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Elements of Art: Space

Author: Lucy Lamp

What is space?

Space.  A place. We are always in some kind of space, some kind of place, yet we often don’t think about it. We might be reminded when we see a majestic landscape, or when we come home again after a long day, or when we want to fix, decorate, or change our homes.

Think for a moment about characteristics of a specific space, or place. Every place is different. It might be inviting, welcoming, cheery, bright, colorful. It might be bleak, overwhelming, dark, foreboding, mysterious. It might be expansive and open, or it might be cramped and crowded. Each of these informs the artwork in a different way.

Caspar David Friedrich   The Sea of Ice  1823–24

Oil on canvas126.9 × 96.7 cm (50 × 38.1 in)   Kunsthalle Hamburg.

Image Source: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

Space in two and three dimensions

Space in artwork

Space, or place is always a part of artwork, even if it is simply where the work is displayed. This is dealing with actual space.

The setting a sculpture is in becomes part of how it is viewed and its effect on us. This is a crucial element that must be considered during the process of conceiving and creating sculpture. Think for a moment of how you might feel about a sculpture if it is displayed outside, in a gallery, or in someone’s home. In each case the surroundings become part of the sculpture itself.

Henry Moore  Double Oval (1968-70) 

Length:550cm Bronze Edition of 2 + 1  Cast: Hermann Noack, Berlin

The Henry Moore Foundation:  acquired 1987         Photo taken at the Henry Moore Foundation Reguiieee


Even two-dimensional artwork is affected by its surroundings. Imagine a painting by Rembrandt, framed in an ornate, heavy gold frame. Imagine it where you would most likely expect to find it: a large art museum in a major city, among countless works of art, considered to be priceless masterpieces and which are from numerous historical periods. Now imagine it in a modern art gallery, with stark white walls and an eclectic array of contemporary art. Compare that to seeing it in someone’s home, among their furnishings and taste in decorating.



Space in three dimensions

Three-dimensional art is almost always experienced in relation to the scale of our own bodies. For example, if a sculpture is seven feet tall, it will appear intimidating to us. But if it is miniature in size, no matter what the subject matter, we dominate over it.

Maya Lin  2x4 Landscape from the exhibition Three Ways of Looking at the Earth

at PaceWildenstein Gallery   September 10 through October 24, 2009

Photo: Lucy Lamp



Space in installation and environmental art

For some artists, the space itself and how it is transformed is the artwork. Installation artists, landscape artists, and environmental artists all fit within that category.


Cai Guo-Qiang: Inopportune: Stage Two

Cai Guo-Qiang  Inopportune: Stage Two  2004
Tigers: paper mache, plaster, fiberglass, resin, painted hide; arrows: brass, bamboo, feathers; stage prop: styrofoam, wood, canvas, acrylic paint; dmensions variable
Installation view: MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA
Collection of the Artist  Courtesy Cai Guo-Qiang

"Entering the tiger room, you see the violent act- tigers with arrows pierced into their bodies and there’s a very visceral response. Even though it’s completely fake, the tigers are so realistically made that the audience feels pain when they see the them. The pain is not in the tigers, which obviously can’t feel. The pain is really in the person who’s viewing this. So it’s through the artwork, because it represents pain, that one feels this pain and has this very visceral relationship or reaction to it."    Cai Guo-Qiang, as quoted on PBS Art 21 website



Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photo: George Steinmetz.

"Robert Smithson's monumental earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Using black basalt rocks and earth from the site, the artist created a coil 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that stretches out counter-clockwise into the translucentred water. Spiral Jetty was acquired by Dia Art Foundation as a gift from the Estate of the artist in 1999" quoted from Dia Art Foundation website  



Installation art and environmental art is usually temporary. It can't be bought and sold like other art forms can. Most often its posterity lies in its documentation. For that reason, preserving the moment is of utmost importance. Most installation and environmental art is only known through its documentation, once its moment is over.


Walter de Maria: Lightning Field

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in Western New Mexico.

"Walter De Maria is best known for his 1977 Lightning Field. A rectangular grid in New Mexico measuring one mile by one kilometer and containing 400 stainless-steel lightning rods, it serves as an arena for observing meteorological activity. "

Posted by Delmarys Hernandez on December 7, 2010 at 2:30pm



Space in two dimensions

In two-dimensional work, space is implied. Two-dimensional artists are free to create any kind of space they envision. In addition, the viewer does not always relate the scale of the work to their own body. Within the picture plane anything is possible. It becomes like a window; and in our minds, we can be any size at all and imagine ourselves within the space the artist has created.

