For additional resources, see the Kohl’s Art Generation Online Lab & Gallery guide.
Learn seven tricks that artists use to give the illusion that things in a work of art are near or far. With each trick, we show you two works of art. We compare a work by a more traditional artist with one by an artist who tries to mix it up. Both create spaces that make us question and pay attention to what we are seeing.
Objects far away appear smaller than objects close up. Experience teaches us this. For example, as a car drives away, it becomes smaller and smaller. We interpret this as the car getting farther and farther away. We are familiar with many objects. If an object appears smaller or larger than we know it to be, we can determine whether the object is near or far. This is called “relative size.” Artists use this device when painting an image. The smaller the object, the farther away it seems.
You can experiment with size by creating a stop-motion animation using this free app. You can use real objects and place them farther and farther away from your iOS device, or draw the same object in three different sizes, cut the drawings out, and then animate them. How else can you make animations that show objects moving closer and farther, becoming larger and smaller? (One suggestion: try making your own flipbook!)
Richard Lorenz (American, b. Germany, 1858-1915), Buffalo Hunt, 1904. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of
Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Ogden M1958.7.
Milton Avery (American, 1885-1965), Two Figures, 1963. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry
Lynde Bradley M1977.71. Photo credit: John R. Glembin. ©2010 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New
The relative color of objects provides clues as to their distance. Because blue light is not absorbed and scatters in the atmosphere, distant objects, such as mountains, appear bluer. The crispness of an object’s outline also provides clues as to its distance. The scattering of light blurs the outlines of objects, so objects with fuzzy edges are perceived as distant.
Nicolas de Stael (French, b. Russia, 1914-1955), Red Boats, 1954. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs.
Harry Lynde Bradley M1959.377. Photo credit: Dedra Walls. ©2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP,
Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Abert and Mrs. Barbara Abert Tooman M1974.230. Photo credit:
Léon-Augustin Lhermitte (French, 1844–1925), Haymaking Time (La Fenaison), 1897. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, with funds from Avis Martin Heller in honor of the Fine Arts Society M2010.68. Photo credit: John R. Glembin
Parallel lines that converge to a fixed point create the illusion of depth. A painting that is made using linear perspective might have implied lines, as though the image were “built” over a grid, or lines as obvious as those of a railroad track.
Make your own linear perspective scene: Download this PDF Sketchbook and give it a try!
Rev. Nazarenus Graziani American, active 19th century, Church of the Assumption (The Pink Cathedral), 1885. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art M1989.204. Photo credit: John Nienhuis
Josef Albers (American, b. Germany, 1888-1976), Study-Homage to the Square: “Lighted from Within”, 1957. Oil on
Masonite. Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Anni Albers and the Josef Albers Foundation, Inc. M1981.76. Photo credit:
John R. Glembin. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
When objects overlap, our brains interpret this as one object being in front of another in space.
Rubens Peale (American, 1784-1865), Apple and Two Pears on a Pewter Plate, 1861. Oil on tin panel. Milwaukee Art
Museum, Layton Art Collection, Purchase, L1960.1. Photo credit: John R. Glembin
Paula Modersohn-Becker (German, 1876-1907), Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, 1906. Oil on board. Milwaukee Art
Museum, Maurice and Esther Leah Ritz Collection M2004.128. Photo credit: Efraim Lev-er
Colors can be identified as either warm or cool. Warm colors—reds, oranges, and yellows—tend to appear closer than cool colors—greens, blues, and violets.
William James Glackens (American, 1870-1938), Breezy Day, Tugboats, New York Harbor, ca. 1910. Oil on canvas.
Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Abert and Mrs. Barbara Abert Tooman M1974.230. Photo credit: John Nienhuis
Compare to: Mark Rothko, Green, Red, Blue, 1955
Rigaud Benoit (Haitian, 1911–1986), Boat Builders and Fishermen, ca. 1953. Oil on Masonite. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Richard B. Flagg M1977.168. Photo credit: Efraim Lev-er
Objects placed near the horizon line appear farther away than those placed below it. Decreasing the size of the object near the horizon line makes the object look even farther away.
David Lenz (American, b. 1962), Sam and the Perfect World, 2005. Oil on linen. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, with
funds from the Linda and Daniel Bader Foundation, Suzanne and Richard Pieper, and Barbara Stein M2010.17. Photo
credit: John R. Glembin
Light and Shadow
Marsden Hartley (American, 1877–1943). Northern Seascape, Off the Banks, 1936–37. Oil on cardboard. Milwaukee Art Museum, Max E. Friedman–Elinore Weinhold Friedmann Bequest M1954.4. Photo credit: Efraim Lev-er
Highlights and shadows affect how the eye reads an object’s dimensions and depth. Light that comes from a direction other than above tricks our brains into seeing an object differently than its actual physical form; it becomes distorted.
Richard La Barre Goodwin (American, 1840–1910), Hunting Cabin Door, ca. 1889. Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite.
Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art and Purchase, M1980.2. Photographer credit: P. Richard Eells