Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting
Part 1, Black/White
This online tutorial is a transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of Your Perceptions Conference (Satellite to the EC’s Vision Scientists’ Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.
We have examples of artworks from 30,000 years ago to the present in which artists have worked with spatial depth in their drawings and paintings. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon and, for years, I have asked myself how did these artists achieve these startling effects. The result of my query is the formulation of the concept that:
Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are the means to place forms in spatial depth.
Transparency will place the forms in depth away from us, and contrast will raise them towards us.
Great artists are doing other spatial things as well: lighting, modeling form, and perspective drawing. But for this talk, I will focus on this transparency issue.
The first figure shows a gradation of light to dark stripes on a white background. The stripes ascend like steps towards us as they get darker. The darkest “pops” out in contrast to the white background. Conversely, the lightest of the stripes recedes into the distance of the white surface.
Similarly, the discs “move” through space because of their relative lightness or darkness to the background and each other. The big black disc jumps forward.
Notice what happens when the large disc changes to light gray, it recedes significantly beyond the small black one.
Chauvet Cave, 30,000 B.C.
Horses’ Heads from the Chauvet Cave dated 30,000 years ago. Notice the gray scale of the receding heads and the black modeling of the head closest to us. Also, notice how the light gray of the surface also comes through the receding heads literally making them transparent.
Monet, The Thames at Westminster, 1871
Oil on canvas, 47 x 72.5 cm (18 1/2 x 28 1/2″)
National Gallery, London
This Monet is an excellent example of this idea. We first see the blackness of the pylons, and the other objects dance back into space by the degree of how transparent they become, how close to the gray of the background they match.
When the background changes to black, the principle of transparency still holds true. The closer to a black tone the background becomes the discs further recede; the white pops forward.
Here we have two white discs, a large and a small one; now we have an example of perspective; the bigger one comes a bit more forward than the small one.
Rembrandt, Hendrickje Bathing in a River, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London
Due to the extreme lightness of her body, she comes forward off the background off the dark background. Notice the transparency of her left shoulder; it sends her left arm back away from her chest. Rembrandt is working with a gray/brown/black scale, not with a full range of color. He sets objects back by making them merge to this dark tone. Compare the brilliant lightness of her shift to the middle tone glow of the material behind her on the bank. Her lightness is popping her forward.
Here we have a gray background, the discs that come forward have become either more white or black respectively.
Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross
In Michelangelo’s Christ the closest part of his body to us is his right knee, then it would be his right big toe, and then his left chest. These areas have the greatest contrast between light and dark. Compare the high contrast of tone of his right foot to the more muted left foot behind. Or compare the transparent area of his left knee to the intense light and dark of his right knee. Also, notice that his arms share a depth of space and have an equal range of tonal value that is less high in contrast as his forward knee. Also, notice how delicately transparent the background figures are.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting. Part 2 will cover how this theory works with color.
New York, May 2006