English for Art and Design: Depth (1996/2012)

Illusion of depth and decorative space

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In this section, you will learn about the illusion of depth and decorative space.

Leonardo da Vinci last supper

Charles Rennie MacIntosh scottish musical

Left: Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper, (c. 1495-98). Tempera on gesso, pitch and mastic, 181.1" x 346.46" (460 cm x 880 cm). Refectory, Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy. Right: Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Scottish Musical Review, (1896). Lithograph, 97 x 37" (246.4 x 94 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The illusion of depth

Sometimes pictures appear flat or shallow, and sometimes they appear to be naturalistic windows into a world that the artist has created. When the artist creates flatness or shallowness, s/he usually is interested in decorative space, or the idea that the two-dimensional image is a flat surface. Meanwhile, in the second situation, the artist uses plastic space and is concerned with creating the illusion of depth, or creating the illusion of three-dimensionality.

For example, in Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci presents a strong illusion of depth, or deep space. Not only are figures in the foreground overlapping a back wall and windows in the middle ground, they are also overlapping other figures in the foreground. Also, linear perspective is used to create the illusion of depth— parallel lines in the foreground are far apart and closer in the middle ground. These lines lead our eye to the middleground and background of the picture. In addition, the figures in the foreground are larger, more clearly defined, have more intense colors, and have greater detail than the smaller and less clearly defined landscape in the background.

Further, Leonardo uses atmospheric perspective for the landscape in the background behind the windows. With this technique, he makes things that appear in the background unclear. This is the same way that we see things in nature and is another technique to create a stronger illusion of depth.

In contrast, in The Scottish Musical Review, Charles Rennie Mackintosh appears to be more interested in decorative space as opposed to plastic space, or the illusion of depth. Here, space is relatively shallow, perhaps even flat. Forms throughout the image are clearly defined, have the same size; the textures throughout are smooth, and the colors have the same intensity. However, Macintosh was interested in creating the illusion of some depth through the use of some limited overlapping.

Exercise 1: Reading comprehension

How did the image maker approach the illusion of depth? For what purpose— for example, was a more naturalistic image desired?

A. Which techniques were used in The Last Supper? Put a check next to the ones mentioned in the reading.

___ depicted objects are clearly defined in the foreground / blurry in the background
___ uses isometric perspective
___ uses atmospheric perspective
___ uses linear perspective
___ parallel lines are far apart in the foreground / closer together in the background
___ overlaps things
___ things are in greater detail in the foreground / are in less detail in the background
___ things are large in the foreground / small in the background
___ things have a rough texture in the foreground / have a smooth texture in the background
___ things have intense colors in the foreground / greyed, or dulled, colors in the background



B. Which techniques were used in The Scottish Musical? Put a check next to the ones mentioned in the reading.

___ depicted objects are clearly defined in the foreground / blurry in the background
___ uses isometric perspective
___ uses atmospheric perspective
___ uses linear perspective
___ parallel lines are far apart in the foreground / closer together in the background
___ overlaps things
___ things are in greater detail in the foreground / are in less detail in the background
___ things are large in the foreground / small in the background
___ things have a rough texture in the foreground / have a smooth texture in the background
___ things have intense colors in the foreground / greyed, or dulled, colors in the background



C. With these techniques, what is the effect? Decorative surface? Shallow space? Deep space? Why do you think the Mackintosh did this? Explain.

D. In this essay, the writer didn’t write examples to support his assertions. With each assertion about depth in The Scottish Musical Review, give a clear example that supports the assertion.

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