Thoughts on the Psychological and Physiological Aspects of Spatial Depth

Claustrophobic Caravaggio Contrasted With the Magnificent Depth of Velazquez

The psychological component to spatial depth or lack of it is fascinating and takes some imagination. Without spatial depth one is faced with a roadblock that says: “you can go up to here and no further.” You are essentially blocked from moving into the painting, instead of the painting opening up and inviting you in, it acts as a repellent—like a needy but repugnant person. In contrast, a painting with tremendous spatial depth gives wings to your physiology through your vision. The depth in the painting pulls you through space as if you fly in-between all the objects of the painting, inviting you to travel as far or as close as you like. The spatial depth gives you the magical sense of flying though another universe, magical because in the back of your mind you are aware that you are looking at a two dimension surface.

Spatial depth is one of the three pillars supporting our visual perception. Without spatial depth we would not be able to judge distances. Driving would be a deathtrap, negotiating stairs nearly impossible (we would have to use them like a blind person), and physical activities would be nearly impossible⁠—swimmers would bang their heads on pool walls, ball sports would be spastic, and hiking out of the question as every rock would be a sprained ankle waiting to happen, not to mention cliffs⁠.

Short of blindness everyone has a proficient ability to judge distances, with the obvious example that nearly every adult can drive.

It should go without saying that visual art communicates visually, postmodernists would disagree but what do they know? It should also go without saying that master visual artists should be able to show us visual depth as only a master of the field can do.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is considered in history books to be a master of light, and that is true in a compartmentalized way. Each leg, hand, or head is beautifully detailed in light and shadow. The problem is the big picture, which Caravaggio fails at because he has the depth perception of a blind person. In his painting, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, notice how the horse’s front left leg is floating above the the reclining man’s crotch, ouch! But that horse’s leg in reality would be about 8 feet away from the man’s crotch, and it would be firmly planted on the ground, not floating. The spatial depth in this painting is a nightmare, (pun intended.) The theme of the painting is a super dramatic serious subject of conversion, but C’s inability to create the depth renders it confused. The title should be more like: Get Off!, or Horse Crushing Man’s Balls.

Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1600
Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1600
Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1635
Velazquez, The Surrender of Breda, 1635

In contrast to Caravaggio’s painting is the one of the world’s greatest paintings, The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez, painted 35 years later. They share a stylized moment of men with a horse(s). And share a similar palette. Though, the Velázquez is about a thousand times more complex due to the mass of men and vast landscape behind them. You will probably notice that this painting appears less dramatic in light than the Caravaggio, which I heartly agree with. But this is when the spatial depth of Velázquez begins to work it’s universal magic.

We start by spatially comparing one object to another: like the the bowed man’s hand offering the key to the city to the victor’s right shoulder further away. We can see about a two foot distance between them. Or the foreground man with the light gold coat compared to the horse’s head in the background, we can sense about fifteen feet between them. Or how far away are the soft rolling hills in the distance? 20 miles? Every object, among thousands, is painted in spatial relationship to all the others. If one knows how to “read” paintings, then this Velázquez rivals Isaac Newton (born a decade after this painting) in geometry and optics.

Michael, Idyllwild, April 21, 2022

Frame of References:

Newton, Isaac.


Newberry, Michael. Transparency-A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting.

Velázquez, Diego. My second most favorite painter, Rembrandt being first.

Velázquez, Diego. Las Meninas, my favorite painting of all-time.,_by_Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez,_from_Prado_in_Google_Earth.jpg

Daniel, Laurel. Creating Depth in a Painting: 5 Tips for Beginners.

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