The Picture PLane


The picture plane is the most effective way of measuring the last of the three Attributes, the Spatial Attribute.

When the picture plane of a painting is generally the way we see it in nature, we call it realistic or in-depth. Correct perspective is employed to accomplish this, through the Elements of Line and Shape.

In the in-depth picture plane, the foreground is at the bottom and is seen as close at hand. The middleground includes the horizon and is in the middle of the picture. The background goes to infinity and is shown at the top of the picture:

But if we want to make the painting or photograph decorative, the principle of Minimum Contrast says we have to try to put the three grounds on one plane. In the decorative picture plane, the background and middle-ground are forced to the front, and the foreground is also forced forward. This is accomplished using various Elements and by warping perspective.

Any of the Elements can be employed to create a picture all on one picture plane, making it aesthetically more decorative and spatially more static.


To avoid the monotony of extreme minimum contrast, one of the three divisions of the picture plane is frequently enlarged.

Dolph Smith, a painter from Memphis Tennessee, enlarged the background to great effect, giving the feeling of the solitude of the great outdoors.

Landscape by Dolph Smith. Source

The Impressionists were masters of maintaining everything on the picture plane; that is, having it all come to the foreground. It is fun to analyze their pictures by determining what they did with the Elements in order to accomplish this decorative use of them.

In this example, Cezanne made the back of the table wider than the front, which brings the back of the table forward to the foreground and pushes the front of the table toward the back.

Still Life by Paul Cezanne. Source: Google Art Project

Field Work

Search for some of your favorite paintings on the Internet. Analyze them in terms of the picture plane. Is it in depth (naturalistic) or flattened (decorative)? What does the artist do to achieve these results?

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The Elements  
LineLine DirectionShape
Other Topics  
The AttributesCompositionThe Picture Plane
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