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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 6 – space



Space is a constant reality. We exist within spatial context and relationships. We are three-dimensional objects and space exists around us and even within us. We all have exclusive space that only our bodies occupy; it is truly our “private space.” The space around us can be extended to the edge of the room, the country, the planet, the galaxy, the universe.  There seems to be no limit to space.


In order to understand how we perceive space, we must first have some understanding of how we see. We imagine ourselves as having the ability to see panoramic scenes all at once; it seems we are looking out on a scene and taking it all in as one unit. In reality our vision doesn’t function

that way. Our eyes gather information from point to point – a tree, a cloud, a bug, a fence

– then our mind puts them together to form the scene we are looking at. The brain functions this way because it needs to react immediately to the visual stimuli it receives (part of our survival instincts). If the brain received all the details of a scene at once it would overload. It would be like a crowd of people shouting different things at you all at the same time (Bevlin 68).  The eyes take pieces of information to the brain that assembles them as a whole. The brain considers the need to identify what we see a serious matter and has evolved to make “sense” of what we see.


Flat space is self-explanatory; it is space that has two dimensions, height and width. A piece of paper, a canvas or a video screen are all in their unsullied states flat spaces, and in most cases remain flat even after their manipulation by an artist. Some artists prefer flatness and do little or nothing to interfere with it. They create flat shapes that compliment the flat surface. Henri Matisse was one of the greatest masters of flat space in the twentieth century. His cut colored paper works of his later years are some of the most joyous images ever made.  But artists dealing with flat space did not originate in the twentieth century, indeed they go back to cave paintings we mentioned earlier.  Many, if not most, cultures through history used primarily flat space in their religious, decorative and functional arts.  The Maori of New Zealand, the Aztecs of Mexico, the tribes of the Northwest coast of America, all had traditions of creating dazzling works of flat shapes in flat space. Even cultures that reached some of the highest levels of cultural achievement, such as Japan, maintained marked preferences for flat space, though they did use some spatial illusions.


When creating a design on a flat space, a shape or shapes are placed on that surface to suit the needs of the designer. Those shapes introduced can be called the positive space and space left around those shapes can be called the negative space. Other terminology commonly used is figure (for the positive space) and ground (for the negative space). A discussion of the positive and negative spaces in a composition can be called a study of the figure-ground relationship.

Many beginning students seem to be pulled to and sometimes held captive by the positive space. In creating a design or drawing they focus all attention and thought on the positive space, the subject of the work. In doing this they inadvertently ignore much of the space of the composition, the negative space that is as equally important as the positive. The two spaces are interlocked and symbiotic. Every change in one affects the other, and the neglect of either can weaken a composition. The best designs occur when both are in harmony, when the shapes of the negative space are as interesting as the shapes in the positive space. An appropriate analogy is the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin represents the female forces of the universe, Yang the male forces. Both are powerful omnipresent elements of our existence but either by itself is doomed to failure. Only through constructive and varied interplay between the two forces can good reign. So it is with positive and negative space.


As previously stated, paper, canvas and screens are flat spaces, but if the artist arranges the visual elements on such flat spaces in a certain arrangements, illusions of depth can be can be achieved. When our brain interprets these flat spaces containing illusions (realistic pictures) and associates them to past experience we very often accept the illusion. If a cat or dog were to sniff the same picture it would readily identify it for what it is, a flat piece of paper or canvas (Myers 40). Humans are a very easily fooled mammal.

When many people uneducated in the arts look at a two-dimensional work of art, they expect to see an illusion.  If they don’t see one, they are often disappointed or even offended. They believe that all art should or must show an illusion of space. As far as they are concerned the “realer” it looks, the better it is. This confusion of mistaking the skill of creating illusions with quality is unfortunate. It keeps many people from gaining information and enjoyment from a large area of art.

The history of making elaborate illusions of space on a two-dimensional surface isn’t particularly long. This should not be too surprising, as illusion making is a rather unnatural thing to do. The first masters of illusions of space seem to have been the Greeks of the classical age, fifth century B.C. Their fascination with human form and the idealized recreation of it in stone and bronze can be seen in sculptures that have been preserved. We have documents that also tell us of the great painters of the time but no paintings have survived the centuries. The closest we have are the paintings of Pompeii from the first century BC. They were done in Italy but primarily by Greek slaves. They are probably not as accomplished as what was produced in the classic period and many seem very commercial in purpose, but they do give us some idea of the skill achieved by the Greeks. The frescoes also show that at least some of these artists had what we would call perspective “problems.”

