The Design Element Of Space

In today’s blog post we talk about space and how artists have depicted it over the years. You can find our complete discussion of space in Chapter 4 of Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

For this post we will anchor the conversation on three representational paintings by European artists working hundreds of years apart. Looking at these paintings you can see that the use of design elements and principles is not static, but changes as a culture evolves.

• The first painting is titled Christ Taken Prisoner. It is tempera on wood painted around 1308 by the Italian artist Cimabue. Cimabue is generally considered to be one of the first artists to break with Byzantine traditions and introduce elements of naturalism in his images. His human figures, for example, have fairly accurate proportions and include shading to indicate volume and mass.

Oil painting "Christ Taken Prisoner" by Cimabue

Even though Cimabue introduced elements that hinted at three-dimensions, this painting still downplays the illusion of depth. Here the composition flows exclusively from side to side across a shallow space. All the figures are on the same plane. The landscape elements are also on their own flat plane. There is no attempt to create the illusion of a receding environment or people occupying actual space. Even the sky is one blank, uniform gold-leaf passage stretching across the top of the entire composition. Its metallic and shiny surface comes forward visually and joins the landscape forms and human figures in a relatively compressed layer.

Christ Taken Prisoner is primarily about story telling using visual symbols and props. Looking at Cimabue’s painting it is easy to imagine a world view that is dominated by religion where art is meant to instruct the viewer not create illusions.

• The second painting is titled The Grand Canal from Campo di San Vio painted around 1720 by Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto). It is oil on canvas.

Oil painting of the Grand Canal by Canaletto

This painting of Venice by Canaletto employs most of the pictorial devices used by artists of that time to create an illusion of depth. The composition is based on one-point linear perspective with the vanishing point located on the horizon at the far end of the canal. The picture is loaded with examples of overlapping shapes that diminish in size as they march back in space. As items move further away from us they lose more and more detail and contrast. All of these changes occur as part of a calculated system designed to mimic what we see in the real world. Unlike Cimabue’s painting, the sky here is complex, even majestic.

The world depicted by Canaletto is very secular and material. It is a world of global empires, merchants and explorers. It is also a world of invention and science. Painting in the 18th century captured the appearance of the material world around us and often hinted at places and things beyond the horizon.

• The final painting in this discussion about space is titled Woman with Cat, painted in 1912 by Pierre Bonnard. It is oil on canvas.

Painting by Bonnard

By the time Bonnard created this painting 20th century artists had moved away from the notion that a painting was a window through which we see an illusion of the real world. Instead, modern era artists view the canvas as a two-dimensional laboratory where they can experiment with paint and design elements to create personal, visually intriguing and beautiful art objects.

The composition in this particular Bonnard painting is a dialogue between straight lines and variations on circular shapes – played out over the flat square of the canvas.

The bowl of fruit and single orange in the foreground lead our eye back to the table top and the plate in front of the woman – all of which are circular shapes. Eventually we focus on the woman’s round head. Behind her the fireplace mantle, the corner of the room, the chair back and the door jamb are all straight lines that run parallel to the sides or top edge of the painting.

The woman and the cat are sandwiched between these two sets of differing elements. They not only occupy the center of the composition, they are visual buffers that create a transition between the circular and linear elements in the painting.

Bonnard’s work is not a symbolic painting like Cimabue’s, nor is it an illusionistic work like Canaletto’s. It is a very personal composition by a painter who loves his subject matter, shapes, colors, paint and even the canvas he works on.

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