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Monthly Studio Update

Michael Newberry


Transparency: A Key to Spatial Depth


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Monet, The Corniche of Monaco, 1884,
Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 37 in. (75 x 94 cm)
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
(image downloaded from


We have examples of artworks from 30,000 years ago to the present in which artists have worked with spatial depth in their paintings. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon and, for years, I have asked myself how did these artists achieve these startling effects. The result of my query is the formulation of the concept of  translating our perceptions of real 3d space onto a flat 2d surface:


Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast
are the means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.


Transparency will place the forms in depth away from us
and contrast will raise them towards us.


Great artists are doing other things as well: lighting, modeling form, and perspective drawing. But for this talk I will not discuss these other aspects.


I hope you enjoyed my tour into one of the formulas that artists can use to create spatial depth on a two-dimensional surface.


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Fig. 1

The first figure shows a gradation of strips on a white background. The stripes ascend like steps towards us as they get darker until finally the black one which stands out in high contrast to the white of the background. Conversely, the lightest of the strips recedes into the distance of the white surface.






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Fig. 2

Similarly, the disks are moved through space by their relative lightness or darkness. The big black disc jumps forward.






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Notice what happens when the large disc is changed to light gray, it recedes significantly beyond the small black one.




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Chavet Cave, 30,000 B.C.


Horses' Heads from 30,000 years ago. Notice the gray scale of the receding heads and the black modeling of the head closes to us. Also notice how the light gray of the surface also comes through the receding heads literally making them have transparency.






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Monet, The Thames at Westminster, 1871
Oil on canvas, 47 x 72.5 cm (18 1/2 x 28 1/2")
National Gallery, London
(image downloaded from


This Monet is an excellent example of this idea. We first see the blackness of the pylons, and the other objects dance back into space by the degree of how transparent they become, how close to the gray of the background they match.




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When the background changes to black, the principal of transparency still holds true. The closer to black the discs become the further they recede, the white pops forward.






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Here we have two white discs, a large and a small one, now we have an example of perspective; the bigger one comes a bit more forward than the small one.




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Rembrandt, Hendrickje Bathing in a River, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London
(image downloaded from


Due to the lightness of her whole body it comes forward off the background. Notice the transparency of her left shoulder, it sends left arm back away from her chest. Also notice that the closest part of her to us is the rising shift, it also has the highest contrast of light and dark. Compare the shadow of her crotch to the darkest shadows of the fabric behind her--the shadows of the fabric  are more transparent and they do feel beyond her.


Rembrandt is essentially working with a gray/brown/black scale not with a full range of color. He sets objects back by making them merge to this dark tone. This tonal scale is typical of "old master" paintings before him and since.



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Here we have a gray background, the discs that come forward have become more white or black respectively.



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Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross


The closest part of his body to us is his right knee, and then it would be his right big toe, and then his left chest. These areas have the greatest contrast between light and dark. Compare the tones of his feet; the left one recedes. Or compare the airiness of his left knee to the concreteness of his right.   Also notice that his arms share a depth of space somewhere behind that of his right knee, his arms do not have the brightness of his right knee.




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Newberry, Glass Jar in the Classical Style, acrylic on canvas board, 14 x 18", 2002.
Private collection, New York.


Unfortunately, the subject being a transparent glass jar complicates this study but notice how the rocks come forward in front of the jar--there is a high contrast between their whiteness and the very dark shadows underneath them, which pulls them forward, as a unit, in front of the jar.





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We have seen how transparency and contrast works with gray tonal scales and in paintings without a lot of color range. Now lets see what happens when we introduce intense colors.

Blue violet is the background; the discs that are closest in color to blue violet recede, while the yellow one pops forward.


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Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, September 1888
Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm
Rijksmuseum Kroller-Mueller, Otterlo
(image downloaded from


Van Gogh. Essentially, this painting has an intense blue background, and the orange yellow café comes forward. Notice the building, straight up above the café, and how the window is literally transparent.



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Shifting to the opposite extreme from blue we go to a scarlet background. The blue disc comes forward. In art school we were taught that cool colors go back and warm colors come forward, this diagram contradicts that idea.



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Van Gogh,Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.7 x 92.7 cm)
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
(image downloaded from


Intense yellow orange sky and ground. The green silvery leaves of the olive trees come forward to us. The ground recedes towards the sky as it gets more intensely orange.






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Newberry, Pastels, 1991
oil on wood, 11 x 14 inches.
Private collection, California.


This still life has a red background. Notice the wood base underneath the pastel boxes at the upper right side of the canvas, it is intensely colored with oranges which help it move away from us towards the red floor. Also notice the box of red, orange, and magenta pastels and how it is visually underneath the "blue" box with its "cool" colors popping forward.




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Van Gogh, Irises,Irises, 1890
Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 29 in. (92 x 73.5 cm)
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
(image downloaded from


Three things here to notice: 1) the intense blue irises that overhang in front of the jar. 2) The change of color of the irises that drop behind the left of the jar and notice that their color is less intense blue of the forward flowers. There is a lot of yellow ochre mixed in their color, making them more transparent. 3) The central highlight on the vase is transparent, almost the same color as the background. This helps increase the distant between it and intense blue flowers in front.


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Newberry, Icarus Landing, 2000
acrylic on linen, 36" x 55"
Rhodes, Greece


There is combination of both the high contrast of light and dark, and the color contrast between the orange and the blue. Notice the spatial distance between his left foot and the right. The left foot has a lot of blue mixed in with it to help it recede. Like in the example of the irises of Van Gogh. Notice also the   contrast of light and dark of the tip of his head at his hairline and compare that to  the less intense contrast of the lights and darks of his shoulders.



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Here we have three color groups arranging the space. Look at the arch of the sky and how it recedes towards a pale magenta at the horizon and how comes overhead by the intense blue. The water does this also. On the left notice the intense orange of the trees and notice how they are closer to us than the trees on the right. And look how the trees further away from us have much more pale magenta mixed in with them. Another thing is the high contrast of color of the reflections of the trees and the sky on the water, which shoots the water underneath our feet.

Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are a means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.

I hope you enjoyed my tour through one of the formulas that artists can use to create spatial depth on a two-dimensional surface.


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