Illusions of Depth

Lesson Plan


Students will use Long Jakes as inspiration to analyze and interpret how artists create a sense of depth on a flat canvas.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

Two 50 minute lessons

Standards Area

Visual Arts


  • analyze and infer a work of art’s underlying structures;
  • discuss fact and fiction found in historical works of art;
  • analyze and interpret the different physical features found in landscapes of different areas;
  • identify and use characteristics and expressive features in a work of art; and
  • create the illusion of depth using background, middle ground, and foreground.


Day 1

1. Show students the image of Long Jakes and ask them to identify what they see. If the image is projected, consider having students point out details to the class. Ask students who they think this person was and when and where they think he might have lived. How has the artist communicated this information to the viewer? Share with students information from the About the Art section. Do they think that everything the artist painted is exactly as it was in real life? Have a brief discussion about students’ thinking on this.

2. Ask students if they have ever seen a landscape like the one in the painting. If so, where? What clues did the artist provide for us in the geographical features included in the painting?

3. The Colorado Academic Standards refer to the elements of art and principles of design as characteristics and expressive features of a work of art. Artists make compositional choices in their paintings that tell the viewer many different things. For instance, they can create a sense of depth on what is really a flat canvas. They can create this illusion of a background, middle ground, and foreground by using the following techniques:

Placement of objects/items on the page or canvas:

  • items at the bottom of the paper appear closer
  • items at the top of the paper appear farther away

Larger to smaller:

  • items intended to appear closer are made larger
  • items intended to appear farther away are made smaller

Atmospheric perspective:

  • items intended to appear closer are darker, more distinctive, and have lots of detail
  • items intended to look farther away are fuzzy and purplish


  • items in front of other things partially cover up what is behind

4. Charles Deas used these strategies and other compositional choices in this painting of Long Jakes. Point out uses of placement, size, atmospheric perspective, and overlapping in the painting. If your classroom has access to a mountain view, take the students outside to point out how the mountains appear purplish, especially those that are farther away. Are they really purple when you get there? No. This is an example of atmospheric perspective. Point out how clearly you can see what is right in front of you—maybe grass and trees or perhaps cars in a parking lot. But can students see the leaves on the trees or cars on the mountains far away?

5. Ask students to identify what is in the background of the painting, then the middle ground, and finally the foreground. Tell students they will create a work of art inspired by Deas’s Long Jakes that uses the illusion of depth by creating a separate background, middle ground, and foreground, and putting it all together to create a finished work of art. Students might choose to create a modern version of Long Jakes or an image of some other character.

6. Hand three pieces of paper to each student. One paper will be the background, one the middle ground, and one the foreground. The effect of atmospheric perspective can be heightened if the student has a selection of earth-toned construction paper in dark brown, medium brown, and very light tan, green, or blue.

7. On the lightest paper students will use pastels or crayons to draw only things that will be in the background. If we look at Long Jakes we see sky at the top of the background. Notice that the sky doesn’t stop at the top of the paper but continues down the canvas, taking up a good half of its surface. You might wish to point out the horizon line and how the sky and earth meet there. The Rocky Mountains are also in the background and they are where the sky and earth meet in the composition. Students may choose to use elements found in Long Jakes or may decide to create their own landscape with different geographical features.

Day 2:

1. Next, students will put a middle ground on their medium-colored paper. Notice what is in the middle ground of the Deas painting: the flat land of the plains, or maybe it is a valley, and perhaps the foothills. The middle ground starts just below the middle of the canvas and contains rough-looking land forms and trees. Remind students that they are free to use different geographical features as fits their design.

2. Finally, students should notice what is in the foreground of the Deas painting: Long Jakes and his horse; the ground directly under the horse’s feet; and the rocks, dirt, and grass located at the bottom of the painting. Students should draw on their darkest paper their interpretation of Jakes, his horse, and the ground at the bottom of the page. There should be no background or middle ground on the foreground paper. Remind students to add crisp detail and features to the drawing of the foreground—because this is nearest us, we can see it very well, unlike the things in the background.

3. Once each layer of drawing is complete, students should cut out the middle ground and set it on top of the background so that the middle ground covers up the bottom of the background paper. Then cut out around the contour of the foreground.