When the Roman Empire slowly crumbled and the centuries of Christian domination of Europe began, classical illusions of space were mostly abandoned.  The Church was not interested in illusions of this world but of spiritual images of the “other” world. To achieve this, they found flat space to be more effective.

In the fifteenth century the Renaissance saw a return to both two-and three-dimensional illusions. In their illusions on flat surfaces the inquisitive Renaissance artists soared past their Greek and Roman models. They developed a system of linear perspective that enabled them to create the most convincing illusions of space ever achieved. The techniques spread throughout Europe and became the standard for spatial depiction until the late nineteenth century. Then something remarkable happened. A smattering of individualistic artists started to abandon the slick illusions of space that had dominated Europe for centuries.  Manet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cezanne created paintings that to varying degrees returned to flat space. It shocked and horrified most of the art world and certainly the general public.

The evolution from illusions of space to flat space continued to develop through the twentieth century to the 1950’s and 1960’s reaching its ultimate expression in the works of the minimalist painters. Their huge, simple, flat color areas exist in simple flat space.  While this evolution was taking place, illusions of space didn’t disappear or even stand still. The twentieth century has seen a multitude of new and exciting approaches to creating illusion of space. A particularly startling one followed on the heels of minimalism and was accepted in the high art world. It was a type of realism that became classified into many subcategories: photorealism, superrealism, hyperrealism. The artists used photo-technology and other means to create works that were “realer” than your eyes would normally see.



Probably the most elemental way to suggest an illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface is size. From experience we all know that objects of equal size will appear to be smaller if they are farther away from us.  Therefore if one wishes to depict a tree more distant in a composition than one already drawn, the second tree can be drawn smaller and it will appear to be more distant, deeper in space.


A second simple but very effective way to show depth is by overlapping. By placing one shape so it appears to hide part of another shape, you immediately give the appearance that one shape is in front of another and therefore the illusion of depth. This is an amazingly successful device and is a major spatial tool in many cultures.


The placement of shapes higher on the flat space can indicate that the higher shapes are meant to be perceived as further away. This tiering or vertical location is a common device used by children and by many cultures. Tiering can also be successfully used in conjunction with more sophisticated illusions of space.


Atmospheric or aerial perspective is based on the fact that objects that are more distant from our eyes are less clear. This is caused primarily by two factors: first, the air between the viewer and the object softens the image as distance is increased; second, the human eye cannot discern detail as objects become more distant. Atmospheric perspective attempts to imitate this effect on the flat surface by making objects that are meant to be perceived as distant less detailed and more blurry and grayed than those objects meant to be seen as closer to the viewer.


The most complex of all the devices to create illusions of space is linear perspective. Developed in the Italian Renaissance, first by architects and artists as a system to document Roman ruins, it rapidly conquered Europe as a successful system of complex visual illusions.

The basis of linear perspective is fairly simple. As parallel lines (such as the side of a building) recede from a viewer, they appear to come together, converge, and eventually meet at a point. The complications begin when the systems of one, two, and multi-point perspective apply their many guidelines.

A linear perspective drawing begins with the placement of a horizon line on a level of the picture plane (the surface of the paper or canvas).  The horizon line is where the horizon of the sky would be and is also the viewer’s eye level. On this line all the converging parallel lines of the composition will eventually meet (and some of the lines might meet well off the picture plane if extended to their meeting point). The points at which the extended converging lines meet are called vanishing points. One-point perspective has one vanishing point; two-point perspective has two vanishing points; and multi-point perspective has many vanishing points.


Another device to give the illusion of three-dimensional space to a flat surface is rendering, also called shading. Rendering is an attempt to show how light affects a surface or object by creating lighter and darker values on the picture plane.  These various values are made to correspond with the values created by the light source on the object being drawn or painted. The designer attempts to show the highlights and various shadows on the object and also the shadows cast by the object onto other surfaces. The success of this technique is often determined by depicting the light source consistently and often exaggerating the lightest and darkest values to enhance the illusion of volume on a two-dimensional surface.


