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The Illusion of Depth – Perspective, Details and Overlapping Forms

May 1, 20137 Comments

Artwork used with permission:

Zhaoming Wu –

Last time we learned how to use color to create the illusion of depth. Now let’s explore various concepts of shape.

The most familiar way of indicating depth for most of us is perspective. You have converging diagonal lines, foreshortening of forms, overlapping shapes, and scale. With all of these principles of perspective we are using shape to create the illusion of depth.


First, the most basic rule of perspective is that as objects get further from the viewer, they will appear smaller. So, to show depth it’s a good idea to have objects of recognizable size in both the foreground and background. We know that these two figures should be roughly the same size, so this smaller one seems further away.

Everybody knows that my biceps are enormously large. A smaller bicep in the same scene will appear further back.

The objects don’t have to be the same, just any objects that the viewer recognizes and knows its approximate scale. The house on this hill gives us something to go off of to imagine the size of the hill. When we make the house smaller, now the hill looks like a mountain, and much further away.

Since distant object are smaller, there’s less space to put details. So, don’t try to cram as much details as possible just for the sake of having detail. In fact, removing information could be better. Putting more detail in the foreground elements and less detail in the background elements adds to the effect of depth. And consider simplifying distant shapes. Instead of attempting to include every subtle nuance of the object’s contours, focus on the rhythm of the shape and its role in the picture.

Converging Lines & Vanishing Points

Everybody knows you can’t talk about perspective without mentioning vanishing points. Basically as objects recede into space they get smaller and smaller and by the time they reach the horizon they are so far away they’ve shrunk to mere dots. This is best seen on boxy objects like walls and furniture and stuff.. The top and bottom of the walls are parallel, but when perspective is applied, all the lines in the scene that are parallel, will point to this one vanishing point. This is called one-points perspective. One point perspective brings the viewer into the scene to look at whatever action is happening near the vanishing point..

With two point perspective, now you have one side of the box going toward one point, and the other side towards another point. Instead of bringing the viewer into the scene like we did with one-point perspective, instead we get an effect of the closest object popping out towards the viewer.

We can choose to play up or play down this effect with the degree of the angles. For example with this car, the middle line at the headlight closest to us really jumps forward. It’s very difficult not to look there. The headlight screams “look at me, I’m in your face”. So, you would decide if that’s what you want. Is it about the headlight or the whole car? You can play down this effect by flattening the perspective a bit. Very different effect and something that many don’t even consider as they start plotting their perspective. Be careful with this because all these decisions could have an important role in how the viewer reads your picture.


Now, foreshortening and converging lines coming to a vanishing point are basically the same thing.. It’s just things receding back into space and getting smaller. Though with organic forms you rarely have obvious diagonal lines directing the viewer to a point. Foreshortened, organic objects, like a leg, appear to be going back because the viewer is familiar with its extended length and when it’s squished down to half the expected size, the viewer’s brain automatically thinks, “well, it must be going away from must be hidden from sight, behind itself”. So in this case it looks like it’s receding because it’s length is shorter than it should be.

Common mistakes

I see it all the time and I’m a victim myself.. Its a life drawing class, and we’re drawing a foreshortened leg. Except we don’t draw it foreshortened. We draw it as if it was fully extended. This is really common, because our brain just doesn’t want to draw it foreshortened. We’re so used to seeing a leg in its full length, that we just want to draw what we know. It’s an illusion. But, we’re not the viewers, we’re the artists and we should be in control of these effects and we should be thinking of how we can use them to our advantage. Be in control of it instead of fighting it.

Another mistake is we successfully measures the length, but then we just compress the width to make it resemble more of a leg shape.. Then you have a tiny leg. Seems silly, but it happens all the time. Stupid brain!

At first, just think of it as an abstract shape. It’s not a leg, its just a shape. Removing the identity of what you’re drawing from your mind should help you stay analytical

Overlapping Lines/Form

With an organic form like a leg, you also have “overlapping” forms to help show depth. The leg is made up of many smaller volumes, the muscles and bones, and as these recede, some will be in front of others. You can show this by overlapping the lines. Femur is in front of the vastus medialis, vastus medialis is in front of the adductor group, which is in front of the pelvis.. These overlaps tell the viewers eye that the forms are receding backward, one after the other..

So, we started with a simple abstract shape for the leg, but that’s flat. After you’re done with the simple shape, go back and establish the overlapping forms.


Ok, that’s it for this episode. Next lesson I’ll continue on the illusion of depth and explore ways of adding depth by using shape related concepts like, scale, detail and perspective.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Ron Kempke says:

    When can we expect to see your anatomy series?

  2. Ivan Leandro Gaudiosi says:

    Dear Proko, you know any good book about perspective?

  3. Thanks for encouraging out, superb details. “Whoever obeys the gods, to him they significantly listen.” by Homer.

  4. mrinalsen says:

    you are a best teacher and a mastero. a rare and brilliant combination.
    new generation is lucky to get a teacher like you.

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