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Making Space

10 Cues for Creating the Illusion of 3 Dimensional Space on a 2 Dimensional Surface

To view this essay in its original form follow this link:

All Art is an Illusion

Creating a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface is a form of magic. An artist starts with a two-dimensional surface; it may be a wall, a canvas, a board, paper, or a pavement. Using paint or other media an illusion is created that invites the viewer into the universe of the picture and the tensions that reside within it.

In art, the term “space” is used to refer both to depth—real or represented—and to the general surface area within a work of art. Contrasts of color, volume, line, and texture activate expanding and contracting forces designed to breathe and pulsate, interact, and struggle within the space of your picture world, just as we interact and struggle within our own universe.

Whether your work is representational or abstract your picture contains a world of contrasts; a sense of movement through several planes, a flux between positive and negative visual energies, and the jostling between forms for frontality.

Our brain and eyes use depth cues to describe things as being in front, behind, above, below, or to the side of other things. The ability to perceive relationships in three-dimensional space is necessary for movement and the orientation of our body in relation to the objects around us. Navigating from one point to another depends on the ability to perceive depth, and even reaching out a hand to pick up a paintbrush, relies on depth perception.​​

Imagine you're driving in a car and you see a castle far off in the distance.

How is it that the castle begins to look bigger as you drive closer? The castle obviously isn't growing while you drive, so what is causing this?

Notice when you drive on a long flat road like Alligator Alley, the road appears to get smaller and smaller before disappearing entirely over the horizon. The road doesn’t change in size so why does it look that way?

When you drive through mountains do they appear blue and hazy in the distance and then become green and sharply focused as you approach them?

These illusions are all cues used by our brains to calculate distance and depth.

During the Italian Renaissance (c. 1400-1600) artists worked very deliberately to understand and create convincing illusions of three-dimensional space in two-dimensional media. These artists dedicated themselves to combining as many depth cues as possible into a system known as linear perspective.

Linear perspective refers to the fact that we perceive depth when we see two parallel lines that seem to converge into a “vanishing point” on the horizon. The other depth cues they used are the overlap of objects, the relative size and closeness of images to the horizon, and variation in color, value, light, and shadow caused by distance.

The first known picture to make use of linear perspective was created by the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Painted in 1415, it depicted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral. The linear perspective system projected the illusion of depth onto a two-dimensional plane by use of ‘vanishing points’ to which all lines converged, at eye level, on the horizon. Soon after Brunelleschi’s painting, the concept caught on, and many Italian artists started to use linear perspective in their paintings.

Look how Raphael creates an illusion of three-dimensional form in La Donna Velata. Through careful variations in value, particularly shading — using darker colors to create the illusion of shadows — Raphael convinces us that the woman in the painting is really there in three dimensions.

Light strikes her from her left, casting her right side in shadow. The folds of her voluminous sleeve are a particularly splendid example of the illusion of space. Even examining a small detail of it, it is hard to believe that there is no depth, at all, just thin layers of paint on a flat canvas.

In his 1474 portrait of Ginevra de’Benci, Leonardo da Vinci painted a narrow band of blue trees and a blue horizon at the back, behind the brownish trees that frame the pale stern woman whose bodice laced up with the same blue. He loved atmospheric effects and wrote that when painting buildings, “to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building…of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.”

Coordinating depth cues correctly is critical for creating a familiar world on your paper or canvas for the viewer to enter and feel at home.

When you work abstractly distorting these cues or applying only a few of them is one of the ways an artist can create tension and interest in the work.

Look at these works by Mark Rothko. Notice how he uses color saturation and edge quality to create the illusion of space in this painting. The longer you gaze at this artwork the shapes seem to shift and change color and details will suddenly appear that you may not have noticed at first. Do some of these shapes appear solid, while others seem to be like veils hiding other layers from view? How deep would you say the space is in this painting? One foot? Six inches? Three feet? Rothko’s work is very subtle but the cues he uses to place one thing in front of another are the same ones used by realist landscape painters.

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) was one of the most important figures of postwar American art and is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century teachers. Hofmann played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism (1940 to present).

He believed that modern art must remain faithful to the flatness of the canvas support and he devised the term “push and pull” to describe the dynamic relationship between flatness and depth in an abstract painting or drawing.

Push and pull “are expanding and contracting forces activated by carriers in visual motion. Planes (a plane is a flat shape contained within a line) are the most important carriers, lines and points less so.” Hofmann felt Cézanne exemplified this concept. “At the end of his life and the height of his capacity, Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull.

