For many years I’ve studied how artists depict space, and their reasons why.
During the Italian Renaissance artists used linear perspective to create logical, deep spaces in their work. Think of the elaborate architectural paintings such as the masterpiece “School of Athens“, where Raphael depicts an entire imagined grand basilica with figures sitting logically in space with views into the horizon beyond. At the other extreme, 20th century abstract expressionists reject deep space, considering it an anachronism of illusionistic painting. They insist paintings should respect the picture plane, with paint sitting flat on the surface. Think of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings which activate the entire surface of the canvas with no consideration for dimension other than that of the textured paint itself. A newer philosophy of spatial depiction is Superflat, epitomized by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Influenced by Japanese graphics, flat shapes of equally bright color sit on the surface of the work, often overlapping. When there is a background visible, it’s often a flat and impenetrable plane. Video game spaces can be hybrids of the above ideas, varying from fantasy worlds of navigable deep Renaissance space to cartoonish flat space.
Because art critics have historically been strident in their opinions on the matter, I find artists often judge art based on what type of space they consider tasteful. Their opinions often reflect those of critics influential during the artist’s impressionable student days. “No one good paints like that anymore”. “The perspective is so off in that painting, I don’t believe he ever learned to draw”. “That’s graphic art, not fine art.” I used to wonder to myself, was I uncool because I love paintings of each philosophy? Now I see the potential in keeping all the ideas alive.
And so I study other spatial conventions. Cezanne‘s still lifes often show multiple vanishing points, and the Cubists’ fractured pictorial space adds a dimension of time. David Hockney writes of the limitations linear perspective systems that lead viewers through tunnels toward vanishing points or create distortions at the margins of the picture plane. In reality we look at the landscape and scan continually, perhaps pausing for several seconds at one view, but then darting about for the next view, or maybe refocusing on the ground at our feet. Hockney’s ideas lead him to create gigantic mosaics of plein air canvases, sometimes with a look of two-point perspective, other times with the wide perspective you might get standing in front of a large mural. Although his bright paintings aren’t realistic, the space still feels very natural and refreshing, something you can walk into.
I am also inspired by Hockney’s description of Chinese scrolls, where there is no western perspective, no connection from a foreground to a background. As the viewer unrolls the scroll, he essentially sees what one could experience at many points in a walk: here is a view of people in a shrine, transitioning to a scene in a forest looking back at the shrine, with no logical way to get from one scene to another.
And these are just some ideas I’ve considered so far. My new paintings are challenging me to find new systems, or create combinations of old ones, to create interesting imagined landscapes. When I get some experience with what I’m seeing I will write about it. For now, just know that I have stacks of books to get through and many ideas about space to paint.