Create Space

Two important definitions:

  • The picture plane is the flat surface of a 2-dimensinal artwork. Conceptually, it acts as a transparent window into illusionistic space.
  • Two dimensional forms can create the illusion of three dimensional shapes and spaces.
  • Pictorial Space is the window effect in a painting when Illusionary space in 2-dimensional art seems to recede backward into the picture plane or project out of it.

The visual arts are referred to as the spatial arts because, in most of the visual arts, forms are organized in space, either two-dimensional or three-dimensional.

Music is referred to as a temporal art, because its elements are primarily organized in time.

Film, television, dance, and other theater arts combine the visual and the temporal by organizing form in both time and space.

Returning to the picture plane, the space of a picture's surface is defined by its edges and the two dimensions of the picture plane — length and width.

Within the boundaries of length and width, an infinite number of special qualities can be implied.

There's a major difference between the use of space in 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional art forms:

In two-dimensional works, we see space all at once.

In 3-dimensional works, we have to move around the piece in order to get the full experience of the space.

Traditional surfaces for drawing, painting, prints, and photographs are flat or 2-dimensional. Working on a picture plane, artists deal with actual space in two directions:

Across the surface, up and down (height).

Across the surface, side to side (width).

Yet, almost any mark on the picture plane begins to give the illusion of the third dimension – depth.
Some of the devices by which an artist creates the illusion of depth are:

  1. Overlap

  2. Overlap and diminishing size

  3. Vertical placement

  4. Overlap, vertical placement, and diminishing size

Vertical Placement to create depth

Vertical Placement
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.

Understanding how spatial illusions work is a key to developing our ability to think spatially.

We have all grown up looking at two dimensional images that purport to show three dimensional space. We take for granted the visual tricks that are used to achieve this illusion. Yet even today in some isolated cultures such images are not easily interpreted or understood.

The tools for creating illusions of three dimensional space are overlapping, changing size and placement, linear perspective, relative hue and value, and atmospheric perspective.

Vertical placement creates the illusion of depth because objects placed low on the picture plane appear to be closer to the viewer.

Diagram showing overlapping to create space
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.


  • Overlap creates the illusion of one object being in front of the other – a basic way to achieve depth on a flat surface.
  • Overlapping is the simplest way to create the illusion of space. One form partially obscures another. We automatically read the one that is partially blocked as behind—farther back in space. Bodies exist in space. When we see one figure in front of another, we understand that the one we can see fully is closer. The overall composition can still appear to be quite flat

Clues to spatial depth
Clues to Spatial Depth
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.

Changing size and placement.

  • Spatial signals are enhanced by changing size and placement. Placement alone was used with overlap but until changing size is added, the illusion is not fully convincing to modern eyes.
  • The higher up the picture plane a figure or object is placed, the farther away we read it to be.
  • Diminishing size creates the illusion of depth because objects placed low on the picture plane appear to be closer to the viewer.
  • Another method of creating the illusion of depth on a 2-dimensional surface is through the use of perspective.
  • erspective refers to a point of view.
  • In the visual arts, perspective can refer to any means of representing the appearance of 3-dimensional objects in space on a 2-dimensional surface.

One Point perspective
One Point Perspective
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.

Linear Perspective:Two Dimensional Illusion of Three Dimensional Form

  • Perspective: The illusion of 3 dimensions on a 2-dimensional surface.
  • Linear perspective is a geometric system based on what the eye sees at a given moment in time – fixed at one position in space.

  • shapes or forms are painted or drawn to appear as though they exist in real space.
  • The greatest leap forward in the representation of three dimensional space
  • Developed in the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance
  • Based on two principles:
    • All parallel lines receding into space converge at a horizon line where they seem to disappear.
    • the illusion that objects appear to grow smaller and converge toward a "vanishing point" at the horizon line. So, the farther away something is, the smaller it is.
  • The Vanishing Point: The point at which parallel lines converge and seem to disappear. The point of convergence may be in any direction the viewer looks, including up, and the horizon/ vanishing point may be visible or imaginary.
  • The position in space is determined by the position of the artist and, as a result, the viewer. This is called the vantage point, a term that relates to one point of view.