4. Next, place the foreground on top of the middle and background papers to complete the work of art. Glue the papers together to form a completed image that conveys depth. Creating fields of depth in this manner helps younger students understand the concept in a very concrete way so that in the future it is easier to create the illusion with only one piece of paper or canvas.


  • About the Art section on Long Jakes
  • Color copies of Long Jakes for students to share or the ability to project the image on a wall or a screen
  • Three pieces of 9×12-inch construction paper for each student
  • Pencils and erasers
  • Oil pastels or other available medium
  • Scissors
  • Glue


CO Standards

  • Social Studies
    • History
      • Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
    • Geography
      • Understand people and their relationship with geography and their environment
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect

21st Century Skills

  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Long Jakes

Long Jakes, "The Rocky Mountain Man"


Charles Deas

Who Made It?

Born in Philadelphia, Charles Deas [DAYS] enjoyed an education based in the classics (which included art) and he aspired to a military life. He was denied admission to West Point Military Academy, after which he began studying art. Deas traveled west in 1840 to visit his brother at Fort Crawford in the Wisconsin Territory and moved around that region for the next year or so, painting scenes of the frontier, Indians, and military portraits. He settled in St. Louis, the gateway to the West, where he set up a studio and made it his home base for expeditions. Deas immersed himself so completely in the frontier lifestyle that he earned the nickname “Rocky Mountains.” He dressed like a trapper, according to a soldier he traveled with, in “a broad white hat—a loose dress, and sundry traps and truck hanging about his saddle.” That description doesn’t sound far off from what we see in this painting, and some think that Deas personally identified with the Long Jakes figure.

Deas’s art was exhibited in St. Louis as well as New York and Philadelphia. He enjoyed critical acclaim and lived to see the immense popularity of Long Jakes. He was a prolific artist, even though he only had a 12-year painting career. However, most of his paintings have either been lost or are not recognized as his, and only 30-40 are known today. Deas died in 1867 in a New York mental institution.

What Inspired It?

Long Jakes documents America’s first frontier hero, the fur trapper. The fur trade in the American West flourished in the 1830s and was one of the most financially successful industries in America during the first half of the 1800s. The image of the trapper was that of a fiercely independent traveler who led a solitary life. Trappers worked throughout the Rocky Mountains to gather beaver fur, a major commodity (beaver hats were very popular). Trappers were often seen as rebels living outside the limits of society, but more often they were viewed with a sort of heroism, the ideal of the independent American spirit.

Using painting conventions usually reserved for kings and generals, Deas placed this motley American hero on his horse, top and center, elevated over a vast landscape. Critics discerned refinement and sensitivity behind his weather-beaten face. Long Jakes is turned in his saddle, looking with concern at something we can’t see. Clearly, the West was filled with danger and adventure at every turn.

When Long Jakes was exhibited, the heyday of the trapper was over, so it seems the picture summed up the spirit of an idealized time in its tribute to the courage and lifestyle of these men. This painting set the ongoing iconography for how to represent a trapper.


Evidence of the Outdoor Life
Evidence of the Outdoor Life

Long Jakes’s beard, long hair, and sunburned face are all signs of life in the harsh outdoors. Also note his blue-veined, chapped hands.


This mountain man’s garb was assembled based on availability and functionality. His long red hunting shirt is made of trade cloth. A broadbrimmed hat would guard his eyes from sun glare, hail, and sleet. He wears leggings with quillwork decoration and moccasins fitted with spurs.

Trapper Gear
Trapper Gear

The rifle, bedroll, powder horn, knife, and rope are all items that were associated with trappers. His saddle has been identified as a Mexican one.

Red Nose
Red Nose

At the time, a red nose was a well-recognized sign of someone who drank excessively, and it made the figure somewhat humorous to its 19th century audience.

Bulging Eye
Bulging Eye

Whatever is happening off to the left has alarmed the horse. Its bulging eye and startled gait suggest fear.


A brand is barely visible on the horse’s hind leg. It was previously thought to be the letters JS but is now thought to be the letters US. We know Deas rode a horse that formerly belonged to the government; perhaps the same is true of Long Jakes’s horse.

View of the Rockies
View of the Rockies

The mountains had a symbolic association with trappers, so they’re almost like another trapper accessory. This is a very early use of the Rockies as a backdrop, and it’s unclear whether it’s based on an eyewitness experience.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.