Closed space refers to compositions in which all or nearly all the components and action take place within the borders of the picture plane.  Figures and major elements are grouped to form contained units that draw the viewer’s attention to areas of emphasis. Closed space dominated European art from the Greeks to the mid nineteenth century. Then, as with the break from what was by then traditional illusions of space, a group of mainly French renegades started to break the rules. Some of these artists were the same as the flatness proponents already mentioned; Manet, Gaugin, Toulouse- Lautrec, and Van Gogh (Dutch). Others who broke out of the closed space were Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Cassatt (American) – a heavy-hitters list of Impressionists. All these artists began creating compositions that did not appear to be confined within the four borders of the picture plane. Their compositions looked cropped and suggested that more was happening around the edges of the space. This is called implied or open space.

The development of implied space by these nineteenth century artists had two major influences. The first was the influx of Japanese woodblock prints to Europe. For centuries the Japanese had been creating implied compositions, cropping their compositions, thus showing a little but implying a great deal. It allowed the viewer to become more involved with the work; the viewers finished the composition with their own minds. It should also be noted that the bold, flat color areas of these same woodblock prints were what influenced these same adventurous European artists in flatness. The second influence on the development of implied space compositions was photography. Photography had been evolving since the 1830’s and by the last decades of the nineteenth century it was a common part of urban life.  Some artists were already using photography as an aid in their art. When a photograph is taken, it automatically crops the edges of the space, sometimes dramatically. This fact caught the eyes of artists who saw the potential of unusual cropping to show different points of view. Edgar Degas used this idea in some stunning ways.


The old sayings of “seeing is believing” and “trust your eyes” can be misguided advice. You can’t always believe what you see. The skilled designer can create compositions that convincingly show you what couldn’t possibly be, or alter what seems real to fit the designer or client’s needs, leaving the viewer the victim of the artist’s skill.

Once the designer has mastered the devices to create illusions, there is little in his/her path to stop the manipulation of those devices to make the viewer see what the designer wishes. The twentieth century style of Surrealism is a sensational example of this. Salvador Dali created a shocking nightmare world on canvas where the impossible became slickly rendered and spatially correct. Rene Magritte took our standard understanding of space, texture and scale and stood them all on their ears, making us see common things in entirely new ways. Yves Tanguy created spaces and shapes that transported us to a world different from but spatially as believable as our own.

In commercial design the manipulation of illusions is usually not as obvious as in surrealism. In the advertising world such manipulation is more subtle and functional. The illusions are put to use in selling a product, service or idea. It is normally the designer’s job to present the sales item in the most positive way possible. If this involves creating illusions that might not always reflect reality, many designers seem more than willing to do so. This can be as simple as making a candy bar look larger in size in an advertisement than it actually is. Or the deception can be as complex as making a car look like a sexually desirable object. A child may be disappointed to find that the candy bar is not as large as it appeared in the ad. An adult may be subconsciously disappointed to find that sexual satisfaction is difficult to achieve with an automobile.

Deception in the advertising world can range from the innocent to the dangerous, from necessary to excessive. Wherever the deceptions fall on this spectrum, they all alter the consumer’s perception of reality. The result: we now live in a culture so inundated with illusions that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize reality. The advent of computer technologies has made the capabilities to create sophisticated deceptive illusions available to whoever has the technology. Programs for photo manipulation now makes it possible to create fictitious imagery with the most convincing subtleties in photographic images. People are conditioned to respond to photography as a reflection of reality and can be easily manipulated.

Our eyes sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing and interpreting illusions. A fairly common problem is in distinguishing figure from ground in a composition. The classic example of this figure-ground ambiguity is the picture of a vase that is formed by two silhouettes of the human face. Flat patterns can also easily create this same reversal of figure and ground. An artist whose mastery of figure-ground and linear perspective has been surpassed by few is M. C. Escher. His delightful puzzles of figure-ground and perspective entanglements are complex lessons in spatial illusions.


