plane.  The modeling values of a tree in a near plane are darker and further apart (sunnyside to shadow areas) than the same trees in the distance.

  2. Chromatic  (chroma) Intensity Relationships of Recession Planes:
    As recession planes increase with depth, chromatic intensity becomes weaker as a general rule.  For example, two red barns.  A barn in a nearer distance has a more red chromatic intensity than the barn in, say, the middle distance.  The near barn looks redder and more intense than the barn in the middle distance.  There are lots of ways to decrease the chromatic intensity as distance recedes.  Adding a little green to the red and lightening it with white, or a method I suggest - adding a neutral gray of a slightly higher value to the same red you used in the near barn.  Also (see number 5 below), you should keep in mind the hue change relationships as depth into the painting increase.

  3. Hue (color) change Relationships of Recession Planes:
    If you ask an artist how to make a painting look like it recedes,  the first technique most say is “turn it a little bluer as depth increases -warm colors drop out faster than blue as depth increases”.  
    That’s absolutely true, of course.  But, as you read this article you’ll see there are other things to consider!  A green tree in the distance is still “greenish”.  It’s not blue – it’s a bluer green!  Again, there are lots of ways to achieve this but the simplest way it to use a lighter bluish gray mixed in with the greener paint you used in the foreground tree.

  4. Relative Size and Volume of Similar Objects as Recession Plane depth increases: 
    As depth increases in a painting, things appear smaller.  A similar type tree, for instance, will appear to get smaller with depth.  Check this relationship carefully.  It’s easy sometimes to overlook this.  For instance, a while back I painted a mesa scene.  The mesa was in middle distance (and was also my focal point).  Because it was the focal point I started painting the pine trees at the base of the mesa much larger than the same pine trees in a nearer distance.  I happened to take a break and when I came back to the painting, it was easy to spot the mistake – but, I didn’t see it or think about it when I was painting them.  Also, in nature sometimes a tree in a more distant plane actually appears larger than a nearer set of trees.  Be careful about painting it that way -- consider making the further tree smaller. 
    There is also another point to consider.  I’ll set the stage.  You are painting a mountain scene (the mountains are the focal point) and you have tall pine trees at the base of the mountain.   You had to set up your easel very close to the pine trees at the base (because there was no other place to set up).  You start to paint exactly what you see… Huge pine trees at the base.  Since the mountains are the focal point, don’t do that without at least considering this as an option:  Imagine what the scene would look like if you set your easel up a further distance (say, 1mile further back from the trees.  It’s not hard to realize that the mountain’s size didn’t change that much – BUT, the trees at the base became smaller.  Since the mountain is the focal point and you what to suggest a great height to the mountain you might just want to do exactly what you imagine… making the trees smaller in relationship to mass/height of the mountain.

  5. Edge Relationships between near and distant recession planes:
    Edges generally become slightly softer with distance.  It sort of “fuzzes out”.  You can use a brush technique to create a softer edge but don’t forget that closer values next to each appear softer than higher value contrasts next to each other.  That’s how the eye perceives value contrasts and that will also help create recession -- just by the value recession relationships described in section 1 above.

  6. (Spherical Sky Recession) - Sky Relationships of Hue, Value, and Intensity from Zenith to Horizon:
    The sky at the zenith is bluer (cooler) than the sky at the horizon.  The horizon is warmer, slightly higher in value and has less chromatic intensity.

    Clouds are generally bigger at the zenith and smaller at the horizon.

    Also, there are relationships between the sunny side of a cloud overhead (zenith) and at the horizon.  Sunny side of clouds,  as they become more overhead have more intensity  and can be yellower  than clouds at the horizon, which become pinker and have less chromatic intensity. 

    The cloud shadow areas also have a relationship from zenith to horizon.  The more overhead shadows in the clouds become, the warmer they get.  Cloud shadows at the horizon are cooler.  

In conclusion, you don’t want to over emphasize, or forget about any of these considerations.  There is a fine line between all of these relationships and can only be mastered by actual painting.  But, if you keep these points in mind you will be on your way to creating a convincing depth and recession in your painting.  Every rule can and sometimes should be broken.  That’s up to you - but if you break the rules you’ll have to use careful measures make it read as believable -- and sometimes that’s very hard to do.


# Jonathan 2013-05-22 13:35
That's great fundamental advice. There are other elements that can further complicate or actually simplify your approach to creating distance in a landscape. For instance, in a foggy scene many details are obviously obscured and tonality is all that comes through. Darker are the objects in the nearer plane without the same care for dimensionality and detail. There probably shouldn't be more than 3 planes depending on the density of fog and perspective of the viewer. Also, creating distance in other elements as in bodies of water are a case unto themselves.
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# Catherine 2013-02-25 12:29
I really appreciate you sending me to this link Don, along with your comments on my Shiprock in the Wet Canvas Southwest have really helped. Thanks.
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