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  • Bianca Vinther

How artists see: the perception of space in visual arts

How do you approach space in your works?

Listen to a short audio version of this blog post here.

Photography of a structure made of black wire in a white space

In visual arts, space is primarily depth as opposed to surface. It is the area around, above, below, between, and within the things we see, as well as the distance between the things we see and us. It also encompasses the area inside, outside, and around a work of art. Space can be positive or negative. Positive space is the area occupied by objects and shapes. Negative space is the rest.

But there’s more about the concept of space than that, and this is precisely what I’m going to tackle in this blog post. If you'd like to better understand your own perception of space as a visual artist, you should read this blog post till the end.

The outer perception of space

A couple of hundred years ago, Western European artists pictured the world with accuracy and illusionism from a single point of view. As if their eyes were standing still. Think of Filippo Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, which was commonly used at the time.

But they also contravened the rules of monofocal perspective to produce works of art that puzzled the eye, like Paolo Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano”, a painting with two external vanishing points.

Nevertheless, the Renaissance artists painted what they seemed to see. They invented an orderly and well-proportioned version of reality, a three-dimensional space to serve an illusion, a political discourse, or a clearly defined theological purpose.

They manipulated linear perspective along with “anomalous” perspectives to frame and narrate their stories. They created fiction, and fiction worked splendidly in that particular historical context.

Masterpiece (fresco) by the Italian Renaissance artist Rafael
"The School of Athens" by Rafael (Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican). Courtesy of

The inner perception of space

Paul Cézanne marked a milestone in the development of European art. Because he shifted the focus from the visible objects that the eyes can see onto the invisible process of seeing the world individually. In a nutshell, the thing that mattered most to Cézanne was not the apple, but his perception of the apple with both eyes and brain. “I paint as I see, as I perceive”, he wrote to Stock, a journalist, in 1870.

Cézanne raised painting to the level of personal expression. Consequently, painting became the outward sign of what and how the artist saw; a result of his own way of seeing, which showed him what his personal seeing was like.

We owe Cézanne the consciousness of sight. We owe him the distinction between painting as we see and painting as we sense the surrounding things. Because Cézanne was the first artist to make the difference between outer and inner perception. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, read my blog post entitled “How to see like an artist: 8 highly effective strategies: The Pointless Artist's hands-on guide to becoming more creative and artistic”.

Seeing unites us with what we see. And there’s a sense of wonder involved in seeing and rediscovering the world each time anew!

Look, that tree trunk: between us and it there is a space, an atmosphere, I grant you that. But then again it is this palpable, resistant trunk, this body … See like someone who has just been born!” (Paul Cézanne to Jules Borély, 1902)

I’ve learned so much from Paul Cézanne throughout my life. This is how I’d sum up his teaching: art is not an objective account of the visible, but a personal interpretation of the invisible. Because our perception of space is individual.

This means that there’s no single, monofocal, absolute perspective on the things we see, but a multitude of points of view. And every time “the eye changes its direction it sees another scene” so that “each look upon a scene constitutes another painting.” (Jean Désiré Regnier)

David Hockney took this idea further – he made it literally "visible" for us. Think of his picture of Pearblossom Highway in California (from 1986) – a collage of 850 photographs all stuck together. And a moving picture, too. This is how the artist describes his work:

It looks as if it had been taken from one spot – looking straight down the road – but that’s not the case! I wanted to show that humans don’t see the world from one point of view; our eyes move around all the time, and we move, too”.

In this video, David Hockney explains perspective and the making of his collage.

Perspective is relative. And the perception of space, too. Because "we don't all see the same thing" (David Hockney). Space is a matter of inner perception.

Seeing like an artist is among other things that I wrote about in a previous blog post, seeing space dynamically from a personal angle and multiple viewpoints. It is per se anti-conformist and unconventional.

What is your approach to space? When you look at an object or a scene, what do you see first? And what do you do with the space when you draw, paint, take photographs, or make a collage or installation art? This is one of the ways in which Paul Cézanne explained his approach to space:

I am a primitive, I have a lazy eye. I applied to the Ecole on two occasions, but I don’t make a set-piece. A head interests me, and I make it too big.” (Paul Cézanne to R. P. Rivière and J. Schnerb, 1905)

So, why not be "a primitive"? Why not have a lazy eye and be mindful about your inner perception of space?

The Pointless Artist's tip for you

Use David Hockney’s picture collage as an incentive for experimenting with your perception of space. Or Georges Vantongerloo’s Constructions (I love his works! He's one of my beloved Belgian artists, by the way).

For instance, chop up a number of. jpegs, download them in an image quilt, and randomly play with them like with the pieces of a puzzle. Then notice: how did you use and transform the space? You’ll be surprised!

Thank you for reading till the end.

If you’ve got something to add, please comment on this blog post below, drop me an e-mail or pm me on Instagram @the_pointless_artist. I'd love to hear from you!


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Recognise your pointlessness, and keep creating!

From Germany with love,

Bianca Vinther


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