By Jonathan Cooper

Artists use various techniques to describe, or give the illusion of, three-dimensional space. Artists also sometimes deliberately try to deny the illusion of space. This set of artworks gives some examples.

Spring In New Brighton, Canterbury

Eliza Gillett Culliford Spring In New Brighton, Canterbury 1909

This painting uses gradual refinement of texture to make the ground appear to recede into the distance.


Peter Peryer Cass 2004

Railway tracks converging on the 'vanishing point' is the classic demonstration of linear perspective. But linear perspective is just one of the ways that artists describe 3D space.

Captain Ahab, peg-legged hunter of the white whale

Tony Fomison Captain Ahab, peg-legged hunter of the white whale 1981

The horizon in a picture indicates the artist's eye-level. So, if another person's head appears against the sky, as it does here, this shows that the person is higher that the artist. Does this seem to affect the way you feel about Captain Ahab?

Egypt At Dawn

Alexandre Roussoff Egypt At Dawn 1894

Very distant objects (in this case mountains) have much more atmosphere (air, dust and smoke) between them and our eyes, which causes them to look lighter. This effect, in art, is called 'aerial perspective'.

Pastoral Scene

Artist Unknown Pastoral Scene 1837

This watercolour painting uses a variation of a formula very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe: the classical landscape. The dark-ish trees on the left and right frame the distant view and lead our eyes into the picture.

Because it is natural to interpret flat patterns as solid objects, some artists deliberately try to work against this illusion.


Bill Sutton Untitled  

The artist has tried to make this painting work as a painting, without necessarily referring to anything else. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to look at the shapes and colours without thinking of some as being closer, or further away, than others. Which parts seem to come forward to you? Which seem to pull away?

Three Reds

Don Peebles Three Reds 2007

This painting demonstrates how easily the illusion of space happens in our brains. The three red rectangles seem to sit in front of the cream-coloured 'background', whereas in fact they are almost exactly on the same plane. Perhaps if the rectangles were a different colour, they might look like holes.

Western perspective is just one method of describing three-dimensional space. Here are two others.