Discussion on Abstraction and Depth

Abstract art that is very good does not loose depth.  It think this is a misconception, for many really good mature artists. They are thinking that abstract art takes place on the surface of the canvas without an illusion to depth because they perceive it to be flat. I think this might be central to what makes abstract so hard for artists who clearly are ready for it but can’t seem to grasp it.


There are seven elements in art. They are color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. Depth isn’t part of this list even though it is so important probably because it involves a number of elements and at least one major principle. The ten common principles of art are balance, emphasis, harmony, movement, pattern, proportion, repetition, rhythm, unity, and variety. Many of these concepts are not only related to one another but also overlap to create an artistic vision.

When realism is desired the central concept that comes into play is linear perspective. It is what advance study of painting stresses to create realism by most instructors in the US, as far as I can tell from my own experience and those of the students I have worked with. Linear perspective is a theory based on an understanding of a vanishing point on some distant and often unseen horizon point. This is especially relied upon in most art programs and lessons for learning how to depict landscape.  I assume this is so because perspective concepts of receding diagonal lines is so effective that one doesn’t need to consider the other aspects of visual experience that also indicate depth. However an undeniable sense of depth is also created without perspective.  To do this one must at least employ, form, value, space, and variety. 

 Take a look at this highly attractive painting. The artist who painted this is working toward becoming ever more abstract with her vision.

 Here the painting is shown only in tonal values by desaturating it in Photoshop. This demonstrates that the artist may not have a full understanding or perhaps desired sensitivity to value. All indication of depth, at least through the use of tonal value is non existent.  

 Within the painting there is one minor indication of linear perspective by indicating the a receding sidewalk beyond the foliage.  If I remove it you can see that it alone creates much of the depth in the composition. Also the trees are all connected by attaching them to a diagonal line which indicates an orthogonal line, part of perspective theory in which linear perspective is dominant. There is some size variety in the trees themselves that created visual interest but not enough to truly indicate depth. The depiction of the tree trunks show some depth due to some narrowing of their circumference but primarily a reduction of space between them from right to left is employed; once again a traditional linear perspective concept.  

  If I turn the color back on all that is left to consider in terms of depth is form and saturation.  The forms are lovely but there is very little variety especially when considering size.  Saturation can indicate depth but the color palette is all highly saturated.  In this case the artist is switching the concept of tonal value; low and high saturation variety to color warmth; cold and warm. The shadows, indicated by violet are cooler and although they are not visible in the tonal example they due appear through color contrast. In the full color example you can see that they help create depth because they are dart shaped; widening and narrowing from bottom up, which is also a traditional linear perspective concept.

If you look at the same artists more highly abstract work.

Once again there is little variety in tonal value, form or size. The artist has dropped perspective and what is left to show expression, color, is not enough to make it compelling abstraction.

 Here is one of the the artists in between works. I feel they are similar to Japanese scroll painting in that the elements have been piled up and the depth is reduced. linear perspective is present although somewhat flattened.  Overall it would be fair to say that the potential variety in form and space that could represent depth is minimal. The color is beautiful and it moves the eye about the canvas, there is a bit more variety in saturation than usual but not enough to carry the work as indicated on the desaturated example to the right. 

 Look what happens when I apply just a foreground to background value change – light to dark.  The light in this case indicates things being closer, however things closer are not alway lighter so the opposite works as well.  What comes into play here is how light and shade variety creates depth.
Let’s return to the original image and change the tonal value from dark to light, foreground to background. The dark in this case on the foreground appears as shadow.

 What a difference! Now one can see that the pathway could use some tonal value as well and that the path itself was simply functioning due to the rules of linear perspective without the other indicators of visual depth.

Here’s what happens if both foreground and background value is altered as well as some value changes being applied in random areas throughout the image.

Isn’t that a lot more visually exciting!
Alison