Sunday, October 22, 2017

Flatness and Depth in Painting

This scene was on the back cover of David Drake's paperback collection of military science fiction short stories called "The Fleet Book One." 

To make the typical '80s air battle look more incongruous, I imagined it taking place at a low altitude over farmland. I set up the scale by introducing the fighter craft in the foreground, and then repeating them way back in the scene. I also softened the colors and compressed the lines of the croplands as they went back to the horizon.

When I was in art school, many of the teachers spoke dogmatically about the importance of making the painting reinforce the flatness of the picture plane. But that idea never really interested me very much. The flatness of the picture plane is a given. It's easy to make a painting look 2D—colored stuff on a rectangle of canvas.

The real fun for me starts when the surface starts to fall away and pulls me back into infinite depths.
Read more:
Modern art theory: "The Importance of Flatness"
Previous post on "Houding" (a theory of pictorial depth from classical Dutch theory)
Amazon: The Fleet Book One


Bill Marshall said...

Boy, this really takes me back to my art school days in the early '70's! A time when, as you somewhat described, we were instructed that "true realism" is to never waiver from the flat plain of the canvas, because showing depth is nothing more than creating a false illusion.

Interesting that in your link to the importance of flatness, painting in such a manner is labeled as a "self conscious act" instead of "conceptual", as I remember it being described, or are they one in the same?


GJ said...

That's right. The picture plane is fundamentally trivial—the pictorial space, now that's another matter. I think it was Dr. Barnes [of Barnes Foundation fame], who contended that abstract expressionism had to be something rather special if it was to avoid giving nothing more than an impression of the random patterns in an oriental rug. gj

Sesco said...

I recently added a frame to a small oil waterscape on stretched canvas and was amazed at how much depth this added; my take away, it depends on the frame and the care taken to suggest depth in the painting, but framing can add wonderful depth to paintings otherwise depending upon the skill of the artist for this effect.

Drake Gomez said...

It may indeed be easy to make a painting look two-dimensional, since that's the nature of painting to begin with. And that goal has often been the ideal of many painters post-WWII, even to the point of moralizing about it. That said, I don't think the picture plane is trivial. Reinforcing the flatness of the picture and creating the illusion of form and depth are not mutually exclusive pursuits, and for many painters, the challenge lies in striking some kind of balance between them. For some, that balance tilts toward the representational; for others, toward the abstract. Personally, I'm least drawn toward artwork that lies at the extremes.

Michael Pianta said...

I graduated from art school in 2009 and the importance of the flat picture plane was also stressed to me, along with the idea that "realistic" art (which they seemed to have a very broad notion of) was merely creating a "false illusion". It's interesting how persistent these ideas are - it sounds like I was told almost the exact same thing as you, even down to the verbiage.

scottT said...

I studied art in the late 70s/early 80s and I'm hard pressed to remember ever being taught studio practice or technical things of a practical nature. Looking back it's kind of amazing how long modernist aesthetic ideas from the turn of the last century persisted well into the late decades--and still very recently, apparently.

Once the obvious was stated by the Nabis that "a painting is just flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order", and the ramifications of that observation played itself out over decades of modern art to follow, you'd think we could get back to the illusion of space again. I sense that we are.