Working with space and perspective

Space, actual three-dimensional space, cannot be achieved in any way on a canvas, but by illusion, perspective, tonality and the like you may be deceived into thinking that the picture has depth. Space and the painting of space has occupied various artists from time to time throughout history.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter, was said to have devoted most of his working life to the problems of space through the medium of perspective. But in the picture shown (Plate 15), 'The Rout of San Romano,' a fine, lusty painting of great movement, action and superb composition, the one thing that doesn't come across is space. Many artists have pondered over this problem. They have employed color to help them to create space, like Cezanne or Braque, or perspective, like Uccello and Canaletto. Rembrandt used dark, gloomy backgrounds and in their Cubist phase Picasso and Braque tried the effect of cubes and distortions.

To me this is no problem at all. It may happen or not as the case may be. To try and force a flat canvas to blossom into three dimensions is an impossibility. Much better to let it happen naturally without any theory or any fuss as the Chinese do. Space to them is the empty part of the painting that must balance with the full parts, because, as they tell us, you cannot have one without the other. Pots are useful because they are empty and so are windows — and doors.

So far as space in a picture is concerned, my advice is: use perspective, color, large spaces in the foreground and little shapes in the background; distort if you must; leave empty parts of the canvas, anything in fact you want, provided it relates to the canvas edges and moves the eye.

Uccello tried very hard to capture space. But he made a fine painting in spite of this. More important than the space he did not achieve, is the grand flowing movement that takes the eye round and round the canvas, until you can almost imagine the noise and clatter, the shouts and cries of the soldiers, the neighing of the horses and so on.

It is also interesting to observe the way Uccello has packed the left-hand side of the canvas with lances and helmets, so that there seems to be a considerable army clustered there.

In actual fact very little is happening. Yet in spite of this, the effect is one of confusion and activity. The only real fighting is being done by the three horsemen on the right. There is only one dead soldier. The soldiers in the background seem to be playing games.

Without blood, horror or space, Uccello has given us a wonderful picture of a war in the fifteenth century. Yet all the qualities of the battle are here, nothing has really been left out. The secret lies in the wonderful way in which he has related this gigantic scene to the confines of his paints and canvas.