How Artists Create the Illusion of Distance: The How To and Activities based on The Hay Wain

John Constable’s The Hay Wain, is a great painting to show how artists create the illusion of distance.

Here is the how-to and activities to help you (and children, too) understand How Artists Do It!!

If a landscape artist does it well, as Constable has, you feel like you could take a walk right into the painting!

Helpful terms:

Horizon line: where the land (or sea) and the sky meet.






In The Hay Wain there’s a lot of sky on the right so we have a low horizon line. On the left the tall trees seem to block the sky, but we know from real life that the sky and horizon line extend back behind these.

Activity: trace your finger along the horizon. Do you see little bits of it behind the trees?

Foreground (close up stuff—here it’s the wagon, house, dog, etc.)

Middle ground (just what it says—here it’s the field on the other side of the pond)

Background (again what it says—here it’s the far trees and hills that meet the sky at the horizon)

Activity: Name things that are in the foreground, middle ground, and background.

The Hay Wain by John Constable, public domain

Here are the major ways that artists create the illusion of depth:

1 point perspective: what are actually horizontal lines slant back toward a single point on the horizon line called a vanishing point.

If you’ve ever been on a path or road or seen a photo of one going back into the distance, you’ve seen this in real life. The sides of the road seem to meet in the distance. We know they don’t, but our minds also know that when this happens, it means distance. Artists have seen this, too, and that’s why they use it!

In the Hay Wain notice the horizontal lines of the nearest roof. To create depth they are drawn to slant back towards a single point on the horizon behind the big trees.

Activity: Use a straight edge to figure out where that point is in The Hay Wain.

Size We all notice that as things get farther away, they appear smaller to us, so artists take advantage of this to show distance in their paintings. We perceive larger things like the trees right behind the house to be up close, while the small ones along the horizon seem to be far away.

Overlapping: Speaking of the large trees “behind” the house. If you look at a coffee cup in front of a pencil container on your desk, you can tell the coffee cup is in front, because you can’t see all of the pencil container. The coffee cup overlaps and blocks out parts of the container, telling you it’s behind the cup.

So artists take advantage of this to give an illusion of depth. Those things in a painting that are supposed to be closest overlap and block out parts of things that are supposed to be farther away.

Activity: In The Hay Wain tell where different trees are in relation to the house. In front of? Behind? Beside? Besides some small plants, what is the “closest” creature in this painting?

Activity: Which partially blocks or overlaps the other? The wagon or the team of horses? So which is “closer”?

Activity: Look at this other harvesting painting, and find examples of overlapping.

Harvesters Resting by Jean-Francois Millet, wikimedia commons

Detail: In real life we can see more detail in things that are closer. At close range we can tell a person’s hair color and facial features, but at a distance, we may only be able to tell that it’s a person. Having observed this, artists show fewer details of distant people and objects. In addition, outlines tend to be less sharply defined.

In The Hay Wain we can see the facial features of the men in the wagon and even what their hats look like. Although those figures way out in the field are recognizable as people working, we can see little detail, so it helps the illusion of distance.

Activity: The dog is close. Describe its size, colors, type of ears, what you think it’s doing.

Color: Two things about color:

     Distant colors aren’t as bright, so artists tend to use more muted tones for distant objects.

Aerial Perspective. If you are able to gaze way into the distance, you may have noticed that landscape objects, especially hills and mountains look hazily blue, gray, or even purple, depending on the time of day. The more distance, the more air to cause this bluish look. So artists use these colors to help further the illusion of distance.

Constable doesn’t have any real hills in this painting, but if you look carefully you’ll see that the farthest trees, the ones that follow the horizon, are a bluish green.

Activity: Look at this haystack painting by Monet, and you’ll see he takes full advantage of aerial perspective to create the far hills “behind” the hay stacks and houses.

Grainstacks-Late Summer, Giverny by Claude Monet

Height in the Painting: Last, but not least is the observation that when you look into the distance, the various distances look higher the farther away they are.

Activity: In The Hay Wain which area is the lowest—foreground, middleground, or background?  Which area is the highest?

Note: Large things in the foreground can and do stretch up and across all three distances, but as explained in the size section, this is what we see in real life with close up objects.

So much of art is about careful observation, and that observation has led artists to know how to create the illusion of distance. Of course, these observations also show how wonderfully made we are by God so that our eyes and brains work together to tell us whether something is close or far away.

Have you ever had the opportunity to notice any of these things (1 point perspective, overlapping, detail and color changes such as blue in the distance, and height in the picture) in real life or in a painting? Tell about it in a comment.

The next kathythepicturelady post will use The Hay Wain and more activities to help children understand and appreciate landscapes. These activitie are great for home schoolers and anyone who wants to understand great art! The next ones will also show how artists move our attention around a painting to notice every part of a painting.

If you’re new to this blog, you might want to go back to the series on Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals, which includes some great painting projects for kids!

Molly loves art activities, and she thinks you and your children will, too, so sign up today to receive these posts by email!




2 thoughts on “How Artists Create the Illusion of Distance: The How To and Activities based on The Hay Wain

  1. Jeanne Takenaka

    Kathy, reading your post brought me back to my junior high art class, where we learned some of these terms. I love the way you describe them and show how they have been applied in The Hay Wain. You make art concepts easier to understand. 🙂


    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Thank you, Jeanne! I appreciate your saying that I made these concepts easier to understand. Teaching either in person or in writing is always a challenge, and I pray all the time for clarity and as well as making art interesting and fun. Thanks for stopping by!



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