Photo Lucy Lamp




Illusion of space in two dimensions

Implied Space

There are many ways to create an illusion of space (implied space) in two-dimensional art. This includes overlapping objects, size comparison and position of objects, and color (cool colors tend to recede, while warm colors tend to move toward the viewer.









Perspective Systems

There are also perspective systems that can be used: linear, isometric, and atmospheric.

Linear Perspective   Linear perspective was developed during the Renaissance and it is what we, in the Western world, are accustomed to seeing in art.  Linear perspective is meant to create an illusion of space according to how we see, with a limited and fixed point of view.

Lines appear to come to a point on the horizon and then vanish into space. In the distance a highway on a very flat landscape appears to come to a point and then disappear.

Photo Lucy Lamp

Linear perspective uses a horizon line and vanishing points on the horizon line. Vanishing points are the points on the horizon where lines appear to converge.

Linear perspective assumes a fixed and limited point of view of the observer.  Any shift in position of the observer would result in an entirely new arrangement of elements,which would require a new composition altogether.


One-point linear perspective

In one-point perspective there is one vanishing point (like the photo above).  All lines converge at the same point on the horizon.





Two-point linear perspective

In two-point perspective, there are two vanishing points on the horizon line. Lines converge at one or the other of the vanishing points





Renaisance Use of Linear Perspective: Raphael

Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ (1510), depicting a host of ancient philosophers in a perspective setting. There is no full agreement on the identities of the participants, but the most plausible are given here. Plato (left center) is a portrait of Leonardo, passing his knowledge to his pupil Aristotle, whose outstretched hand forms the center of the composition. To Plato’s right is Socrates, holding forth to a group of his pupils including the hero Alcibiades, Xenaphon, and Aeschines. Pythogoras is writing a book in the left foreground, while behind him are Alberti as Zeno and Tommaso Inghirami as Epicurus. In the center, Michelangelo as Democritus is writing at the table in front of a declamatory Parmenides, with Diogenes reclining on the steps. In the right foreground Euclid (a portrait of Raphael’s master, Bramante) stoops to demonstrate a theorem of a six-pointed star, while Ptolemy holds the celestial sphere and Zoroaster with a gold crown holds the earth and looks back at Raphael’s self-portrait in the black velvet cap, next to his colleague at the Vatican, the painter Giovanni Bazzi (Il Sodoma). Behind them are Heraclitus and possibly the blind poet Homer. In the far background over Aristotle’s left shoulder are two figures closely resembling the portraits of the artists Masaccio (with the dark hair) and his master Masolino (with the white beard). The Science and Art of Perspective, Christopher Tyler, Michael Kubovy and WebExhibits Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement, . Source:



Complexity of linear perspective. There are more complex linear perspective systems which use three or four vanishing points.

Luciano Testoni     Staircase in two-point perspective.    15 March 1995

"Prospettiva accidentale di una scala a tre rampe, eseguita con il metodo dei punti misuratori. Il file è stato creato scandendo il disegno con uno scanner" (Accidental perspective of one scale to three rampe, executed with the method of the measuring points. The rows have been created scandendo the design with one scanner) -Luciano Testoni







Isometric Perspective

Isometric perspective is used in traditional Asian art, video games, and in exploding diagrams. In isometric perspective, all lines remain parallel, or equidistant.  In this type of perspective, there is no horizon line and no vanishing points.  There is no fixed or limited point of view as in linear perspective. It is possible to shift viewpoints throughout the entire composition, to see the front, side and back of a room or building, for example, at the same time.


Traditional Chinese use of isometric perspective.

Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor Enjoying Himself during the 8th lunar month

(one of a set of twelve), by anonymous court artists. Yongzheng period, (1723—35). Hanging scroll, color on silk.

The Palace Museum, Beijing.Royal Academy of Arts, part of the The Three Emperors, 1662 - 1795 exhibition which ran from 12 November 2005 - 17 April 2006 in London. Website might be taken down at some point in future


Isometric perspective in Roman mosaic

Mosaic tiled floor from Pompeii, Italy

Image source: Anne 


Early uses of isometric perspective in video games

         Q*bert 1982, video game developed by Gottlieb   

Screenshot taken by User:Spottedowl   source:






Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective (also known as aerial perspective), reflects how we see objects in the distance compared to objects that are close. In nature, this is due to the effect of the atmosphere on the appearance of objects in the distance.

