Activity 11: Applying the Formal Elements: Space

As a formal element of art, space can be shallow or deep, actual, or implied. Since most photographs are two-dimensional, depth is experienced visually. The objects in the foreground of photographs are typically crisp and clear compared to the objects in the background of the photograph. Artists sometimes break these rules though, instead choosing to show the viewer a scene unlike our natural world.

In the painting, circular clouds are on the sky. Many houses stand in a village. A cypress tree in the pattern of a flame is in the front. Mountains are behind the village.
Figure 1.3. Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 × 36.25 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Mountain and clouds are near a river with trees on the shore.
Figure 1.12. Albert Bierstadt, In the Sierras, 1868. Oil on canvas, 13 × 16 in. Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Consider the paintings above by Vincent van Gogh & Albert Bierstadt. Both paintings show us a landscape, but both paintings describe different types of space. In van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night, the colors are intensely saturated, with analogous, bright blue and yellow hues. The actual lines of paint swirl and move rhythmically around the painting. The tall cypress tree is in the foreground, while the small town sits below. As viewers, we know the tree is in front of the town because of its scale and proportion in relation to the town below. The lively energy of the night's bright colors, swirling lines, and high value contrast makes van Gogh’s landscape seem closer in space than a typical night sky.

Bierstadt’s painting, In the Sierras, displays a deep sense of space. He uses color and clarity to describe the vastness of this landscape. In the foreground, we see the use of a bright saturated green, describing the foliage and grass that is closest to us. He uses soft, muted, low contrast grays to describe the mountains and clouds towering in the distance. The rocks and grass in the foreground of the painting are described using precise and crisp lines, texture, and color. Through the use of these elements, Bierstadt describes a deeper, more vast space than the vibrant painting by van Gogh.

Discussion Board Activity:

In this exercise, you will create a photograph that shows your understanding of the formal element of space. To begin, look around you and think /write about places/locations that seem shallow vs. locations that seem deep. Create an image that shows something very far away from the viewer.

Your photograph must represent what you see around you. (You cannot take a photograph of an image that already exists). This is an opportunity to share what you see in your daily life or to try a new technique.

In your discussion board post, include your photograph, explain how it conveys an idea or theme, and address the following statements/questions:

  • Describe how your image includes (or lacks) color, shape, line, and texture.
  • How does the distance affect the formal elements in the picture? In reverse, how do the formal elements in the picture create the perception of space? How does the space of the image make you feel?
  • What subjective opinions or feelings do you have when viewing this image?

Allow time for other students to comment on what they feel your photograph conveys, based on their objective and subjective observations.