Another Reality:

The Spatial Imperative, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I discussed the importance of space in storytelling, and the power of two-point perspective. I left you all with the notion that two-point perspective, while powerful, was not really the whole story — that there are more principles integral to creating a sense of space. To understand these, we must first see how two-point perspective can actually fail.

The example above is an 18th-century etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. While Piranesi is clearly employing two-point perspective to great effect in order to produce an incidental angle to his subject, it still retains a sort of “staged” feeling — we still appear to be looking at a singular object instead of a receding space, despite the artist using a technique that simulates space to draw it! What could he have missed?

Well, the aspects keeping this rendering from approaching a spatial reality are actually no closely guarded secret. They involve no science, no geometry, and no calculations. They are evident truths, all around us and constant in our minds. They are more basic than the alphabet, and recognizing them is as fundamentally important to our daily lives as eating. And that is why they are so easy to overlook — we take them for granted.

These evident truths are called depth cues. The two primary depth cues that we get by with in life every day are comparative size, and overlap. Let us tackle each in turn.

1. Comparative Size

Things closer to us appear larger, and things further away from us appear smaller.  Truly as basic as it gets, yet when designing a picture, it is one of the most common pitfalls of the artist!  At first, the student makes the basic mistake of illustrating a table seen from fifteen feet away the same as a table seen from thirty feet away.  Perspective easily solves this, because it automatically puts in place a system of recession that controls the size of objects.  If we project a table in perspective down the lines of the vanishing points, we will always know how large a table of that particular size will appear – whether it is fifteen, thirty, or even a hundred feet away from us.

The trouble comes when we begin comparing objects that are not the same size.

This example is from Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, dated March 10, 1963.  I have grayed out the panels not important to the subject at hand.  Have a look at the first white panel in which Prince Arn rides away from the army which he just delivered his message to.  The artist has established good depth with a receding line of trees, and the black silhouette of the rider in the back smaller than the shape of Prince Arn riding towards us — but the panel remains somewhat spatially unclear.  We’re not really sure how much distance is in between Arn and the receding army. Why?

If you take the general shape of Arn, approximately a triangle, and compare it to the general shape of the army behind him, also an approximate triangle, you will discover that they are almost exactly the same size! Though this may very well be in correct perspective, the fact that the prince and the army take up the same amount of space denies depth – not actively, because we still believe that he is front of them, but subconsciously and passively. Our brains know that these two things are not the same size, for how could a young boy on a pony equal a marching army? Yet the flat image on the paper is telling us that they are indeed the same size, even if it is only in a two-dimensional sense. This creates a small discrepancy that begins to gnaw at our involvement in the story, even if we are not aware of it — a greater part of our mind is focused on figuring out the space rather than experiencing the story.

By contrast, have a look at the second white panel – where Prince Valiant surveys the landscape.  We are much more aware of depth here – the rocky outcropping the Prince stands on dwarfs the size of him and his horse, and they in turn are much larger than any building or mountain in the background – this creates a variation of shape that reinforces the depth, and gives a sense of a vast valley and rolling hills – with only a few lines!  The sense of space is much more powerful, encompassing the viewer and drawing him in.

2. Overlap

The second basic depth cue is overlap.  Objects closer to us will obscure the form of objects further away.  Again, this is an extremely elementary concept.  It only takes so many games of peek-a-boo before an infant realizes his or her mother does not actually disappear – she is simply hidden behind another object.  But just like comparative size, it is easily overlooked, even by the best of artists.

This example is from Blacksad, Book 2: Arctic Nation, written by Juan Diaz Canales, and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido.  Again, I have faded irrelevant panels.  Looking at the first white panel, we see a well-designed environment.  Two-point perspective, varying sizes, and now lots of overlap!  The trees overlap the stone wall, which overlaps the building behind it, which overlaps the trees behind it.  The characters are placed in front of the stone wall, and the swingset (which overlaps yet another tree!) frames them.  This creates a convincing sense of real space – and our minds are freed from the task of sorting that out in order to focus on a gray, drizzly autumn day at a deserted schoolhouse, where a detective has finally found a place to meet with his contact.

In contrast, the second white panel (fourth panel on the page as a whole) is much less clear.  Nothing is overlapping.  The wall, the floor, and the character are all perfectly separate.  As a result, we are not actually sure how large the character even is!  He looks almost miniscule, or he could be massive!  We cannot tell.  Nor are we truly aware of how far away he actually is from the wall.  Even in two point perspective, the space is confusing.  Our attention drifts from the story at hand to questions of space, and the authors have lost us.

3. Choice of Moment

It is worth noting that in both the examples above, there are times in real life where we do see things that way – where objects of different sizes appear, from a particular viewpoint to be the same size, and where a man really is out alone in the middle of a dirt patch, overlapping no other object but the ground.  But the difference is, that in real life, we can move.  We move and experience depth by interacting with it!

This is utterly denied in the flat picture — we cannot move through its space, and so it must convince us visually that we are there.  The comic artist is tasked with the great responsibility of choosing the one moment in a scene that will most poignantly illustrate what must be said, and easily allow the reader to “fill in” the rest of it with his or her imagination. This is no easy feat, and seducing our brains into the act while guiding our attention through a narrative is just as difficult. The moment the author’s illusion of reality breaks, we are much less inclined to go along with the story.

In the end, the greatest dilemma facing the artist is not how to draw something. With study, application, and time, this will come easily. The greater problem is what to draw. Master this, and the artist masters storytelling.

This is a shining example, from Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  Compared to Simone Bianchi’s beautifully realized renderings from last week’s column, Spiegelman’s brushstrokes seem positively crude.  But Spiegelman is a storyteller lightyears beyond Bianchi – for he has expended the great portion of his energy not in drawing his panels, but in designing and arranging them.  Though his drawings inside the panels are symbolic, simple, and even flat, he uses the principles of perspective, comparative size, and overlap to create a greater sense of depth than any panel on the page from Astonishing X-Men.  Despite his people literally have mice heads, they are instantly more believable, more engaging, and more real than the obsessively rendered X-Men.

But more incredible than any of that is the fact that when we open Maus, we give it no thought. We do not even consider the drawings, we consider the story. This is because Art Spiegelman put forth a great deal of thought and effort to make sure that we never notice any hint of thought or effort. Instead, our focus rests solely on a story. The story of a young man visiting his father, curious to know… Who is this man?

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David Balan is a current student and aspiring comics creator, studying sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. He is working on becoming both a writer and an artist, and he plans to eventually script and draw his own complete graphic novels. You can see his most current portfolio at

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  1. While I appreciate what you have to say here (and I love the etching by Piranesi), I wonder if you’re going to tie this back into comics a bit more. Although you use examples from comics, I do wonder how what you say here is unique to comics and not only to illustration.

    Thanks for the article!

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