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Artist at Work: Creating Depth of Field

with Mary Jane Begin

Video: Introduction

Learn to add the illusion of depth to your artwork with the effective use of color and contrast.
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Artist at Work: Creating Depth of Field
Video duration: 0s 1h 6m Beginner


If you can convince a viewer that there is depth in a flat image, you can increase the emotional resonance and believability of your artwork. In this course, professional illustrator Mary Jane Begin explores how color and contrast affect the illusion of space. Mary Jane shows how to choose a focal point for your image, use temperature to define your foreground and background objects, employ contrasting colors to create depth, and work with edges to create contrast. As with all Artist at Work courses, the techniques shown here can be applied to both traditional and digital media.

Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:

  • Arches 140 lb hot press paper
  • Tube watercolors - Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
  • Paper stumps for blending
  • Pastels - a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
  • Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
  • Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, # 6, and # 10 brushes
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)



I'm Mary Jane Begin, and this is artist at work, playing with space. Space in a 2D image, is an illusion. When we can convince the viewer that there's depth in a flat image, it's like playing with magic. Toying with a viewers sense of space, and using it as a tool for eliciting mood, can add emotional depth to your images. This is going to be a hands-on journey using color as your most effective tool for playing with space. So let's get started.

The scene that I'll be creating is a morning scene with a croissant and a coffee mug. Imagine being up very early. In a place like Paris. I have a reference for Paris that I will imagine out of the window and I will composite that into the scene. I've created a sketch here and I've done it on a purple ground and a ground is basically a surface of color, tone or white that you work on. And I chose purple because it's a morning scene. And if you observe color in the morning, there's tends to be a lot of purple and pinks when there's a sunrise.

So I thought it would react well to the color in the background as well as the orange which is a complementary color, of the coffee mug in the foreground. So, if we start with our palette, I've laid out all the colors that I'll be using. And now, I'll start painting. And basically, I'll start to think about the largest, most important shapes, here. And I really have a strong interest in starting with the mug, because it's the focal point in this scene. And it's also the highest level of contrast here, because it's the focal point.

What we're going to try to establish is a sense of space. And, the way to do that with one element is to use temperature. So I'll try to keep all of the warm color in the foreground, and all of the, sort of middle tones in the middle, and the coolest color back in the distance. And that's not an uncommon thing to do, mostly because that's the way it functions in life, when you're looking at something in the distance, there happens to be a lot air between you and what's in the background.

So, the tendency is to, you know, keep it cooler, as though this air space between. And I'm going to observe the shadows that I see, and use the ground as part of the shadow. I've also sort of drawn out some of the shadow shapes just to kind of keep those shapes in mind, like on this coffee mug. I've drawn out the shadow shape of the interior of the mug as well as the exterior, because those are important. The issue of contrast, is basically the bottom line here of how to keep something like it's has a foreground, middleground, and background.

Use of temperature is one, which is, I'm going to put the brightest, warmest thing. I'm going to create vibrancy and heat in the foreground with the focus on the mug. Most vibrant and warmest thing in the whole scene. And the least bright will be what's way in the background, would be the sky and whatever landscape I put back there. I'll also use edges. And the edges on this mug are basically, the shadow edges primarily and the edge of the mug against the green that it's sitting on, and against the background which will be the sky.

I'm just trying to color match what I see there, and I'm using at this point primarily watercolor paint, and I'm using it both opaquely and transparently. That's another issue of contrast, when you're trying to create a sense of space, the highest level of contrast not only in temperature, and in value, and in vibrancy, is a contrast of kind of complementary colors.

And this is an orangey red mug against a purple ground. So it pops that was one of the reasons that I chose this too. One of the regions that I chose this particular ground was to make sure that my main area focus, the mug, the orange mug would contrast, and vibrate, and react to the complimentary ground of purple. Secondaries are all complements of each other. And secondary colors are on the color wheel, purple, orange and green.