A good way to envision this is to imagine yourself on the bank of a river. On the side where you are standing, objects (like trees) are larger and clearly defined: edges are sharp and colors are more intense. Across the river, objects are smaller, and less distinct: edges are blurred, colors are muted, and objects seem to blend in with each other.

Potomac River at Shepherdstown, West Virginia  

image courtesy of


The next image is an effective illustration of atmospheric perspective. You can see several shifts in perspective because of the receding lines of mountains. Notice how the color changes from a deeper, more intense blue through several progressions of color, each layer lighter and more muted.  if you look very closely you can just make out a final mountain range--almost white--on the horizon.

Image courtesy of



Vastness of space.

Artists who want to portray the landscape as a majestic, vast space,--in which a human presence, if any is insignificant--choose to use atmospheric perspective to its fullest advantage.

Homer Dodge Martin  Hudson River Landscape  1860-1865
Oil on canvas   13 7/8 x 24 in. (35.24 x 60.96 cm) (canvas)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Rev. Richard L. Hillstrom



Suggestion of space.

Japanese Zen paintings embody the value that Zen Buddhism places on the meditation of nature as a path to enlightenment. They suggest an intuitive understanding of nature: the essence of the landscape is sought after, and uneccesary details--which only distract--are purposely left out. Amazingly, every empty space in the composition is actually very full, with a suggestion of landscape. The result is a peaceful serenity which embraces the spiritual.

Sesshū Tōyō   Haboku-Sansui, splashed-ink style landscape 1495

ink on silk   148.6 × 32.7 cm (58.5 × 12.87 in) (full scroll)   Tokyo National Museum

Full scroll contains numerous inscriptions, and the painting, which is reproduced here in full, only takes up about a third of the scroll.




Links for how-tos on perspective systems

Linear Perspective:   

Perspective - How to Draw Perspective, Learn to Draw Perspective Step by Step  By Helen South, Guide


Isometric perspective:



Atmospheric perspective:     What is atmospheric perspective?


Manipulation of space

 Some artists deliberately manipulate our sense of space,to create a sense of unreality, a particular setting for an idea or  narrative, or simply  to provoke us to see space differently


M. C. Escher

M. C. Escher is well known for his creation of ambiguous spaces--believable yet impossible. In this print, there is a progression through the space which is endless, and never arrives at a destination. The result engages the rational mind, yet in the end cannot fit within the milieu of the rational.


M. C. Escher   Relativity  1953     lithograph  27.7 cm × 29.2 cm (10.9 in × 11.5 in) 

Source:Justin Foote,from  Official M.C. Escher website.




Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Piranesi's prints suggest the domination of mankind by the very inventions of mankind itself--physical structures that signify social structures. Like landscape artists who  portray human presence as insignificant in the vastness of nature, the human presence here is insignificant in the vastness, dark hopelessness, and overwhelming complexity of architecture--usually prisons.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Untitled etching (called "The Drawbridge")

plate VII (of 16) from the series The Imaginary Prisons (Le Carceri d'Invenzione), Rome,

1761 edition (reworked from 1745).


Compare the space in this print to the space that Escher presents. They are similar in composition and subject matter--humans attempting to travel though complex structures, from which it seems impossible to escape.

However, the emotional effect is distinct. In Escher's it is the frustration of a conundrum of the mind. In Piranesi's the emotion is dark, foreboding, as if inescapable doom lies right around the corner. There is also a strong sense that there is no way out of the space, and no hope of ever finding one.

Try to analyze why, in terms of formal elements, the spaces feel so differently. You might think of value (lightness or darkness). Notice the difference in the type of line used--Piranesi's is much more expressive, which gives it an emotional quality. What else do you notice?




Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali was, among other things, a surrealist. Surrealism is a term that means, literally, "super realism".  Surrealists present either a reality (that which surrounds us) in a way that makes it seem unreal (like a dream), or an unreality (invented space and figures) that somehow looks as if it might be real. Dali loved playing games with the mind, but unlike Escher, he added a dose of lyricism and poetry to the mix.

Salvador Dalí, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, 1951.

oil on canvas   205 cm × 116 cm (80.7 in × 45.67 in)  Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow



This painting references something very familiar in subject matter, with complex religious and cultural overrtones. It is also a space that could not really exist, yet it seems real. The use of perspective is dramatic. Compare the emotional quality of this painting to the Escher and the Piranesi print. What formal elements convey its mood?