Distance and Depth in Watercolour

Distance and Depth in Watercolour

If you’ve ever done any kind of landscape painting, you probably know how important it is to create some sort of depth. For today’s blog post, we’ll take a closer look at how to paint this, and I’ll show 3 different ways to do so.

Method 1: The Layering 

The first and probably most common method is the layering method. It’s perfect for the minimalist, as all it takes is one colour and a bit of patience.

For this method, grab your favourite colour (preferably a darker colour), a large brush, a palette with at least 3 wells, a sheet of watercolour paper or sketchbook, and your containers of water. 

Next, dilute your paint into 3 different shades, from lightest (i.e. most diluted) to darkest (i.e. least diluted).

Tip: Have a scrap piece of watercolour paper to test the tones before painting! And make sure you remember which tone sample matches which well in your palette.

Next, use the lightest tone to block in the shape of some mountains.

Note: the subject matter is up to you, whether it’s a forest, landscape, seascape, or cityscape. Make sure this painted area starts about a third from the top of your paper, so you have room to paint the following layers.

Once you’ve let this first layer dry, follow with another layer of the lightest paint, this time starting a little below where you first started. 

Make sure to vary the shape of your mountains, trees, whatever your subject matter is! 

If you’re worried about the overall look, you can always do a light pencil outline before you paint.

Again, once this newest layer is done, add another layer, using progressively more saturated paint with each new layer added. 

This means your painting gets darker as you get towards the foreground, and will create the illusion of depth, as things in the distance will appear lighter than things in the front.

The key here is to be patient in building up your layers! 

The transparent nature of watercolour lends itself well to layering, so even if you wanted to use a different colour per layer (like when using the glazing technique), underlying layers will still show and influence the layers that come after.

Method 2: The Contrast 

If you take a look outside, what do you see? Hopefully, your view isn’t blocked by another building! 

If you can see something quite far away, you’ll notice that things far away tend to blur together into a limited range of tones (i.e. low contrast), while things in the foreground will have more details of shadows and highlights (i.e. high contrast). 

This is a great way to separate the foreground from the midground and background, though it will take a little more practice to get the balance right. 

It’s an especially good trick to use when painting cityscapes, since the background buildings can have minimal tones and details, while the buildings in front can have all the contrast and details.

Method 3: The Blur

The last trick is to create a blurry background for that sense of distance.

Building on the previous principle that things further away tend to blend together, you can use the “wet-in-wet” technique when painting the background.

This consists of wetting your paper with clean water before painting on top. 

The colours will bleed into one another, which creates much softer blends and thus push the subject matter towards the back. 

It’s a good tactic to paint skies and flower fields or to create a “bokeh” (out-of-focus) effect in your painting.

Combo Moves


Armed with these tips and tricks, you’re now free to experiment as you wish! You can even combine some or all of these methods into one large painting, or create several small paintings to see which one you prefer. 

Finally, keep in mind that the more distant something is, the less detail, lighter-toned, and blurrier it will get! 

Plus it’s always best to pair your background with a focal foreground subject. This will give your painting even more overall contrast, and push the background even further away. 

For practice purposes though, you can just stick to doing a background, and see where to go from there. As always, happy painting!

Do you have your own tips on creating more depth or distance in your painting? What kind of backgrounds do you prefer to paint? Share with us in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practicing graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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I found this really helpful as I need to work on the foreground of a landscape and didn’t really now how best to build it up. Thank you

Linda Dove

A very informative tutorial for those interested in learning the most important aspects of landscape, especially depth.

Etchr Lab replied:
We’re glad you found it informative, Chidanand!! 🧡 We can’t wait to see you make more art! 🖌️


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