In the extended world of design, space continues to be a dominating element. In architecture the complexity of spatial design extends to both the outside and the inside of the structure. How the space is shaped within the building is just as important as the overall mass it creates on the outside. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was acutely aware of this fact. He was one of the Western originators of open spaces within the home, breaking up the traditional small rooms that dominated Victorian design. Wright’s spacious connected living spaces were illuminated by large window areas, making them seem even larger and bringing the outdoors inside. These ideas seem very commonplace today but the were revolutionary at the turn of the twentieth century when he was developing them. A major influence on Wright’s sense of space was Japanese architecture; again the Japanese have a major impact on modern concepts of space in the West.

Space doesn’t have the solidity of mass, shape, texture, or even line. Although the reality of space in undeniable, it is somewhat abstract and more difficult to grasp. This may be partially due to its vastness. One of the major applications of space in “the big picture” is that of outer space; we have spacemen, spacecraft, space flight, space stations, and space medicine. The limits of this space are truly unknown. Is there an edge or end of the universe or are there more universes beyond this one? Is the universe all there is, or is the universe merely one part of a whole as an electron is part of an atom? The vastness and complexity of inner and outer space is a great mystery.


materials: tag board 19″ X 23″ and 9″ X 10 1/4″, scissors, rubber cement, four 8″ X 10″ pieces of black  construction paper, pencil, ruler, fine tip  black marker, exacto knife.

objective: to create four highly contrasting compositions of positive and negative spaces using the same still life as  the source


1. Divide the 19″ X 23″ tag board into four equal 8″ X 10″    rectangles with a 1″ border and 1″ in between. Put a 3″  border on the 9″ X 10 1/4″ tag board and with ruler and  exacto knife cut out the interior rectangle creating a  viewfinder.

2. Each of the four compositions is to contain an arrangement of positive and negative spaces as seen in  the still life. Use the viewfinder held at arms length  to find interesting arrangements of positive and  negative spaces in the still life. Move around the room to get new viewpoints, try close up and far away. Attempt to get radically different arrangements of positive and negative space. On each of the four  8″ X 10″ pieces of black construction paper carefully  draw each of these four spatial arrangement with  pencil.  All compositions must be either horizontally or vertically oriented. Then cut out the negative spaces with scissors  and exacto knife and glue them with rubber cement to  the four spaces on the tag board. You may glue either the positive or the negative shapes to the board but stay consistent with all four compositions.

3. Ink the borderlines with ruler and marker.  Label on the front, in the lower border, Positive and Negative Space and your name.


materials: old magazines (outdoorsy ones esp.), tag board 14″ X 20″, marker, pencil, ruler, exacto knife,  rubber cement.

objective: To create a collage of magazine images that brings together in one composition all the devices to create illusions of space discussed in Chapter Six in a convincing illusion of believable space.


1. Put a 1″ border on the 14″ X 20″ tag board.

2. Search through magazines and collect images you can piece together to create new illusions of space.  You must show examples of each of the following devices: size, overlapping,  vertical location, atmospheric perspective, linear  perspective, and rendering. Use some dramatic implied space in  the composition.

3. These examples must all “fit together” to form one overall convincing spatial composition. Object in the composition need not make conceptual sense (they may be unrelated, outrageous, silly). But they must make rational spatial sense.

4. On the front border label the project Illusions of  Space and your first and last names.  NOT with marker;  instead cut letters from magazine ads and headlines  (ransom-note style).


materials: tag board 14″ X 20″, black construction paper, rubber cement, exacto knife, scissors, ruler,  pencil, marker.

objective: To create a black and white composition in which the figure and ground are interchangeable  and both have recognizable subject matter.


1.Do quick black and white shape sketches within rectangles. Study the negative spaces created and manipulate the positive shapes to make the negative spaces more recognizable.


2. Draw out an interesting shape of a recognizable subject on black construction paper (tree, plant, animal,  etc.).  Cut out the image, then trace it and cut out  the reverse image of the original . Place the two shapes on a white surface and move them about creating  shapes between them. Watch the negative space carefully  and manipulate it to form recognizable subjects in the  white. You may have to alter your positive shapes to  enhance your negative shapes. If you cannot form any  recognizable negative shapes, start over with new  positive shapes.

2. Remember that all the white and black spaces in the composition must be recognizable. You will need to do considerable adapting of shapes and experimentation to achieve this. When you have succeeded glue the shapes down with rubber cement.

3. Label the project on the front in marker, Spatial Ambiguity and your name.

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