And they all react to each other with the most intense vibrancy. Other sets of opposites would also be a primary blue across from orange purple across from yellow and green opposite on the color wheel of red. So when you keep those in mind, especially in chosing a ground you want reaction, you think about well what's my main area of focus what will react the most to it. So therefore the purple was a good choice. I'm going to try to keep my shadows more transparent, than what's in the lit area.

And all that I'm using here is just, mostly warm tones. Browns in the shadow, and bright orange, candy orange and red in the lit area. And I have much more opaque color in the area of light and transparent color in the area of shadow. And the reason why I'm doing that is because there's another level of contrast opacity and transparency. If my most opaque and transparent color are sitting next to each other on an object on the foreground, that's where the eye will go.

Our eye tends to be drawn to the highest level of contrast. So you want to make sure you control that in your scene. You have something really high contrast way in the background, the eye will go there, and that's probably not where you want it to go. In this case we want to create space, as well. So we're trying to keep the heat in the front. The highest opacity in the front. That which will pop off the scene the most. And those are things that will. And just darken up the shadow a little bit. I have to look back at my scene, so I'm going to add a little bit of green to this brown shadow and the reason I'm doing that is green is the opposite of this orangey red color.

And that'll increase the contrast of shadow to light. And I'm focused on that here because I want this to be the very first thing the viewer looks at, and it's drawn to. In terms of subject matter, it's the key element of the piece because it's meant to symbolize the heart of the picture, that's why it's red. When I think about having a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, especially early morning, it's warm and so it's symbolic to me in this scene. And so I'd like that to be the most important element.

If I had another red element in this picture that was the same color and intensity, your eye would bounce between those two objects. So, I have to be careful how I set up the scene and what other colors I've used. I'm building up the value of the shadow of this object as well. And the reason why I'm doing that is because value is another element of contrast and, it's one we understand probably the best, that if you have a high contrast of light and dark, the eye will go straight to whatever you're trying to define with that light and dark.

The softer the contrast, it's like the last thing you look at. So I'll save all the soft contrast for the background. Even the Eiffel Tower in the background will not be as high contrast as this mug. Otherwise it would pop forward in the scene and it would deny the illusion you're trying to create. This is really probably the most important aspect of this, is reducing contrast in the background. Keep it soft, keep it back there. I'm trying to also let the watercolor do some of the work here. And what I mean by that is watercolor wants to move across the surface so I'm trying to let it and not let the color get too dry.

And I have to let those shadows define the shape of this mug, so I'm trying to blend the color so it's not too hard a transition so it doesn't quite believable. And then, think that's a good base. You can always go back in and tweak and push and play, but for right now, this'll be a good start for the mug. And the last thing I want to hit on the mug is really those areas of a lot of light. And it's one of my favorite parts of the scene is this little spot right here. I love that it's, it's vibrant and it's red, and there's this great shadow hitting that spot and what it's doing, and this is something that, this is sort of more subtle composition with color.

It's pointing you in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. The angle of that shadow, is directly like a line saying, look back there. And so using diagonals in color, for contrasting, and moving through the scene and creating space is important, and I tried to set this whole thing up so that your eye would angle back. Have lots of directional pointers, I'll point them out as I get to them. Now, typically I try to also think of painting the largest areas of color or accessing the largest area of color.

So, this was not the largest, but it's one of the most important. So, I'm dealing with it first. But we can hit another area that's maybe a little bit bigger and also important. But not as important as the mug. I just finish this area up. Once you have color on your brush, it's like, you know, any tool, you want to, you want to complete that section before you go to the next. And I'm paint, painting much more here about light and shadow. I'm literally using the paint both for the lit areas and the shadow areas. Sometimes I block a flat shape and then go in with the light, either scrubbing it out or popping it on here, I'm doing both at the same time.

More for expediency, so you can see this develop a little more quickly. I think a fun area to paint for contrast will be, perhaps the ground, that, this green zone. I have big shadow shape, and then I have the surrounding area. I'd liked to do the sky, but I think I might do it in pastel, because the sky that I see in my reference is so soft, that just feels like the right material. But if I do that, and I drag my hand across it, that won't work so well, so I think I'll leave that for right now.

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