SPACE (2-dimensional)

The feeling of space in a drawing or painting is always an illusion.  Artists combine the use of light and dark value with other techniques. Some of these are: simple overlapping, ladder perspective, linear perspective, and atmospheric perspective.  Let’s see how each is used to create the illusion of space in flat, two-dimensional objects like paintings.

In simple overlapping a figure partially hides an object that’s supposed to be behind it. Since our eyes are easily fooled, we willingly agree that one is closer, the other is further away.  Note how in this diagram the effect is heightened because the disc “behind” is made smaller than the disc “in front.”

In ladder perspective figures at the top of the page seem to be further away, and are sometimes smaller in scale than things that are closer to enhance the illusion.  You can see ladder perspective used in children’s drawings and in this artwork based on the early art of Stone Age hunters.

Linear perspective is a geometric, mathematical method using receding lines called orothogonals that move toward a vanishing point.  In this illustration, you can see how edges of the box that are drawn along these orthogonals appear to create a realistically three-dimensional object.

The size of objects or figures is determined by where they are located along these lines. With linear perspective a convincing illusion of space is created on a flat surface because this technique mimics our observation of the real world. In this photo of arches, see how your eye willingly recognizes deep space because the corners of the arches are placed along orthogonals that lead diagonally to a vanishing point somewhere in the distance. Note also how their sizes change based on where they are along the orthogonals.

This method for creating illusions in painting and drawing was widely explored and refined during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, as can be seen in the experiments by many artists including Albrecht Durer (1471 – 1528).

A final technique we’ll discuss is atmospheric perspective whereby objects in the distance seem bluish-gray, dimmer and blurred), or varying warm and cool colors which seem to recede or advance.

Space (3-dimensional)

Space actually and easily exists in sculpture, however, because sculpture is three-dimensional. Remember that paintings and drawings are two-dimensional. They have length and width. They are flat. Sculpture has length, width, and depth, the third dimension. There are two types of sculpture:  Relief and Free-Standing.

In “Relief Sculpture” figures emerge from a backing surface.  Reliefs are often carved from a single block of material like marble, clay or wood. How far the figures emerge from the backing surface is described as high relief, middle relief and low relief (sometimes also referred to as bas relief, pronounced bah relief). Look at these examples of relief sculpture. Can you recognize a relief sculpture? Can you see which is high relief and which is low?

“Free-standing” sculpture is not attached to a backing surface, and viewers can walk entirely around the object, viewing it and many different angles. If you could walk behind a relief sculpture, you’d only see a blank surface. In the Love sculpture to the left, based on a work by Robert Indiana, the shapes of the sculpture constantly change as viewers walk past and around it.

“Sculpture-in-the-round” or “free-standing” sculpture can be created in several ways. Two most common are the “additive” and “subtractive” methods. When an artist creates a free-standing sculpture by welding, nailing or gluing different pieces together, it is referred to as the ADDITIVE method.

When sculpture-in-the-round is created from a solid mass of material it is termed the SUBTRACTIVE because pieces of material are removed from the original mass to create the object. 

A final way to view sculpture with a discerning eye is to analyze its composition.  Practice looking for “open” and “closed” compositions, but remember that these terms are relative.  Some sculptures are more open or more closed than others. “Closed composition” refers to a sculpture that is seen as a solid overall form—when the mass has little or no penetration by space or “volume.” In an “open composition, the overall form contains more interaction between the mass and the volume--openings of some kind, or parts of the mass that penetrate the surrounding space. 

Now that you know the basics about Space, click here to practice what you know.


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All sculptural forms deal not only with the mass (the marble, bronze, or clay itself), but also with the shapes of the spaces that appear between the forms. Look for these “space shapes” as they occur in and immediately around the mass. We call these spaces the “volume.” Interesting shapes of the volume can be as important as interesting shapes of the mass. Can you see these interesting volume shapes in the sculptures on this page?

There are several editions of Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture which was originally a Vietnam War statement.
In this sculpture, individual pieces are welded together using the additive method.
This work is an example of the “subtractive” method.  It can also be termed an “open” sculpture since the “mass is penetrated by holes, or “volume.”

The mythical creature on the left can be found at Chichen Itza. Its basic blocky form is most apparent, broken mostly by the open mouth. It is more closed than the sculpture on the right.

The gargoyle from the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris has much more penetration of the surrounding space by pieces of stone projecting from the basic creature, plus it has enclosed space between the arms and body. Of the two examples, this one is more open.    

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