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What is Space in Art?

The word “space” has many meanings. There is outer space, the space between us and space as an element of art. As one of the seven fundamental elements of art — among line, shape, form, value, color and texture — space is perhaps the most familiar, creatively rendered and perplexing element.
Whereas the real space that we see and experience in our everyday lives is three-dimensional, artists often have to create the feeling or an optical illusion of depth when creating work in two dimensions. The artist can uniquely render and manipulate white space, the area between and around objects, or the viewer’s perception of it. The use of space allows for creative opportunities that are as limitless as outer space itself. Join us on a journey through the many ways artists use space as a way to transport their viewers into new realms of possibility.
Atomic Space Ranger Kiddie Ride. Circa 1950. M.S. Rau.
Atomic Space Ranger Kiddie Ride. Circa 1950. M.S. Rau.

Types of Space in Art

3-D Space in Sculpture

Whereas 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.
M.C. Escher, a monumental 20th-century artist, was a prolific creator of etchings that explored spherical geometry. His artwork drew his viewer’s eye to the negative space created by three-dimensional objects. His innovative work Concentric Rinds further elaborated this thought, consisting of four spherical shells, each with nine circles. Escher's mind-boggling sphere is also divided into 48 similarly shaped triangles. The effect, as intended by Escher, draws attention to the space in between the circles that somehow appears both vast and intricate.
In 2015, famous sculptors like Andreas von Zadora-Gerlof took on the monumental task of bringing Escher's genius design into three-dimensions with his large-scale sculptural version of the work. He renders physical space in three-dimensions with four aluminum spheres that fit tightly together, thus creating a moving ripple effect when the work rotates on its axis.
Eschner-Inspired Sculpture Concentric Rinds by Andreas von Zadora-Gerlof. M.S. Rau.
Eschner-Inspired Sculpture Concentric Rinds by Andreas von Zadora-Gerlof. M.S. Rau.

Positive Space

In 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.

Femme allongée (Reclining Woman) by Kees van Dongen. Circa 1924. M. S. Rau.
Femme allongée (Reclining Woman) by Kees van Dongen. Circa 1924. M. S. Rau.

Negative Space

Negative 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.

Paris - La Seine à Conflans-Charenton by Antoine Guillemet.  1891. M.S. Rau.
Paris - La Seine à Conflans-Charenton by Antoine Guillemet. 1891. M.S. Rau.

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 illusionTake 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.

Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John by Domenico Puligo. Circa 1515. M.S. Rau.
Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John by Domenico Puligo. Circa 1515. M.S. Rau.

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.

The Old Mill by Maxfield Parrish.  Painted 1942. M.S. Rau.
The Old Mill by Maxfield Parrish. Painted 1942. M.S. Rau.

How Famous Artists Use Space in Art

20th Century Innovations

In 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.

The Visit of the English Squadron to Le Harve by Raoul Dufy. Circa 1925. M.S. Rau.
The Visit of the English Squadron to Le Harve by Raoul Dufy. Circa 1925. M.S. Rau.

Modern Sculptural Paintings

Florentine  by Patrick Hughes. Painted 2022. M.S. Rau
Florentine by Patrick Hughes. Painted 2022. M.S. Rau

Patrick Hughes, one of the world’s preeminent modern artists, has innovated space, shape, color and psychology with art, making him a preeminent figure in modern art. To Hughes, for his art to feel complete, it needs the physical presence of spectator, engaging the body, eye and mind. The psychological relationship between reality and representation destabilizes the viewer and the image being viewed. Hughes aims for this immersive experience to take his viewers somewhere they have never been before. However, elements such as famous architecture, walls, library settings, and landscapes seem familiar.
His work, both amusing and seductive, asks the audience to confront visual paradoxes and thus enter a conversation with their imagination. By placing flat images on three-dimensional hexagonal figures, perspective is pulled out in a method coined by Hughes, a “reverspective” (reverse perspective). This is truly Hughes’ gift to his audience: the chance to enter a new world divorced from traditional laws of physics, gravity, and space, and the deeply personal meaning one is able to draw from these psychological enigmas.

Why is space in art important?

Ancient Meteorites, Gibeon Meteorites. Circa 28,000 BCE. (Discovered by Europeans in 1836)\. M.S. Rau.
Ancient Meteorites, Gibeon Meteorites. Circa 28,000 BCE. (Discovered by Europeans in 1836). M.S. Rau.
Often times, artists will tell you the overarching goal of their work is to create an experience that moves viewers to understand life’s complexities in a new way. By utilizing space, artists can easily invite their viewers into their own personal “space” wherein these ideas come to life.
Are you interested in exploring more space in fine and rare art? Explore our collection of art, both historic and modern, and watch the evolution of space unfold before you!
And if you find yourself wondering, What is AI art? or pondering other art forms, check out our blog to discover a world of knowledge. From famous abstract artists to social realism in art, we’ve got it all.


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