Types of Space in Art
3-D Space in SculptureWhereas painters and draftsmen are challenged to render three-dimensional space in two dimensions, sculptors can manipulate space through lifelike and experiential mediums. This site-specific art is designed for a particular space and because it is impossible to isolate the work of art from its surrounding environment, that physical space is transformed by the art object itself. When viewing these sculptures, the viewer can enter a new dimension where the normalized laws of gravity, space and line are manipulated in a mind-boggling way.
Positive SpaceIn its simplest form, positive space refers to the objects or areas of interest in an image. Most artists, however, are not constrained by this simple definition. In the foreground of this work by the Dutch artist Kees van Dongen, you see the subject of this painting, a reclining woman. By definition, the woman is the positive space in the image. You likely noticed that both the woman and the negative space, the area around her, are far from exact.
Highly stylized, his female subject sprawls across the landscape, casting a deep blue shadow that adds further depth to her relatively flat figure. Van Dongen expertly draws his viewer’s eye to the positive space by rendering a burst of intense, unblended color, layered in such a skillful and stylized manner that the landscape appears to meld into the distant sky.
Negative SpaceNegative space, the area around the work’s primary subject, can be used to highlight or diminish the positive space in a piece. If an artist wants to depict a landscape as vast or consuming, the negative space will often take up most of the piece. If an artist wants to focus on the positive space, in a portrait for example, the negative space will be smaller and subtle.
If you have ever looked into a natural vista, both at night or during the day, you will recognize that large sweeping expanses have more complexities than the human brain can organize. For this very reason, artists have been allured by the vast possibilities negative space allows. Take for example, the use of sweeping negative space in this landscape.
How Space Impacts an Artwork
Plays with Perspective
Although ancient civilizations across the globe rendered perspective by placing smaller positive space objects behind larger ones, it was not until the year 1415 that artists first began experimenting with true linear perspective, thus more accurately rendering a three-dimensional space on flat surface. Linear perspective allows artists to use lines to create the illusion of space on a flat surface. One point perspective uses a single vanishing point and two point perspective uses two vanishing points to create this optical illusion. Take for example this Renaissance-period religious painting by Domenico Puligo. You will notice that behind the positive space, the woman and children, the buildings and trees seem to recede; thus creating the illusion of a life-like scene.
Since the Renaissance, mastering perspective has been a core component of classical artistic training, only mastered by the greatest artists of their time. Take for example, The Old Mill by Maxfield Parrish. Parrish's skill and vivid imagination are fully displayed in this example, which depicts a mill at the base of a mountain in a lush, saturated color palette. Not only does Parrish use linear perspective in this landscape painting, but he also uses varied colors and values to perfectly render this sweeping landscape scene. Masterfully rendered, the enchanting scene affirms his revolutionary understanding of color, luminosity and compositional design. While displaying the photographic illusionism so prevalent in the work of his fellow illustrators, Parrish's work displays varying hues of color from the mountains to the foreground, perfectly depicting the landscape's complex depth and size.
How Famous Artists Use Space in Art
20th Century InnovationsIn the 20th century, artists began to challenge the centuries-old conventions of space and perspective. Building off of the work of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the fin de siècle, Fauvism emerged in France right at the turn of the 20th century. Most recognizable for their bold color palette and painterly stylization of space and forms, this movement included visionaries Henri Matisse, André Derain, Henri Manguin, Raoul Dufy and Louis Valtat, among others.
Color remained the dominant force in Fauvist circles, while conventional use of space and perspective became highly creative. Take for example this vivid depiction of a two-day naval campaign of Le Havre by Raoul Dufy. Through highly complex use of space and color, the French and English battleships appear both flat and three dimensional as they mingle in the foreground, identifiable by flags on the masts. Simultaneously, schooners and other full-rigged ships are visible in the distance. The foreground, combined with the lively color palette and Dufy's broad, bold brushstrokes, imbues the scene with an almost festive appearance, more like a regatta and less like a battle. Although Dufy uses the spacial conventions of allowing objects to appear smaller in the distance stylized linear perspective, the overall effect of this grand painting is that of a flat cartoon-like image that is both playful and mind-boggling.