Third Saturday Online: 3D Landscapes

Some artists use the canvas to give the illusion that you are looking through a window into a landscape. Let’s see how they make the painting look three-dimensional by exploring how they compose their paintings. Then create your own 3-D landscape with paper and scissors.

A landscape with trees on the left and a cliff on the right in the foreground. A green-blue lake in the middle ground, and blue-gray mountains in the background. A watery-blue sky has storm clouds coming in from the left. There is a very small house, person, and dog under the trees in the foreground on the left and boats far away in the lake.
Thomas Doughty, American, 1793–1856, Along the Hudson, 1852, oil on canvas
Purchased with funds from the Marriner S. Eccles Foundation for the Marriner S. Eccles Collection of Masterworks, UMFA1984.059

Artists can make it look like you are seeing far into the distance in a painting by creating depth. They paint objects larger and closer to the front edge of the painting and small objects near the top of the painting or behind other things. These places are called the foreground and background. Objects or people in the middle are in the middleground. In this painting by John Doughty, what objects are in the foreground, middleground, and background? Which object looks the furthest away? Why do you think that object looks so far away?

A landscape with red rocks and two pine trees in the foreground. Colorful purple and blue mountains in the middle ground, and a big fluffy white cloud that covers most of the sky with a sliver of blue sky at the top of the painting. The surface is thick with paint and heavy brushstrokes.
Birger Sandzen, American (born Sweden), 1871-1954  , Two Pines, Manitou, Colorado, oil painting
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. D. Stewart, UMFA2017.4.1

Even though this painting is more colorful and abstract with thick paint on the surface, it still has the illusion that you are looking at a landscape through a window. In this composition, what is in the middleground and background? Sometimes the background can be so far in the distance it is the sky! Think about what you want to put in your landscape’s foreground, middle, and background. What type of landscape are you thinking about creating: a desert, a jungle, a snowscape? Or something completely new?

Three bulls are in the foreground among several yucca plants. Men in 19th century US Calvary uniforms on horses are in the middle ground along with a bull flipping a man up in the air. Several covered wagons are in the background. The air is filled with dust and a brownish-blue sky can be seen at the top of the painting.
Minerva Teichert, American, 1888–1976, Battle of the Bulls, ca. 1946, oil on canvas
Purchased with funds from Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley and a gift from Bernard Simbari, M.D., UMFA2004.2.1

This landscape also has a lot of action and things going on. What is happening here? Artists usually put the most important details of their artwork in the foreground or middleground. How would the story in this painting change if the covered wagons were in the foreground instead of the background? In your landscape, what objects will you put in the foreground, which in the background? How could moving these objects backward or forward change your landscape?

Making 3-D Landscapes

3D Landscape supplies on a wood table top

You will need:

  • A piece of paper 8.5” x 12” heavy paper like cardstock works best but regular printer paper works fine too
  • Ruler
  • Scissors
  • Pencil 
  • Optional colored pencils or crayons


a piece of craft paper with pencil lines making every 2 inches


1. With a ruler, measure along the long side of your paper every 2”. 

Craft paper with a ruler and black pencil

2. Do the same on the opposite long side and draw a line between them. This gives you 5 sections that are 2” and one section that is about 1.5”. 

craft paper accordion folded into 6 sections

3. Fold along these lines. Begin by folding the first line so the fold is pointing up like a mountain. Then the next fold pointing down like a valley. Keep folding like an accordion until you have folded all the lines alternating up and down. You should have three folds pointing up and two folds pointing down.

4. Position the paper with the small 1.5” section closest to you. This is the foreground. The middle fold pointing up is the middleground and the farthest fold pointing up is the background. 

folded craft paper with a tree drawn on in pencil

5. Now you can draw your landscape. Choose what objects you want in the foreground and draw them with their base resting on the first fold pointing up. Your objects can go through the fold pointing down if you want. It works best if you can make big simple shapes so they are easier to cut out. 

a hand with red scissors clips around a pencil outline of a tree on a pieces o craft paper

6. Next cut out the shapes of the foreground. Cut them without cutting through the sides of your paper. You might have to poke a hole on the edge of your object to get started. 

cut out tree and house popping up from the accordion folded craft paper

7. Do the same thing for the middle ground and background using different objects that you want in your landscape. 

finished 3d landscape

8. When you are done you can color your 3-D landscape if you would like. Now you have a beautiful artwork that shows depth in a landscape!


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Third Saturdays are funded by Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts & Parks

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