Hans Hoffman’s “push and pull” teaching is based on the same cues and concepts used by Renaissance artists and the same ten cues I present to you today.

These ten cues are the same ones our brain uses to determine our location in space and the approach of a speeding car or tennis ball. When applied together or separately in our paintings as contrasts of line, form, color, and texture a sense of dynamic depth, dimensionality and movement are created.

  1. Overlap - Objects in the front cover and hide objects behind

  2. Shading - describes how light falls on a three-dimensional form using darker colors to create the illusion of shadow.

  3. Relative Size - Smaller is farther away, Larger is closer

  4. Shadows - Objects create a hole in the light. The hole describes the shape of the object in a shadow that falls on anything behind it.

  5. Value/ Focus - Further away blends into the background (loses color & value)

  6. Placement - higher is farther away

  7. Perspective - parallel lines come together at a vanishing point on the horizon; the closer together the two lines are, the farther away they seem.

  8. Temperature - warm advances, cool recedes

  9. Edges - sharp advances, blurry recedes

  10. Saturation - bright advances, dull recedes

Imagine that you would like to paint a pond full of water lilies.

Each lily pad should get smaller and higher up as it goes back toward the horizon. Each one will lose color and detail as it gets farther away. Whether the lily pads get darker or lighter will depend on the light in the background. If the background is darker the small ones will begin darkening to blend with the background as they get farther away. If the background is light then they will get lighter as they near the horizon.

Making sure all of your cues agree will improve the illusion.

Maybe you want to paint boats in a harbor. Each boat should get smaller and higher up as it goes back into space. Whether you'd like to paint a field of poppies, sunflowers, or a vase of flowers these cues will help you add interest, realism, and depth. You can vary some of your flowers so they get smaller and higher up as they move into the background. Others can get cooler, and less defined as they become more distant. Flowers in the foreground can become warmer and more detailed. Cast shadows will add even more depth.

Whether you are painting a realistic scene or an abstraction of one you can use warm colors to make your shapes appear larger and cool colors to make them appear smaller. You can blur and sharpen edges to make them advance and recede within the space. When finishing a painting I often warm up my foreground with gold paint and cool the back with blue or purple to make my foreground more dimensional.

Common spatial errors are “kissing” and relative size. Kissing objects touch instead of overlapping each other or the horizon. Kissing will flatten your space, so you may want to invent an overlap even if wasn’t in your resource image.

Architects commonly add people to their drawings to demonstrate the scale of their designs. A familiar object allows the viewer to compare the relationship between one object and another. If you have a single object, like a house, a boat, or a person on a street or in a crowd, that repeats as it goes back in space, make sure that the size gets smaller in a logical way, so you don’t have one giant person in the midst of your crowd.

Unless you are trying to add tension and danger, check to make sure all your cues agree and your shadows are all going in the same direction.

My early work is filled with examples of conflicting spatial cues. It took me years of study to internalize these cues and there is still room for improvement. These works below are mine from 2016 and they could use more depth for me to be satisfied with them. These are pieces I set aside to finish when I acquire the knowledge I was missing when I started them.

When you look at the images below can you observe some of the cues giving conflicting information about the space? Can you list the cues being used in these paintings? What do you see that could be improved to make the space more believable?

The use of perspective to create a convincing illusion of depth does not make Da Vinci or Raphael a “better” artist than Rothko or Cezanne, nor does it make their works any “better” or more sophisticated.

Assigning value between abstraction and representation, or between gestural, expressionistic styles and geometric forms is not useful in judging whether a painting is successful. The universal goal of every style of art is visual unity, and form that stimulates interest in the viewer, whether pleasing to the eye or not.

The illusion of depth is one of the many tools in the artist’s toolbox. It is a useful technique for creating a heightened emotional effect and drawing us, the viewers, into the composition, as if we are in the scene. The process of creating a believable three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional surface is a work of magic because we are creating an idea in the mind of our viewer, not an actual 3-dimensional form.

Our struggle and interaction to create this illusion within the universe of the picture is a mirror of our interaction and struggle with the truth of our outer universe. Attempting to translate the conceptual world of the imagination into a believable physical universe of three dimensions is a worthy effort that can raise our work to a level of mastery few artists attain.

This month I used the following books and articles as resources:

Rebecca Solnit - The Faraway Nearby

If you would like my guidance and advice in adding more depth and dynamism to your paintings I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight



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