Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting Part 2, Color

Newberry Art Tutorials

This online tutorial is a transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of Your Perceptions Conference (Satellite to the EC’s Vision Scientists’ Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are a means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.

In Part 1 I discussed how this theory works with gray tonal scales and in paintings with limited color range.  Let’s see what happens when we introduce intense colors.


It’s important to note that contrast in color is not so much about light and dark but, rather, it is about color opposites. For example here is a classic color wheel in which opposite colors, also known as complimentary colors, are juxtaposed. Three major contrasts are:
Red vs. Green
Blue vs. Orange
Yellow vs. Violet


In this diagram, blue-violet is the background color and the discs that come the  closest to it in color recede, while the yellow one, its opposite, pops forward.


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

This Van Gogh painting has an intense blue background and the orange-yellow café comes forward. Notice the buildings beyond the café are variations on darks and blues. The window straight up above the café  is literally transparent but if you look closely you will see the blue sky winking throughout sections of the buildings, giving them a transparent quality as well.


Shifting to the opposite extreme from blue we go to a scarlet background. The light turquoise disc comes forward.

In art school I was  taught that cool colors go back and warm colors come forward, this diagram contradicts that idea.

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

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 intensely orange.


I think you are getting the idea of the diagrams. You can take any color as a background, mix in a few closely matching colors and then smack in an opposite color; it will pop forward.

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

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 recede 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.


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

Three things here to notice:

1) The intense blue irises that overhang in front of the jar.

2) The color of the irises that drop behind the jar have more yellow mixed in with the blue. This is a less intense blue of the forward flowers which helps increase the distance between them.

3) The central highlight on the vase is transparent, almost the same color as the background. This helps increase the distance between it and the intense blue flowers in front.


Newberry, Icarus Landing, 2000, acrylic on linen, 55 x 36 inches

There is a 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.


Look at the arch of the blue sky and how it recedes towards a pale magenta at the horizon. Notice how the water mirrors the sky in this same manner.

On the left see 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 a much more pale magenta mixed in with them.

Another thing is the high contrast of color of the orange reflections of the trees and the blue sky on the water, shooting 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 idea on how artists have used transparency and contrast to create spatial depth on a two-dimensional surface.

Michael Newberry
New York, July 31st, 2006

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