On my recent painting trip to Jerusalem with readers of The Artist it was pointed out to me that much of what we were painting was to do with creating an impression of space. Here, with reference to my Jerusalem watercolours, are some of the ways that this can be achieved, so that you can translate the depth you see onto the flat plane of your picture.

Rothschild House, Jerusalem, watercolour, (38 x 56cm)

The head of the far figure on the left can be taken as the viewer's eye-level and the vanishing point. Lines of perspective of the columns and left wall of the colonnade all converge on that point.


Jerusalem is a city full of wonderful architectural painting subjects, so a grasp of the laws of perspective helps enormously. Understanding one-point perspective – where your lines converge at a single vanishing point in the distance – is a good starting place. At the colonnade of Rothschild House (above) I was able to use the long arcade to explain the mechanics of perspective: where the vanishing point should be; which architectural lines appear to descend and which to ascend; how columns and gaps between them diminish in size the further away they are.

When trying to establish which lines appeared horizontal I pointed out that these would invariably be on the level of your own eyes. One member of the group was sitting at the far end of the colonnade (where I have painted a figure with a child) and I sat opposite her at the other end. Her eye level was the same as mine and our horizon, or eye level, was therefore established just above the tops of the column bases. Her head became my vanishing point and mine hers. The tops and bottoms of the columns on the right, if joined up with imaginary lines, would converge at this vanishing point, as would the floor and tops of doorways on the left-hand side.

It is not always necessary to be so theoretical about it if you can rely on the accuracy of your own observation. Often holding up a pencil or a paintbrush to estimate an angle will tell you whether an architectural line is going up or down as it recedes. In this way you can see how the lines of the building would converge at the given vanishing point if they were continued.

I like to keep an element of spontaneity in my watercolours. It’s sometimes best not to correct every wobble and discrepancy in order to keep the painting loose and fresh, as you can see in The Damascus Gate (below).

The Damascus Gate, watercolour, 15 x 20½in (38 x 52cm).  The shadows of people in the foreground combined with the angles of the high crenellations helps to give the impression of an angular, vertical backdrop. The size of tiny figures tells us a lot about the height of the towering walls.

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Perspective not only applies to solid objects, it can also affect how we see shadows. Just as figures and architectural features receding in space can help to define space and give depth to your painting, so can shadows and they conform to the same laws of perspective. In The Garden of Saint Anne’s Church (below), the horizontal shadows cast by trees to the right in the lower part of the composition stripe the ground towards the building and help to lead the viewer towards the central green door. I made sure to include these shadows on my watercolour paper at an early stage of the painting as I considered them a key feature in the suggestion of depth, and I knew they would change as the sun moved round. 

The Garden of Saint Anne’s Church, watercolour, 15 x 22in (38 x 56cm).  Shadows can be as important part of a composition as more tangible elements. The depth of the space is helped along by the receding shadows on the path.

In The Armenians (below), shadows and tonal variations build up the impression of dark spaces and solid volumes, even though there is an absence of direct sunlight as it was a stormy, overcast day. 

The Armenians, watercolour, 11 x 15in (28 x 38cm). Tonal contrast can help to suggest space: the horizontal shadow under the two foremost figures helps define the plane of the ground on which they are walking. The darker tones under the arches pushes the space back and the lighter columns forward.


Perspective is only one of many useful tools when creating the illusion of space in a painting; the composition of the picture also plays a major part. Try to plan ahead when considering how to create an impression of space, establish where your centre of interest will be and how you will use the rest of the picture surface to best effect. 

When you have chosen your subject it is a good idea to take a few minutes to decide how to place the various elements on the page. A thumbnail pencil sketch can help with this before you start painting. It is particularly important with watercolour to know what you plan to do, because it is more difficult to make changes later on without spoiling the freshness of your paint.

In The Olive Grove (below) I was keen to include the Dome of the Rock in the far distance. Although it is one of the key points of interest in the painting it appears far away because of the large expanse of olive orchard before it, a tiny detail glimpsed beyond the trees and the meadow.

The Olive Grove, watercolour, 15 x 22in (38 x 56cm). By making the foreground gravestones large and the Dome of the Rock small on the far horizon a sense of space and distance is created. The gravestones and the surrounding trees diminish in size as they near the horizon.

I used two very different approaches to space and composition in Wind and Rain on the Temple Mount (below) and The Damascus Gate (above). In the first the large expanse of the foreground plane leads far back to the distant figures and architectural detail; in the second the vertical city walls confront us and take up most of the composition. The first gives a sense of space and air and the second gives a sense of monumentality and grandeur. 

Wind and Rain on the Temple Mount, watercolour, 15 x 22in (38 x 56cm). Here perspective plays a critical role in creating the suggestion of a flat plane of wet paving stones. The foreground takes up a large part of the painting and enhances the feeling of a vast space.

Aerial perspective

The effects of aerial perspective – the misty blue appearance of distant hills – can be an effective way of portraying the space between the painter and a distant landscape. It is the result of layers of atmospheric dust and moisture and is particularly noticeable in the morning and the evening.

I painted the far hills in Sunrise on the City Walls (below) with a series of simple flat washes in a mixture of cerulean blue, violet and yellow ochre. When these washes were dry I applied a few details in a slightly darker version of the same mix, avoiding too much detail. In contrast The Olive Grove was painted at midday, when the sun was bright and overhead, and even the distant city appears in clearer colour and detail.

Sunrise on the City Wall, Jerusalem, watercolour, 11¾ x 16½ in (30 x 42cm).  By including a close-up corner of the stone crenellation in the bottom-left corner I aimed to achieve a sense of distance between myself (the viewer from the ramparts) and the continuation of the city walls into the valley below.

Figures and scale 

The laws of perspective apply to figures, too. In The Damascus Gate the figures nearest to us are considerably larger than those emerging from the gate. It is important to get the relative scale of figures right as this will place them in the exact spot in your picture. If they are too large or too small for their position in the space you will confuse the eye. Care is needed when adding figures to a picture from memory or imagination, as I did here, with constant checking that the size is convincing in comparison to its neighbours. Similarly in The Armenians: the character under the arches helps to push the space back as well as creating a sense of the scale of the building.

Lucy Willis has exhibited widely and won several awards, including the BP Portrait Award. She is an academician of the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, where she regularly exhibits. And her work is in several public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery, and in numerous private collections around the world.   www.lucywillis.com

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