READING: ‘Art and Visual Perception – The Psychology of the Creative Eye’


‘ART AND VISUAL PERCEPTION’ A Psychology of the Creative Eye

Rudolf Arnheim , University of California Press, 1974

Chapter 5 – SPACE

This is an extremely interesting read! I’m very grateful to have been directed to it as it has opened many aspects of ‘space’ which I was unaware of. It is a very intensive study of the element of space in painting covering a range of specific areas listed below. Because so much of it was new to me I have jotted down the points below which stood out and have used specific paintings to try to understand the points made. I think the main thing I have  been left with after reading it is that ‘space’ in a drawing is a vital and infinitely productive area for the meaning and creative possibilities of a piece of work to be explored.


Notes from ‘Art and Visual Perception’

Chapter V – SPACE

Shape cannot be seen simply as itself – always related to the space around it. The shape of this space affects the shape itself and how it is perceived.

Line and contour

Line is one-dimensional object

Paul Klee - Vigilant Angel

Paul Klee – Vigilant Angel

Combination of lines, simplified, form an overall pattern and so become a surface – the lines are no longer individual objects but hatch lines, thus creating a surface using line. The curvature of these lines bend the surface…sculpture, natural wood.

Contour lines

The one-dimensional line when it surrounds a space (eg circle) has been transformed into a two-dimensional object. The area inside the loop has greater density than the surrounding space…more solid looking.

The straight line is the simplest surface enclosed by the contour line. Any change in the contour line changes the inner surface. The larger the enclosed area, the weaker the affect or influence of the boundary line.


The example of Rembrandt and Matisse – Rembrandt creates solidity through outlined relatively small units then inner design in these units eg folds etc. Matisse on the other hand creates weak contours, large units…bodies are loose pieces of empty paper surfaces. Three dimensional effect reduced. This is deliberate. Older artists stress solid volume, modern artists want to dematerialise objects and minimise space. ”The modern drawings are meant as lightweight products, obvious creations of man. Figments of the imagination rather than illusions of physical reality.” Stressing the surface. True also for the painted surface – determined largely by the shape of their boundaries. ‘A large unmodulated stretch of colour tends to look loose and empty.

Figure and ground

The surrounded figure possesses greater density than the looser ground. Adding texture to either the surrounded shape or the ground brings changes to this. See Matisse’s woodcut…deliberate dematerialising of the body (modern effect)

Matisse wood cut

Matisse wood cut

If the surface is of two horizontally divided areas, the lower tends to be seen as the figure…the lower section carries more weight. Also brighter areas tend to be seen as figure. Also convexity makes for figure, concavity for ground.

Spaces between figures or objects must be as carefully defined as the figures/ objects themselves. The negative spaces between figures must be given sufficient figure quality.

Pictorial space is a continuous relief in which areas of different distances border on one another…essentially two frontal planes. 239

Frames and windows

Function of the frame…distinction made between the physical space of the room and the world of the picture. Frame thought of as a window into which one looked at the world of the picture. The frame became the figure and the picture space a borderless ground. 19th century, this idea came to an end…Degas…frame cut across bodies and objects emphasising the accidental nature of the boundary.

Degas - Rehearsal

Degas – Rehearsal

At the same time artists stressed flatness, the picture as an elaboration of the surface of the canvas.


The unit whose contour is interrupted takes the back position – factor of consistent shape. Overlapping always sets up visual tension. ‘Occluded’ figure – shut out or in


Interesting pages 253-257 – difficult to sum up. Seeing the objects, likened to the process of hearing music.

Deformations Create Space

Deformation is the device by which depth is represented in the plane. Ie the rectangle represented in perspective

Third dimension – objects can be positioned in the third dimension by (i) tilting away the frontal plane and by acquiring volume and roundness. A deformation of an object implies that some push or pull has been applied to the object (the process of perspective)

Boxes in three dimensions

…pictorial form does not develop from the faithful representation of nature. Pictorial form comes from the conditions of the two-dimensional medium.

*** Think about this. “Except for the special case of transparency, no more than one thing at a time can even be directly visible in any one spot of the surface.” Page 264

*****Change when Western art freed itself from the dominance of ‘realistic’ perspective (see Picasso)



Deformation of the shape of the image achieves realism through perspective – spatial representation. Wrong according to optical projection (Picasso drawing)

Found this difficult to understand – “…the anchoring of the frontal plane can be experienced as an obstacle to free movement in space.” FRONTALITY? Isometric projection abandons frontality, allowing for more movement …see traditional Japanese painting (Tale of Genji) Theo van Doesburg ? Think I understand…object/figures face on in a painting express less movement than the same in isometric projection!

Genji painting

Genji painting

Simple rather than truthful

The eye returns projected deformations to their right shape…the objects are said to remain ‘constant’.

Gradients create depth



Size gradient represents depth. Aerial perspective relies on gradients of brightness, saturation, sharpness, texture and hue…the phenomenon of increased body of air.

Toward a Convergence of space

Isometric perspective – system for unifying three-dimensional pictorial space…”conveys the sense of a world that does not confront us at a stable location but moves past us like a train”…movement

28. 5. 66 1966 John Hoyland 1934-2011 Purchased 1966

28. 5. 66 1966 John Hoyland 1934-2011 Purchased 1966

The Two Roots of Central Perspective

Central perspective – discovered at only one time and place in man’s entire history. Other elementary procedures for representing space…the two dimensional ‘Egyptian’ method and isometric perspective. Central perspective – “ violent and intricate a deformation of the normal shape of things” (interesting description) p283 the most realistic way of depicting space – geometric construct. The discovery of this marked a scientifically orientated preference for mechanical reproduction and geometric constructs in place of creative imagery.







About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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