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Elements of Art: Volume, Mass, and Three Dimensionality

Author: Lucy Lamp

Volume and mass (density)

Volume = a shape in three dimensions                                  

Shapes are flat. If you take a shape and give it three dimensions, it has volume.

A three-dimensional form has volume. Volume (three-dimensionality) can be simulated in a two-dimensional work (like a painting).

This self portrait by Rembrandt is an example of simulated, or implied volume. The face looks three-dimensional. In actuality, however, it is a two-dmensional (flat) artwork, a print.

Rembrandt Van Rijn    Self-portrait in a cap, with eyes wide open, etching and burin, 1630

Signed and dated bottom center: RHL 1630. A copy is kept in the: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Source: Dake, wikipedia. com


This group of sculptures by Magdalena Akanowicz have actual volume; they are three-dimensional. Because the figures are open they allow a glimpse of what the inside of a sculpture looks like, (including welded together sections of separate castings). This openess gives a sense of volume.  If they were closed, they would appear to have density, or mass.

Magdalena Akanowicz   Nierozpoznani ("The Unrecognised Ones") 2002

Cytadela park, Poznań, Poland (whole installation) photo by Radomil


Imagine a drawing of a glass. The drawing would be flat (two-dimensional) But it would look like it was three-dimensional (simulated or implied volume). Now imagine an actual glass (that is empty). The glass would have volume (it would be three-dimensional).



Mass = volume + density

Imagine that glass again, this time filled with water. Now the glass has mass, or density.

The density of a material is scientifically defined as its mass per unit of volume.  For example, a rock has more density than a cotton ball.

Imagine three containers. The first one is empty (filled with air); it has volume. The second container is filled with feathers. Now the container has density, or mass.  The third container is filled with sand. The third container has more density than the second one.


In art it’s easier to think of density as actual or perceived weight.

These ancient Olmec sculptures iillustrate the concept of density, or mass. They appear to be (and actually are) very heavy in weight. They are very large and there are several of them (17 have been unearthed). You can imagine encountering a group of these colossol heads, and the sense of power they convey.

Monument 6, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan Olmec civilization 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE

exhibited at the Museo Nacinal de Antropología e Historia, Mexico  Image: Maunus

Monument 1, one of  four colossal Olmec heads at La Venta.  9.8 ft (3 meters) tall. circa 900 BCE -400 BCE

La Venta Park, Villahermosa, Mexico   Image: Hajor


Implied Mass

Mass or volume can be simulated in two-dimensional work though the use of:

modeling and shading

color--darker and more intense colors appear heavier

placement--objects closer to the lower edge of the picture plane appear heavier

size--larger objects appear heavier

overlapping objects creates a sense of space



Implied Mass:  Valentina Kulagina

This poster from 1930 is a good example of implied mass. The soldiers of the Russian Army are portrayed as huge figures marching from the factories to fight the war. Notice the size, color and placement of the figures. In contrast, the airplanes of the royalists are shown as light, small, and overwhelmed by the figures.

Valentina Kulagina   To Defend USSR  1930

Image Source:






Degrees of Three-Dimensionality

Three-dimensional artwork has varying degrees of dimensionality.


Relief Sculpture

In relief sculpture an image is developed outward from a two-dimensional surface.

Low relief. In low relief, the figures exist almost on the same plane as the ground, but they are carved with enough depth to cast shadows. Often times they tell a story.

India, Northern: Gandhara period
 Tympanum in shape of a stupa, decorated with relief scenes from the life of the Buddha, 3rd century C.E.

 Musee Guimet, Paris   AICT/Allan T. Kohl


High relief. In high relief, at least half of the figures project forward from the surface.

Francois Rude The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 ("La Marseillaise")  1833-1836
group from right side, east face, Arc de Triomphe,  Paris, France


Frontal sculpture.  Three-dimensional work that is meant to be see from only one side is called frontal sculpture.

David Smith  Pittsburgh Landscape   1954, painted steel relief

The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington DC


In the round, or full round sculpture.  Full round sculpture is free-standing and meant to be seen from all sides.

Auguste Rodin   Pierre de Wiessant
(detail of study for figure from "The Burghers of Calais"), 1884-1886

Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa


Walk through work.  An even greater degree of three-dimensionality is found in works that involve a space that the viewer must actually move through to fully appreciate it.

Installation art. In installation art the artist creates a space, in which all objects relate to each other, and the viewer becomes a part of it by moving through it. There is no fixed view point, and the space oftens provides an almost transcendent experience for the viewer,set apart from the ordinary world.

Rachel Whiteread     Embankment    2005  Turbine Hall, The Tate Modern, Bankside, London 

14,000 translucent, white polyethylene boxes  (casts of the inside of cardboard boxes)   Photographer: Fin Fahey


Landscape art. In landscape art the artist works with the landscape itself. Gardens and other spaces provide an aesthetic experience that the viewer can not only walk through, but spend time in contemplation and enjoyment of the space. Sometimes these spaces have a spiritual purpose as well.

Dry Garden in Ryoanji (The Temple of the Dragon at Peace) Kyoto, Japan, late 15th century.




Characteristics of Three-Dimensional Art

Three-dimensional art can take many different forms.

Open and closed forms. 

Closed forms are often carved from a larger mass in a form that allows for structural soundness. They appear very heavy, solid, and have a sense of permanence.

Block statue of Sennefer   ( 'Overseer of sealbearers' in the reign of Thutmose III)

From western Thebes, Egypt  18th Dynasty, around 1450 BC  British Museum


Open forms have more of a range of dimensionality, with outward projections and inward recesses.

Jacques Lipchitz  Prometheus Strangling the Vulture II  1944/1953
bronze 91.75 x 90 x 57 inches
Walker Art Center   Gift of the T.B. Walker Foundation, 1956


Static and dynamic forms.

Static forms appear to be still, stable, and unchanging. They give a sense of immovable permanence. The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx of Giza is a perfect example. A pyramid is the most stable form that exists.

Francis Frith   The Great Pyramid and the Sphinx   1858      Albumen print 38 .50 x 49.50 cm

National Galleries of Scotland Commons  Edinburgh, Scotland, UK  Gift of Mrs. Riddell in memory of Peter Fletcher Riddell 1985



Dynamic forms. Dynamic forms are lively, have a sense of movement and change.

India,Chola period  Shiva Vinadhara - Dakshinamurti  11th century C.E.
Musee Guimet, Paris


Interior and exterior contours. Contour refers to the surface of a form. Sculpture can have interior as well as exterior contours.

This sculpture has many interior contours as well as exterior contours.


Bertel Thorvaldsen Ganymede and the Eagle 1817-1829
Marble   34 3/4 x 18 1/2 x 46 3/8 in. (88.27 x 46.99 x 117.79 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts  Gift of the Morse Foundation




In this sculpture the interior contours are an intrinsic aspect of the artwork and are as significant as the exterior contours.
Henry Moore   Reclining Mother and Child  1960-1961     bronze
Walker Art Center
Image Copyright: Courtesy Walker Art Center


1. Draw a simple object using lines but no shading. Now, shine a bright light or flashlight on the same object and experiment with shading. Compare the two results to see the difference in dimensionality.

3. Take a sheet of paper and experiment with ways to create objects that appear to be hevier than others, using  different colors, placement, size etc. to see how you can create implied mass.

4.Take some modelling clay and experiment with creating different types of forms: static, dynamic, open, closed, interior and exterior contours.

5. Select a small space in your home or outside your home. Think of simple ways you could alter the space by adding something or changing something.  What kind of space would you like to create? How could you transform the space into something different from your ordianry world? Even a ball of string can change a space.  What ideas can you think of?