How to Create Space in Art with Value and Color

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Space in art

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Artists face the challenge of bringing three-dimensional space to life on a two-dimensional canvas. And without the proper understanding of how to use color, value, and other crucial elements to create realistic space in art, the task becomes exceedingly more difficult.

However, by learning how to skillfully employ these elements, you can create the illusion of depth and distance, infusing your paintings and drawings with lifelike realism! Now even if your end goal is not to create a believable sense of space, its important to understand the ‘rules’ in order to break them. Let’s get started by looking at the powerful effect warm and cool colors can have in your art!

Cool colors recede in space, warm colors come forward

In the diagram above you can see how the warmer color on the bottom appears to come forward while the cooler color on the top appears to recede back in space. This basic principle can be applied to all kinds of painting.

One of the most straightforward ways to create a sense of space and depth is to use warm and cool colors. In general, warm colors, such as reds, oranges, and yellows, tend to come forward and make an object feel closer to the viewer. Cool colors such as blues, purples, and greens tend to recede back in space. Keep this rule in mind when planning your artwork. Using warm colors for the foreground and cool colors for the background will create a sense of depth and space.

Example of Creating Space in Art with Cool and Warm Colors

Notice how color temperature creates space in the painting below. The foreground has relatively warm colors while the painting becomes gradually cooler until we reach the bluish cool temperature mountain in the background. It is the color temperature in the painting that helps to create this very real 3 dimensional sense of space.

This painting by Samuel Birman (Italian Landscape with Women at a Fountain) is a great example of showing how cool colors recede back in space and warm colors come forward. Utilizing this in your own painting will help to create a believable sense of 3 dimensional space in your work. When viewing paintings of prominent artists you will notice this on display.

However, like everything in painting colors and color temperatures are always relative. Something isn’t cool or warm unless it is ‘cooler’ or ‘warmer’ than the color it is next to. In other words a red could be cool if it is next to a warm red.

Soft edges recede back in space while sharp edges come forward

Here is a clear example of the difference between a hard and soft edges. Notice the soft edge on the left and the hard edge on the right. There are innumerable amount of edges between a hard and soft edge. It is very important to pay attention to them while painting. Edges play a great role when creating space in art.

Edges play a crucial role in creating depth and space in art. A sharp edge will appear closer, while a soft edge will recede back in space. This rule is particularly important in all forms of painting, but can more easily be seen and understood in landscape painting.

For example, in the painting below we can see how the foreground area of the painting has very sharp edges. As your eye moves towards the background area of the painting the edges become much softer. The changes that we see in the edges are an integral part of the spatial depth we see in the painting.

In this painting by Jan Ciaglinski (Remote Indian Landscape) you can clearly see how edges play a crucial role in creating a believable sense of 3 dimensional space in the painting.

The role of light and dark values in edges

Creating hard and soft edges is only possible by working with value. For example in the diagram below you can see how both colors are very similar in value and therefore we see a soft edge. On the right the red is much darker in value than the blue above and therefore there is a hard edge created between the two values/colors.

This diagram shows how light and dark values help to create soft and hard edges that can create space in art
You cannot make edges without working with values. It is the similarity or contrast in value that create soft and hard edges. Notice in the diagram above how two relatively light value colors next to one another create a soft edge. While two colors that are very different in value create a harder edge.

So, if you have two values that are very different – a light value next to a dark value – then you will have a hard edge. However, if you have two values that are very similar such as two light values next to one another or two dark values next to one another, then you will have a soft edge. You will notice this at work when viewing paintings.

Notice in the portrait painting above by Albert Edelfelt that the hard edge by the nose is created by a dark value next to a light value. While the soft edge by the top of the head is created by placing two dark values together. The medium edge by the jawline has a medium value next to a slightly lighter value. It is these changes in edges that help to create a sense of form and dimension in the painting.

Create space in art with atmospheric perspective

Atmospheric perspective is the effect of the atmosphere on the appearance of an object as its distance from the viewer increases. The further away objects are, the less saturated and lighter in value they appear. For example, in the painting below you can see how the mountains in the distance should appear lighter and less saturated than the ground in the foreground.

atmospheric perspective helps to create 3 dimensional space in this artistic landscape painting by Jan Ciaglinski
The saturation level of a color plays a big role in creating atmospheric perspective and space in art. Bright saturated colors tend to come forward while muted colors tend to recede in the background. Notice in the painting above how the more muted lighter color appears far off in the distance. While the darker more saturated color is in the foreground.

Light muted colors recede in space, saturated dark colors come forward

You can apply this to your own painting by lightening and muting colors in the distance. While keeping colors darker and more saturated in the foreground. This applies to all kinds of painting whether landscape, portrait, still life or completely abstract.

Use shadows to create space in art

Shadows help to create space in art and painting - even in this still life painting by Emil Carlsen
This still life by Emil Carlsen is a good example of how shadows help to create 3 dimensionality in a painting. Shadows are another example of how value plays a crucial role when creating space in art. Notice how the inner portion of the pot is very dimensional because of the cast shadow that is on the right. As well as the pieces of garlic on the lower right side are made more volumetric due to the cast shadows.

Shadows are a powerful tool in creating depth and space in art. Shadows create contrast, which is what our eyes use to detect depth. Dark shadows on a lighter background will make an object appear closer, while lighter shadows on a darker background will make an object appear further away. Understanding how to use shadows in your art will help you create a sense of depth and distance.

Creating a sense of 3-dimensional space through color and value is a crucial skill for every artist and painter. By using warm and cool colors, soft and sharp edges, atmospheric perspective, value, and shadows, you can create a lifelike and believable artwork that captures the depth and distance of real-life scenes. Keep these tips and tricks in mind the next time you sit down to create, and see your paintings and drawings come to life.

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    20 thoughts on “How to Create Space in Art with Value and Color”

    1. I don’t know why I haven’t seen this before now, but I’m happy I found this article. You have managed to completely explain through writing and visuals. I love when teaching that there is an explanation and valuable information, but also the visual example. I tend to retain the visual example much better.
      Thank you for this. I’ve been painting for years, but what you said and how you explained through the examples was like an aha moment.
      I sometimes paint by the seat of my pants and what you’ve said in this article will help me to plan much better.
      Thanks so much.

      1. Thank you for sharing that Carol! Am so glad to hear that the information in this article was helpful. There are many things that aren’t taught/ shared enough in painting – which is one of the reason why this website exists.

    2. Thank you for all the different techniques of painting, I’m a beginner and get frustrated at times.
      I’m learning more and very inspired by you.

    3. Thank you Elisabeth for enumerating techniques for spatial illusion in a simple, easily understood fashion. I would like to add that value defines space, specifically value relationships . For example alternating horizontal bands of light and dark can take the eye from foreground to background depending upon the thickness of these contiguous bands.

    4. Hi Elisabeth,
      Thank you for this article as well as for Colour mixing guide. I’m at the beginners art class at the moment. So this information will really help me in getting sense of colours and feeling them.

      1. Ah, ha!
        This morning’s read while Buddy sleeps on my lap!

        Now I realize the “necessity” to learn this in the 3 studies you suggested.
        I am unhappy with the “flatness” of the backgrounds of the black/white & this blue/brown/white study!

    5. Thank you for a really useful article with lovely examples. I’m going to practice this as I struggle with creating depth in my paintings.

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