Image credit

  • Eye level : the height of the viewer's eyes above the ground plane – is basic to the ability to see and draw objects and spaced in terms of linear perspective. The illustraion that follows shows cubes above eye level, at eye level, and below eye level.
  • Consider how cubes appear when they are above eye level, at eye level and below eye level.

 Point perspective One Point Perspective
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.

One Point Perspective as shown on Raphael's The School of Athens
One Point Perspective as shown on Raphael's The School of Athens (1510-1511)
Photo/ diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.


One-Point Linear Perspective: 

  • One Point perspective is the most common type of perspective we deal with is one-point, linear perspective
  • All parallel lines that recede converge into a single vanishing point.
  • Your view of objects changes as your eye level changes.
    If you lie on the floor, you see the undersides of this such as tables.
  • If you sit on a chair or stand, your eye level rises accordingly and your view changes. If you stand on a ladder, you see the tops of objects such as tables.

Raphael Sanzio- The School of Athens (1509)

  • In this painting, Raphael constructed a grand, renaissance-style architectural setting to provide a place for Plato and Aristotle to address their students.
  • Analyzing Raphael's use of one-point linear perspective, we see that he has painted each figure to scale in accordance with its distance from the viewer so that the entire group looks to be naturally placed in the picture plane.
  • We can see that the vanishing point in this composition lies hip-high between Plato and Aristotle, so the two most important figure lie in the zone of greatest implied depth.
  • The implied perspective lines also draw our eye to the central figures.

Examples of hands coming toward the camera


  • Foreshortening is another aspect of perspective that allows an artist to show an elongated form moving toward the viewer of a work of art.
  • Foreshortening is one of the most difficult challenges an artist faces

Diagram of two point perspective.
Two Point Perspective.
Diagram courtesy Prentice-Hall.

Two Point Perspective as shown on Raphael's The School of Athens (1510-1511) Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome Photo/ diagram couTwo Point Perspective as shown on Raphael's The School of Athens rtesy Prentice-Hall.

Two-point Perspective: 

  • Sets of parallel lines converge at two separate vanishing points. It makes it possible to place objects in space.
  • Eye level on a 2-dimensional surface is an imaginary plane parallel with the ground plane, which extends into the horizon line, where the two planes appear to converge.

    In two-point perspective, in which two sets of parallel lines appear to converge at two points on the horizon line.

Multiple-point Perspective:


Hofmann- Equipoise (1958)
Hans Hoffman-Equipoise (1958)
Oil on canvas. ©Hans Hoffman. Photo ©Elizabeth LaCour

Hue and value

Manipulation of both hue and value help to create illusions of depth.

  • Warm hues appear closer that cool hues.
  • Colors that are close in value seem close to each other in space
  • Strongly contrasting colors appear to separate in space.
  • Distant objects tend to be either similar or neutral in value, and desaturated in hue.
  • Close objects tend to exhibit stronger, more saturated hues, and/or more contrasting values, including extremes of dark and light.

Phelan's Westpot Fence.
Ellen Phelan- Fence: Westport (1999-2000) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City, NY. © Ellen Phelan. Photo: ©Elizabeth LaCour.

Atmospheric perspective

Combines several of the tools described above with hue and value.

  • Another form of perspective is atmospheric or aerial perspective.

    Atmospheric or aerial perspective is a method of creating an illusion of depth by changing the color, value, or detail within a work of art in accordance with the desired degree of distance between the viewers and the objects represented.

    As more air – which includes moisture and dust – comes between the viewer and an object, distant objects become less clear.

    As objects recede, the color intensity is also lessened, so the contrast between light and dark is reduced.

  • Operates when objects placed in the upper half of the page, and understood to be far away, lack contrast, detail, and texture.
  • The most distant objects tend to be in the upper half of your field of vision
  • Areas intended to be shown as distant will be neither extremely dark or light in value, nor be brightly colored (intense in hue).
  • Detail, texture, hue and value contrast are more likely to appear in the lower half of the picture plane.

It is also possible to break all of these rules purposely in order to create three dimensional illusions that can fool the viewer and/or could never exist in an actual three dimensional model.