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  • Bianca Vinther

Seeing like an artist: 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.